The Magnificent Ambersons

What Is and What Might Have Been

What Is and What Might Have Been

Watching The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) this time around, I was struck afresh by its paradox: never was such a grim film so buoyant. The fate-determining catastrophe occurs within the first five minutes, and essentially it’s all downhill from there. Yet Orson Welles so deftly manages rhythm and tone—a complex blend of irony and empathy—and the intertwining of aural and visual effects that, even as time rolls relentlessly on and bitter memories accumulate, we constantly feel the exhilaration of virtuoso storytelling. Though less flashy than Citizen Kane, Welles’s astonishing debut of the year before, Ambersons cuts deeper, and without the magnetizing hulk of Welles at its center, it is more genuinely polyphonic.

Of course, we have to consider the problematic ending of this “mutilated masterpiece” (François Truffaut’s term), a tacked-on happy resolution overseen by assistant director Freddie Fleck under orders from RKO after Welles had gone to South America, and following a disastrous studio preview. It isn’t even close to the ending of Welles’s own bleak design, shot by the director and thought by him to be the best scene in the film. (Though the studio version is arguably a little closer to the brush-with-the-supernatural conclusion of the Booth Tarkington novel.) But I’m not thinking of those, or of the other damage done to Welles’s film by the studio—more on which later. For me, the true ending can be found just before the inane coda, with Georgie kneeling beside his now dead mother’s empty bed, asking for forgiveness, having finally got his “comeuppance,” a conclusion that brings both retribution and a measure of redemption. This moment of unexpected penitence rounds out the drama of the Ambersons—their pride, their selfishness, their loss, but also, for Georgie, a sliver of hope—and in the mixed feelings thus induced in the spectator suggests what is so powerful about the film, even in its truncated form.

Its somber beauty and valedictory tone were out of sync with the upbeat, patriotic spirit of the war years.

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