Thursday, November 29, 2007

Forgotten VHS # 3 – Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”

Not only is Orson Welles’ never completed follow-up to arguably the greatest cinematic debut of all time a forgotten VHS, it also perhaps the most forgotten film ever made, relative to its importance and greatness. Many cinephiles who rank Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) among the greatest films ever made have never seen his 1942 sophomore effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which is as ambitious, original, and entertaining as its predecessor. This is mostly a result of the film’s non-availability in the Region 1 DVD format. However, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is available in three different VHS versions, all of which are available for under $15.

“The Magnificent Ambersons” follows the life of a spoiled young man, George Amberson Minafer, raised in an aristocratic family, who’s spoiled nature leads him to become a power-hungry control freak. George seeks success and prominence and his pride results in the prevention of his mother from marrying a rich entrepreneur, eventually causing the Amberson family’s stature to dwindle. The opening scenes of the film exemplify “The Magnificent Amberson’s” tour-de-force style. These opening scenes are marked by Welles’ brilliantly witty narration and a fast-paced, wonderfully rhythmic sequence detailing George’s childhood and the history of the Amberson family, one of the most prominent in Indianapolis in the late 1800s. As in the incredible opening sequence, the film maintains a virtuoso visual style throughout, full of complex deep focus compositions and long, flowing shots that relate the Ambersons’ story with elegance and masterful craftsmanship.

Perhaps as interesting as the actual film is the story and history behind the production and editing of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” The original cut of the film was 148 minutes long, but Welles had to leave the project to work on his ill-fated film about South America, “It’s All True,” leaving him out of the country and unable to complete the re-edits demanded by RKO. The re-editing was left instead to future director Robert Wise, who trimmed the film down to a bare 88 minutes, mutilating the film in Welles’ eyes. Welles was left out of the re-editing process and his suggestions were ignored by RKO. The film as Welles intended is essentially lost, but the edited remains are still nearly perfect, representing just how powerful Welles cinematic prowess is, shining through the restraints put on it by the studio’s manipulation. “The Magnificent Ambersons” is one of the true cinematic masterpieces and its absence from Region 1 DVD is absolutely shameful. However, scooping up a VHS copy of the film is certainly better than missing out on a great film experience.

by Brandon Colvin

*Editor's Note*
There is a Region 5 Spanish DVD of the film, but the quality is supposedly the same as the VHS. Also, we are assuming most people do not have Multi-Region DVD players as of now, which makes VHS the only format that the film are available in. When multi-region players becomes more popular, the rules of this series may become more strict, but as of now the series will allow titles that have non-region 1 DVDs. We will make notes of them, like this, when necessary.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

I love this film, and find it to be insanely moving. If the missing footage was indeed ever found, it would have to be considered one of the most important artistic discover in cinema history.
It is tragic what was done to Welles work throughout his is to his credit that even in when brutalized by the hands of butchers, his work still holds up.
I've heard rumors of an eventual release of this on Region 1 disc, but as of yet I haven't seen any clear sign of a release date or possible extras...
CITIZEN KANE might be the most untampered work that Welles ever released, but I think THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is my favorite...great post.

Brandon Colvin said...

I think "The Trial" (1962) is perhaps as untampered with as "Citizen Kane," since it had European funding and all, as with "F For Fake" (1974).

I actually like "The Trial," "F For Fake," "Mr. Arkadin," and "Touch of Evil" better than either "Citizen Kane" or "The Magnificent Ambersons" and I consider "Touch of Evil" to be Welles' best film, although it is certainly not his most important or influential work (although it did inspire Godard to make "Breathless!").

I know my stance on Welles' work is rather unusual, but I do love him and his work. However, I'm not quite the Welles disciple that many are.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks Brandon,
Man that reminds me that I have to check out THE TRIAL and ARKADIAN soon. I love F FOR FAKE as well and place it right below KANE and THE AMBERSONS...

olaf675 said...

According to this chat transcript with a Warner Home Video executive, 'The Magnificent Ambersons' should see a DVD release in 2008.

Some of the other items in the list have come, so I don't think there will be too much to not believe that this title will finally see a release. 'Greed' (among others in the transcript) is also in the works, but no release date.