How carnival led Welles astray.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Just over 60 years ago, Orson Welles flew from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, and nothing was ever the same again. More than his own come-uppance began that night; it was the end of the magnificence of the Ambersons. As Welles went to Rio, full of vague ideas about a documentary film to improve relations between the US and South America, but actually anxious to make Rio before Carnival, he left the finished footage of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, to be assembled by his editor, Robert Wise.
This melancholy story came to mind last Sunday in America as the A&E channel showed a new version of the Booth Tarkington novel, directed by Alfonso Arau (he made Like Water for Chocolate), with the tendentious credit "based on a screenplay by Orson Welles".
1941 had been a busy year for Orson Welles (still only 26). He had opened Citizen Kane, survived the boycott by Hearst papers, and moved on to shoot Ambersons, the second film in his innovative contract with RKO.
"Innovative" because the newcomer had been given so many freedoms: what to shoot, how to cast it, final cut. On Kane, RKO had been remarkably loyal to Welles, despite outside pressures to dump the controversial picture. But when they suffered financial losses on Kane, they revised the terms on which Ambersons was based. Orson was no longer the wunderkind or a free agent. He should have seen what that meant, and adjusted his travel plans accordingly.
But Orson Welles was a lot like George Amberson, the young hero in the Tarkington novel: he loved to have his own way and to ride roughshod over sensible advice. So Welles gave himself up to Carnival, and to the women dancing in the streets, and RKO became more intrusive. They reckoned Ambersons was too long and gloomy. They took the film away from the Welles group; they shot a new ending and cut about 40 minutes of the story Welles wanted - and later they dumped the negative off the Pacific shore.
So it is that The Magnificent Ambersons has become one of the great "lost" films in history. I put lost in quotes because some hope lingers that we may yet discover more than the script and a few stills - the sole record of the last tragic act of the story. Yet in 1992, when Sight & Sound did its poll on the best films ever made, just as Kane was number one, so the "ruined" Ambersons still made the top 20. As well it might; until the last few minutes, it is what Welles intended and it is beautiful.
Thus, the curiosity last weekend as RKO made noises about making amends. Empty noises. Their new version has little to do with Welles's wishes. Far better to call it a new dramatisation of the Tarkington novel - and a bad one.
Let no one dream that Welles's script has been followed. At this remove in time, it's hard to see how it could be.
Welles shot in black and white (the cameraman was Stanley Cortez, famous later for The Night of the Hunter), and the look is as original and emotional as that of Citizen Kane. Whereas, Arau, working for television, had to use colour - though he added to that burden by having the colour seem drained, or enervated. You kept thinking the film had faded.
Welles had his own actors - including Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead (haunting as Aunt Fanny), Ray Collins and Tim Holt as George (a part Welles played himself when they did Ambersons on radio). Arau had a fair cast: Madeleine Stowe's Isabelle is actually better than Dolores Costello in the original. But he permitted horrendous over-acting in other parts - notably Jennifer Tilly as Fanny, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers whose George seemed like an adolescent John Malkovich on cocaine.
And so The Magnificent Ambersons lives on as what the French call a film maudit - damaged, wounded. No matter. There is enough to see to make us conjure up the rest. And there are those of us who have lived half a lifetime in the Amberson house hearing the echo of its people. Ghostliness is oddly becoming to Orson Welles, and who knows if he didn't escape to Rio with the fatalistic delight of the true self-destructive?