Orson Welles’s second film was The Magnificent Ambersons (unless you count the silent comedy Too Much Johnson). Noted for having had the most infamous studio cuts in history after a disastrous preview screening in Pomona, California, the film lost around 40 to 60 minutes in the editing room, and some parts were reshot, including the end, to create a much lighter film than Welles originally intended (and very different from the source material). There were a lot of factors in the cuts, including the fact that its anti-industrialisation message wasn’t welcome in 1942.
Reports of what happened vary, and there are a few villains in the frame. Many blame editor Robert Wise (would be become a great director nonetheless with films like Cat People, The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story), who Welles blamed for years (and blamed for deliberately sabotaging the film to build his own career as a director) although apparently they did make up after decades of not speaking. Apparently Wise was meant to go to Brazil to help, but the war got in the way. Associate producer Jack Moss is also seen as a major culprit, and is said to have ignored all of Welles’s memos during the time that he was giving his notes in Brazil. The studio had the final word, of course.
Another interpretation is that Welles himself was largely at fault: he had been hired to make a film in Brazil to keep it America-friendly during the war, and that divided his attention when he should have been working on an edit. The Brazilian film was never finished. In any case, Wise maintained that the longer cut was not actually better. The original cut was destroyed, and no one is holding their breath about finding either the preview or the copy Welles supposedly took with him to Brazil or one of the preview prints. And so what exists is a deeply compromised—but still a pretty good film.
The Magnificent Ambersons is very different from Citizen Kane. Welles was 26 at the time, which still impresses, as it’s a very mature narrative. It’s about the Amberson family, whose fortunes are dwindling in the era when the automobile arrived to change the American way of life. It’s full if amazing tracking shots, as you expect from Welles, so much so that the set of the house was made so that sections could be dissembled to allow the camera to glide through it. The original ending was much more downbeat, but the final version has a slapped-on happy ending.
Another interesting point is that Welles wasn’t in it, which is a rarity in his films, although he did contribute the narration. Many actors from his theatre company, the Mercury Players, appear, such as Joseph Cotton as Eugene Morgan, the jilted suitor of Isabel Amberson. Agnes Moorehead appears as Fanny Minafer, the sister of Wilbur Minafer, the man Isabel chooses over Eugene. Wilbur and Isabel’s son George grows up to be an overprivileged jerk, and clashes with Eugene over the subject of cars.
The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is beautiful, but given the nature of the edit, a lot of the complex shots are missing. You can see flashes of brilliance, of course: the famous ball sequence, for example, was meant to be longer.
The package comes with a ridiculous amount of extras, including interviews or commentaries by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Joseph McBride, Simon Callow, all people who have written extensively about Welles; a commentary by Robert L. Caringer, who has written books on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons; a video essay on the cinematographers involved; the famous clip of Welles on The Dick Cavett Show; a half-hour segment of a silent version of The Magnificent Ambersons; two audio interviews with Welles, including one by Peter Bogdanovich; and two radio plays, including the Mercury Radio version of The Magnificent Ambersons with Welles in the Eugene Morgan role. Of course there’s a huge booklet with various essays, including one by Jonathan Lethem, plus excerpts from Welles’s unfinished memoir.