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Magnificent Obsession
December 13, 2010 7:26 AM   Subscribe

The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles' second film, has inspired a legend around the lost footage excised by the studio to make it more appealing to audiences. The film's making is a cautionary tale in letting the studio have creative control, and the finished product pained Welles to his dying day. The mythical status of the lost footage has inspired a few to try and track it down.

(Previously)
posted by reenum (25 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have a list of Ready-Made McGuffins for story purposes and "The missing Amberson footage" is right up there.
posted by The Whelk at 7:29 AM on December 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


A taste of what we're missing.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:32 AM on December 13, 2010


If it is ever found, I trust we'll be hiring Walter Murch to re-edit, yes?
posted by shakespeherian at 7:34 AM on December 13, 2010


The thing is that it's hard to imagine how it would have been a great movie, because the book it's based on is so deeply, deeply terrible, and the footage follows the book very closely.

Also, Tim Holt is crap in the role of George; at first, you think, "Oh, this is brilliant casting, he's so shallow and annoying" but then he keeps being just as shallow and annoying when he's supposed to be developing as a person.

Agnes Moorehead's performance is incredible, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:34 AM on December 13, 2010


Good luck finding it. In any event, the film is a masterpiece with or without the missing footage.
posted by blucevalo at 7:34 AM on December 13, 2010


Rosebud!
posted by Saddo at 7:36 AM on December 13, 2010


Also, Tim Holt is crap in the role of George

He's portraying a shallow and annoying character, but I don't think that because the character's shallow and annoying (actually, his shallowness is his tragic flaw) that it follows that Tim Holt is crap.
posted by blucevalo at 7:37 AM on December 13, 2010


The thing is that it's hard to imagine how it would have been a great movie, because the book it's based on is so deeply, deeply terrible, and the footage follows the book very closely.

Counterpoint: The Godfather.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:38 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


He's portraying a shallow and annoying character, but I don't think that because the character's shallow and annoying (actually, his shallowness is his tragic flaw) that it follows that Tim Holt is crap.

I think he was cast for his ability to portray George's shallow annoyingness, which he does well. (He was probably also cast for his resemblance to Welles as a young man.)

The thing is that George is supposed to learn--just not enough to do him any good--and Holt does not succeed in portraying that at all well. The Magnificent Ambersons isn't Being There; George isn't a static character, or isn't supposed to be. George has the wit to understand that he's doomed as a dinosaur, but not enough to get himself out of his predicament. The whole thing is a parable of social transition, but Holt's lack of nuance doesn't come across.

Contrast Holt's performance with Leslie Howard's as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. It's the same basic character--the rural gentleman who clings to his privilege and ideals long after they're any use to him--but Howard puts enough depth in it to make us sympathize with Ashley, not want to pummel him into a bloody pulp like we do George.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:52 AM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I mean, look at the second big confrontation between George and Aunt Fanny and compare it to their first big confrontation. Moorehead plays those scenes differently, and you can see the change in the character; Holt plays both scenes exactly the same way, by raising his voice.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:54 AM on December 13, 2010


Fuck this chase for footage that was almost certainly burnt to ashes decades ago. I just want to see THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND before I die.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:55 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also:
The fully realized Magnificent Ambersons, by contrast, is a more tangible piece of purported great art, a normal-length feature that, some say, would have been as good as or even better than the movie Welles made immediately before it, Citizen Kane. Chief among those taking this view was Welles himself, who in the 1970s told the director Peter Bogdanovich, his friend and sometime interlocutor, “It was a much better picture than Kane—if they’d just left it as it was.”
Now typically I'd say 'The last person I'd trust on the relative merits of two pieces of art is the creator,' but then there's that enormous memo Welles wrote about everything he disagreed with in Universal's cut of Touch of Evil, a memo he wrote after screening their cut once, and of which Walter Murch said that every single note Welles made was one that improved the film.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:59 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wrote: The thing is that it's hard to imagine how it would have been a great movie, because the book it's based on is so deeply, deeply terrible, and the footage follows the book very closely.

shakespeherian wrote: Counterpoint: The Godfather

Somebody (Coppola or Robert Towne or Waldo Salt, the last two of whom were uncredited IIRC) took out the "shoe leather" in The Godfather ("shoe leather" = the tiresome business of getting from one place to another).

Welles filmed a bunch of the "shoe leather" in The Magnificent Ambersons, as we see from the surviving footage, and who knows how much more of it he filmed? Or how much more if it he would have filmed?

The dramatic scenes are good, especially the ones that don't have either Holt or Baxter in them (I generally love Baxter, but she just didn't work in this), but there is so much stuff about the family and the house and the town in the book, and not that much more interesting stuff in the book that isn't already in the surviving cut.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:03 AM on December 13, 2010


I've read elsewhere that this movie was the model for The Royal Tenenbaums.
posted by Miko at 8:05 AM on December 13, 2010


I am sure Welles's cut would have been better than what we have, don't get me wrong. I just don't think it would have been a great movie, because the fundamental story just isn't as compelling as Citizen Kane or even Touch of Evil.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:05 AM on December 13, 2010


The book is at Bartleby, and Project Gutenberg in its entirety, btw. I don't happen to agree that it's terrible. It can get a bit preachy, I suppose, and the ending feels a bit forced. But it's an engaging story, which Tarkington lets develop naturally and vividly. I mean, it won the Pulitzer in 1919, so stylistically, it's very dated, but calling it a terrible book is a bit over-stating it.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:27 AM on December 13, 2010


A few thoughts on this that I don't have time (or patience) to join together into a coherent paragraph.

- While it is on the far side of unlikely that the missing Ambersons footage will ever show up, still: Never say never. The Passion of Joan of Arc find & recent Metropolis finds where long shots as well. Also, there were the preview prints & the work print the went to S America.

- The importance of reconstructing this film has been inflated by being talked about a lot & by some pretty recognizable people (Coppola, Scorsese, etc) but take anything Bogdanovich says with a grain of salt or at least a bit of independant research because he was not only a friend of Welles but also head of the Welles fan club, always giving Welles the benefit of the doubt & taking him at his word, when Welles word, by his own addmission, was not always the most reliable record.

- Of the legendary Welles "projects-the-could-have-been" Ambersons would most likely yield the least stellar results. In part for reasons already stated above (by previous posters) but also because I think "The Other Side of the Wind", the 100% Welles Mr Arkadin & Don Qiuotxe are all more interesting then Ambersons.

- The linked Vanity Fair article is terrible (-ly written I mean). Even mentioning the "autuer" in the context a '42 Hollywood film is stupid since the studio heads of the time where not in the habit of consulting French film critics from 10+ years in the future. Understanding studio politics & general industry practices of the time are important.

- "This is Orson Welles", a long collection of interviews between Welles & Bogdanovich covering his entire carreer is really worth a read.
posted by senseofsurreal at 8:50 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tangentially related: "Impossible Dreams" by Tim Pratt, winner of the 2007 Hugo Award for best science fiction short story.
posted by teraflop at 9:07 AM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Mike Thomas sits down to watch The Magnificent Ambersons with Robert Wise. —From the intro:
Using existing storyboards, stills of the deleted scenes and the original continuity script of March 12, 1942—the only surviving record of the full 132 minute original cut of “Ambersons,”—Carringer shows exactly what the deleted scenes were, which ones were reshot and the cables from Welles ordering cuts. the book makes clear that, although Welles may not have agreed to all the changes that were made after the disastrous previews, he was a willing accomplice to much of the re-editing. In fact, after reading Carringer it is virtually impossible to take the Welles account of the destruction of “Ambersons” at face value again. And yet it came and went without major critical discussion or acknowledgement. Its lack of impact is baffling and despite the landmark research and much evidence to the contrary, the Welles party line still remains the accepted version—“They destroyed ‘Ambersons’ and it destroyed me...”


Well, no, not exactly.
posted by kipmanley at 9:22 AM on December 13, 2010


The linked Vanity Fair article is terrible (-ly written I mean).

I agree that the article's terribly written, or at the very minimum terribly framed. The end is basically "Orson Welles was a fool for thinking he could do it all and have it all," which is perhaps true in some hackneyed way. But if it's true, it's also true that he was a man out of his time -- if he'd been in his twenties today, he'd get nothing but praise for trying to do it all and have it all.
posted by blucevalo at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2010


I mean, it won the Pulitzer in 1919, so stylistically, it's very dated, but calling it a terrible book is a bit over-stating it.

I have read all of Tarkington's work, many of his books several times, and I strongly think that Ambersons is by far one of his weakest books. I can bore you at great length with why I think that if you like, but it certainly isn't about its being dated, because it's actually less dated than some of his much stronger books (The Gentleman from Indiana, Penrod, and Alice Adams, frex).

Terrible books have, indeed, won the Pulitzer. Especially terrible books by beloved authors who had been felt to have been overlooked previously. Like Henry Fonda winning an Oscar for On Golden Pond, you know?

Also, The Magnificent Ambersons benefited from the zeitgeist and self-examination of 1919, seeing as it was in part a parable about how America's entrenched rural bourgeoisie needed to give way to technology, modernity, cosmopolitanism, and social mobility.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:57 AM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sure, Sidhedevil, you know very much more about it than I do. I still disagree that it's a terrible book--not because it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, but because it's vivid and evocative. I also think it's dated in that it reads like an early 20th century novel, not a late 20th century novel. I also think the last two chapters feel a but tacked-on and over-redemptive. I think calling it a terrible novel is well overstating its weaknesses.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:07 AM on December 13, 2010


I think calling it a terrible novel is well overstating its weaknesses.

Well, fair enough; obviously people disagree on everything, which is why they publish more than one book a year! My point was not so much LOOK I HAVE READ EVERYTHING but more that I am evaluating this novel with a lot of context about both Tarkington's work and other novels of the era, so the "dated" thing isn't what I take issue with.

I completely agree with you that Ambersons is at its strongest when evoking a particular time and place, and I think that is true of the film as well.

But to me, the character arcs in the novel don't ring true, and that's the fundamental weakness that makes it hard for me to imagine anyone, even Orson Welles, making a truly great movie out of it. Even if he had cast a more accomplished actor than Tim Holt in the leading role.

I also agree with you that the book is weakest at the end, and I think that's another reason why this could never have been as great a movie as Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil.

Both of those movies have great openings and great endings; Ambersons has the great opening, the (as you say) vivid evocation of prosperous white small-town American life in the late 19th century, which is beautifully translated from the pages of the novel to the screen. But where's the great ending going to come from? It's not going to come from the novel, and it certainly isn't going to come from Tim Holt's performance (the way it did from Welles's performance in Kane).
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:30 AM on December 13, 2010


And I'm so sorry if I came off as the "I HAVE READ EVERYTHING" jerk, above. I am waaaaayyyyy too much like Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" about 19th and early 20th century literature, and my obsessive intensity sometimes gets in the way of my social skills.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 AM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Simply because Ambersons is my favorite film of all time, this gets my vote as the best post of December.
posted by pasici at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


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