The credits look like something from 1917:
The actors look like something from an earlier era as well. The voice-over explains how fashions were changing:
Seasons changed . . .
. . . and the reason for the film does not yet seem evident. Most films of this period were able to strike quickly, draw broad strokes, set the scene and introduce the tale. But this is not a typical film: it’s Orson Welles’ follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” the storied production that was recut by a callous studio, gutted and ruined and prettied-up with a happy ending. For fans of Welles - and I’m one - it’s usually described as a brilliant failure whose shortcomings can be blamed on the thick brutish thumbs of the studios, unable to understand the stark poetry of Welles’ vision, the time required to tell the tale. I saw the movie on a small TV in the late seventies, in college, and remember thinking how different it looked, how overstuffed and stark and dark and strange. Finally got a copy, and was eager to intuit the thing that could have been from the ruins the studio made.
I’ll admit the cutting probably hurt the movie, but I’m at a loss to think how this story would have profited from more arrogant whiny son, more quietly-pining industrialist, more shrieking Endora.(Agnes Moorhead had the best hysterical scream in the business.) , Even if the additions had added depth to the tale, there’s one small problem: Gregg Toland. His skill made “Citizen Kane” a remarkable work that opened up the possibilties of cinema. I give Welles credit for being Orson, for knowing how to work with brilliant people and incorporate their ideas as well as direct and shape the actions of those who needed a firm hand at the till, et cetera. Yes yes. But Toland had the technical chops to make Kane work. He had the eye. So why do I blame him entirely for the failures of “Ambersons”? Because he didn’t work on it.
What worked in Kane - the deep focus, the exquisite compositions, the flawless facility for understanding light and shadow - is almost completely absent here. I mean, this:
In theory, it flows, left to right, but it’s static and unimpressive, and there’s no reason for the woman’s face to be in shadow, except perhaps that the standards of the day said it shouldn’t be. EMPHASIZE THE HAT, you can hear Welles shout.
Some of the shots are lovely, and when the camera stands back the effect can be impressive. I'm pretty sure this is a process shot:
A rare moment of light and breadth. From the start the frame is cluttered and busy, which captures the style of the era, I suppose - but it just makes you appreciate Toland’s deft eye. Here’s a scene that has some women gossiping during a dress fitting:
Okay. There's a sewing machine in the foreground, for the express purpose of establishing the perimeter of the foreground. And so? So what? Characters enter and leave in various planes; someone comes in on the other side of the sewing machine. But it still doesn’t give you the sense of depth. On the contrary.
There’s a mirror in the back:
If you’re watching the characters move around the various planes, you wonder A) am I supposed to be noting how they’re moving around the various planes, and B) If so, so what?
I do love this: it’s as mannered a shot as you’ll ever find in the movies, and sets up the kid as a figure out of some perfect sheltered fantasy world.
Ah, but soon we’re in the present, when the kid has grown up, his mother has married, Joseph Cotton is pining, Endora is screeching, and no one’s happy. There are scenes of arty darkness which would be wonderful, bewitching, haunting, and soaked in pathos, if only they were competently composed:
And then huzzah! Outside! Brightness! Symbolism: the tree, I'm certain, represents the love of the main characters, which has forked and diverged. To the left, the town, where She will live out her life; on the right, the Car, which represents His industrial ambitions. (Literally: he's an automaker.) But it's the sort of thing you grasp later, if at all. I certainly didn't see it at the time. I was just thinking "that's an odd composition."
Here's the aftermath of a dinner that goes poorly. Again, blurry objects in the foreground to indicate depth, but really, do we need depth? Perhaps they symbolize the people who left the dinner in an ill humor, or are intended counterbalance the light fixture, or reduce the scene to the small humans who inhabit the overcrowded space, but it just doesn’t register as any of that. Doesn’t pop. Switch to the next scene . . .
Switch to the next scene . . .
. . . and there’s a chair in the foreground. The Blurry Chair of Portentious Absence, symbolizing the absent swain. Someone else enters, and we have an opportunity for some honest-to-goodness meaningful deep focus . . .
. . . and they don't do it. Not to say it's devoid of good shots:
That's an old friend on the left, by the way -
Recognize him? Lt. Tragg from Perry Mason. There are a few scenes like this, which do something rare: they shoot up from below. It's a wonderful angle:
But the romance of such scenes gives way to jarring images of industrial modernity, which don't fit - I suppose that was the point, but it looks like we've left the original movie to enter a WPA documentary.
I've said nothing of the plot, because it's just a long frustrating story of a guy who doesn't get to marry the woman he loves because she tosses him over for a stupid reason, then sacrifices her own happiness to indulge the whims of her son.
Towards the end, though, the son gets in an automobile accident - IRONIC because the man his mother loved, whom he refused to let her marry, made cars. Here’s the front page:
Hah! The Inquirer. That's a Charles Foster Kane paper. And look who's on the front page with news of the stage:
I wonder if that's the earliest Easter Egg in the history of movies.
BONUS: the credits at the end are spoken entirely by Welles, and I was surprised to learn who edited the movie. I'd forgotten. He edited "Citizen Kane" as well. You know I like to find a Star Trek connection wherever possible, just for the sport of it?
The editor of "Magnificent Ambersons" was Robert Wise. The director of the first Star Trek movie.