Review by Trylon volunteer Dave Berglund
There is perhaps no greater real-life villain in film history than the shortsighted idiot at RKO who made the decision to destroy Orson Welles’s original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Now, to be clear, RKO had a justified business incentive to edit the film to be more marketable, as test screenings did not fare well. In an era when the names of auteurs had far less box office impact, you can’t really blame a struggling film studio for their recut. Yet, considering RKO made massive edits without the input of Welles at all, and that this was possible only due to an absence resulting from his willingness to film his next project for RKO in Brazil for diplomatic reasons, the choice to trash his footage seems pretty vindictive.
To this day film buffs dream of what the film could have been, in no short part because the chopped version we are left with is in itself a gem. Every bit as visually daring and emotionally engaging as his previous RKO offering, the much heralded Citizen Kane, Ambersons resonates to this day as a powerful indictment of classism and cultural traditionalism. Despite the film’s somewhat hasty plotting that resulted from cutting 40 minutes off its runtime, it remains a masterpiece. Indeed, it is clear in viewing the film that RKO’s editors neglected to see that Welles’s vision was simply too earnest to be reshaped into something mainstream. No doubt about it, this was Welles working with ample resources at his artistic peak, audience tastes be damned.
The film tells the multi-generational story of the old-money, high ego Ambersons and their love-hate relationship with their new-money, progressive neighbors the Morgans. As such, it functions as a sardonic study of the caustic impact of industrial progress on the lives of the American elite, and it is simultaneously funny and austere. Even with the happy resolution tacked on by RKO in post, the film is undeniably bleak. A wartime America looking for hope didn’t like it, but it carried a timely warning – to welcome change and stand up against senseless class barriers to work together. As such, it carries a parallel message to much of the propaganda it shared the cinemas with, but it was comparatively more measured and far less idealistic. In short, it was more human and true.
Perhaps someday we will find film’s Holy Grail – the original rough cut of the film sent to Welles while he was working in Brazil. I imagine that if the print is found in a dark corner of South America that the event would be met with unprecedented celebration among us film nerds. Yet, we mustn’t neglect to appreciate this film now, as even in its edited form, it reveals the genius of Welles as clearly as anything he ever made. — Dave Berglund
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS screens Friday and Saturday, May 8 and 9 at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, May 10 at 5:00 and 7:00. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.