The schedule for the TCM Festival is full of familiar films, but its special appeal is the chance to see pristine, restored titles under the conditions in which they were meant to be watched. Case in point: of the several times I’ve seen Orson Welles‘ second, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), none have been in a theatre. The spanking new print came courtesy of Warner Bros, who now own the RKO movie archive.
It’s still the 88-minute version butchered by the studio from a 132-minute preview print, re-cut while Welles was in South America.The excised footage was reputedly dumped in the ocean in the ’50s, but there are rumors of a full-length work-print received by Welles in Brazil. The differing attitudes of the era toward the lasting value of film are hard to forgive in what was indisputably the greatest crime ever committed against cinema.
Welles claimed Ambersons was better than Citizen Kane, though in the absence of palpable proof, he would, wouldn’t he? But it’s easy to believe: to the seemingly instantaneous mastery of the medium he now adds real living, breathing people, as opposed to characters, whose whole life stories are laid before us through perfectly-judged performance and direction. Adapted from the Booth Tarkington novel, it concerns a wealthy mid-western family whose fortune declines in parallel with the growth of early twentieth-century industry and technology. It’s fundamentally an elegy to the past, both American and otherwise; times lose their simplicity and youthful love thwarted becomes a permanent scar of regret and melancholy.
Much of the first hour remains unmutilated, with a fantastic montage introduction that has the townsfolk going about their business and filling us in on the family in the course of their normal everyday nattering. Built around a towering staircase which proves to be endlessly cinematic (Welles had the greatest eye for architecture in cinema), the opulent Amberson mansion starts as a capacious symbol of the family’s magnificence, monetary and social. However as death, sadness and financial ruin encroach, it gradually transforms into a gloomy mausoleum in which the remaining family members rattle mournfully (no surprise that its shot through from the start with prison-bar balustrades and engulfing shadow).
The course is set for a slow, pitiful decline, but the less said about the last half hour the better. The beautifully layered aesthetic texture and careful pace – perfect mise en scène, in fact; no wonder the studio didn’t get it – are rudely ruptured by swathe-like cutting. Insult is added to injury by new scenes (including the final one – oh, the tragedy!), shot without Welles, horribly lit and supremely inelegant in their cramming in of dialogue detail. The only saving grace is the wonderful Agnes Moorehead; her spinster aunt Fanny emerges as the true heart of the picture. The abrupt shift in tone and rhythm of the final third is horrible and if any of Welles’ poignant vision remains, it’s entirely down to her quietly heart-wrenching performance.