For a brief moment in early 1942, it seemed that Orson Welles could have a prolific career as a studio filmmaker. Though it lost money for RKO Welles’ debut, Citizen Kane was acclaimed by critics and the industry, and the studio allowed him to move forward with another ambitious project soon after Kane’s release. The twenty-seven-year-old boy wonder chose to adapt Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons, crafting a depressing film about privileged, unlikeable characters. The story was so noncommercial that RKO’s butchering of it in the editing process is hardly shocking, cutting forty minutes from the film while Welles himself was off working on It’s All True in Brazil (for more on this, see our upcoming video essay). Even compromised, Welles’ second feature displays the same talent present in Citizen Kane, while also revealing the excitingly volatile energy present in many of his later films.
Welles starred in Citizen Kane, but here he remains present only as the narrator; for the lead he cast western star Tim Holt as George Minafer, spoiled-rotten child of the Amberson-Minafer family. They’re the wealthiest family in Indianapolis in the early 1900s, a large one whose relationships to each other are complex and toxic. The cast includes silent era star Dolores Costello as George’s mother, Ray Collins as George’s uncle, Richard Bennett as George’s grandfather, and standout Agnes Moorehead as George’s aunt. Their story takes place over decades adjacent to the invention of the automobile, a trade which family friend Eugene (Joseph Cotten) pioneers. Welles mixes so many different characters and subplots into ninety minutes, rendering this not a stately period drama, but perhaps the most fast-paced film of the year (at least for its first half). More humor is present than in Kane, and though this is also a story of the rise and fall of wealthy people, the film feels distinct from Welles’ debut.
Unsurprisingly, the technical craft on display is exceptional. Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland was not available to bring his signature deep-focus look to the film, but Stanley Cortez uses similar techniques in his distinct way. The camera often moves slowly in long takes, be it one extensive tracking shot cut up for the final release, or a surviving very lengthy dolly shot. Cortez captures Albert S. D’Agostino’s outstanding production design effectively, as well; they render the staircase of the Amberson mansion more memorably as a character in the film than any of the human ones.
For the most part, RKO’s interference in the film is not noticeable; Kane editor Robert Wise worked on the film the whole way through, and did a fine job hiding whatever alterations were made. The most notable and infamous change was the ending, a complete break from the tone of the rest of film which the studio reshot, leaving the audience on a sour note.
The studio’s meddling did not end up helping; much like Kane, the film lost the studio a substantial amount of money while finding acclaim from critics and several Academy Award nominations. After Welles finished the already-in-production Journey Into Fear for the studio (which he worked extensively on but not as the primary director), he took a break from the screen, returning in 1946 with The Stranger. He would never make a film easily again, scrounging around for money and working for B picture studios. But The Magnificent Ambersons remains a tremendous achievement, a great film even butchered, and some of the best work from everyone involved.