Peter Tonguette's beautifully written piece in today's Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204653604577249671284797642.html
By PETER TONGUETTE
A big fuss has always been made that Orson Welles was 26 when he co-wrote, directed and starred in "Citizen Kane," but is it not just as extraordinary that he was 27 when he made "The Magnificent Ambersons"? At first blush, we do not expect someone of that age, and as worldly as Mr. Welles, to eulogize Indianapolis at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet in adapting and directing the second screen version of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an aristocratic family whose end is foretold by the invention of the automobile, Mr. Welles revealed himself to be a forerunner of what would later be called a "young fogy." He narrates the film, which was released by RKO in 1942, so you can hear the lump in his throat as he describes the outdated manners and habits of the Ambersons, the aristocratic family whose mansion envelops their street and whose doings are the talk of the town. David Thomson captured well the irony of Mr. Welles's narration: "Thus we have the gravest twenty-seven-year-old reading the decline of the Ambersons into the national record."
Received wisdom is that the studio cut ruined Mr. Welles's vision of the film.
"I feel that gluttony must be a good deal less deadly than some of the other sins," Mr. Welles confessed to Kenneth Tynan in 1967. And there is a joyfully gluttonous quality to the opening montage showing contemporary fashions, such as the transitions from stovepipe hats to derbies and from short overcoats to long ones. "In those days, they had time for everything," Mr. Welles says. He might have added that "they" also had bank accounts to accommodate every whim. A celebrated scene features family scion George Amberson Minafer (played by Tim Holt, who had been in "Stagecoach," the film Mr. Welles compulsively studied before making "Citizen Kane") gobbling up strawberry shortcake and milk. Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) cautions him that he will grow fat, but he does not care a whit. I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh's assertion that "Brideshead Revisited" (which resembles "Ambersons") was "infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past" because it was written during World War II.
Movements like Occupy Wall Street tell us to regard the very wealthy with derision, a view at odds with Mr. Welles's tone. Many would be glad to see the so-called one percent get their "comeuppance," to borrow the film's parlance, but that is not how we feel when the Ambersons reach "a state of bustitude" by the film's end; we are heartsick for them. We also must remember the narrow context in which that word—"comeuppance"—was used in the film: The townspeople wish George to get his reward for being so obnoxious. (One amusing sketch ends with a man chasing after George, yelling, "Turn down your pants, you would-be dude!") They are much less scornful of the Ambersons en masse, regarding their opulence with benign nosiness. Mr. Tarkington writes that the patriarch, Major Amberson, made his fortune in 1873, "when other people were losing fortunes." But appeals to economic inequality are unimportant next to the charms of a man like Major Amberson, indelibly played by Richard Bennett. "Dear man, I loved him so," Mr. Welles said of Mr. Bennett in Peter Bogdanovich's book "This Is Orson Welles." "He had the greatest lyric power of any actor I ever saw on the English-speaking stage."
Like a stopped clock, though, George gets a few things right, including his suspicion of the changes ushered in by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), an automobile entrepreneur. George senses that Eugene's "horseless carriages"—the term is as ominous as "the ides of March"—herald disaster for the Ambersons. Eugene, on the other hand, invites Mr. Welles's ridicule when he corrects Uncle Jack (Ray Collins) for making a remark about old times. "When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead," Eugene insists. "There aren't any times but new times." Not so fast, says Mr. Welles, for whom the future—to paraphrase what Marlene Dietrich said to him in "Touch of Evil"—was all used up.
"I am against my modern age, he was against his," Mr. Welles once said, referring to Shakespeare. "I think Shakespeare was greatly preoccupied, as I am in my humble way, with the loss of innocence," he said in the same BBC interview, speaking about "Chimes at Midnight," his Falstaff film. "I think there has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter and purer, where the hay smelt better and the weather was always springtime, and the daffodils blew in the gentle warm breezes." Here Mr. Welles was evoking an endless spring, but with all its sleigh rides, the season of choice in "The Magnificent Ambersons" is winter. Stanley Cortez's black-and-white photography is like Ansel Adams come to life. Few images in cinema are as memorable as the chugging along of Eugene's horseless carriage against the white of the snow.
Despite such lasting virtues, a cloud hangs over "The Magnificent Ambersons." While Mr. Welles was in Brazil making a documentary, the film was significantly re-edited and shortened. The received wisdom is that these cuts were made arbitrarily, without care for Mr. Welles's aims, but I learned differently. Robert Wise, the editor, was 90 when I interviewed him for my book "Orson Welles Remembered." He died less than nine months later, but he did not give me the equivalent of a "deathbed confession": he stood by what he did to "Ambersons." During previews, he explained to me, "it played well in some spots and in other spots it just was very bad. It had bad laughs in it.... You don't see those things until you take it out in front of an audience. The minute that happens, you think, 'Oh, gosh, I should have known that they'd take that that way.' It takes that audience to tell you, you see." It is hard to argue with Mr. Wise's feel for audience reactions: His own films as a director include "West Side Story" and "The Haunting." Mr. Wise intuitively sensed that the film's original 132-minute length "was just too damn long." Did Mr. Welles stop to consider that by giving the Ambersons' miseries "a certain epic quality," as he told biographer Barbara Leaming, he risked wearing out his viewers? Even Mr. Cotten conceded (in a letter to Mr. Welles), "Dramatically, it is like a play full of wonderful, strong second acts all coming down on the same curtain line, all proving the same tragic point." Mr. Wise told me that by the fourth preview, he had a shortened version down to less than 90 minutes that "played well and it ran well." Elsewhere, Mr. Wise had reflected, "Since 'Ambersons' has become something of a classic, I think it's now apparent we didn't mutilate Orson's film." Consider how Mr. Wise finessed Ms. Moorehead's performance, which was especially subject to those "bad laughs" he mentioned. The re-editing produced a performance that was Academy Award-nominated (and won Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle).
"Having set up this dream town of the 'good old days,'" Mr. Welles said to Mr. Bogdanovich, "the whole point was to show the automobile wrecking it—not only the family but the town. All this is out. What's left is only the first six reels." In fact, "the whole point" is still there, but in staccato, not legato, form; we get a more fleeting look at the wreckage. It is true, then, that the magnificence of the Ambersons receives most of the attention in the film as it now exists. But Mr. Welles's enjoyment of that magnificence is so infectious that I do not mind missing more scenes of its diminution. What's more, those six reels, with their warm sentiment for privilege, make the film a masterpiece of particular relevance.—Mr. Tonguette is writing a book about Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky.A version of this article appeared March 3, 2012, on page C13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Splendor Preserved.