Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

I had every intention of my next review being "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" which I actually saw at a cinema a few days ago and which I found pretty spiffy. Despite the relative lack of box office for the first Hellboy film, I am so pleased that Guillermo del Toro was able to raise the funding for a second one, which was probably even better than the original and a wonderful testatment to his amazing visual imagination. So perhaps I will return to that movie in due course...

However, for today I felt the need to remind everyone about the above signature film from Orson Welles, as I myself was reminded after viewing it again after many a year. The real tragedy of course is that we will never know just how he intended this film to play, since RKO hacked it about in his absence after some disastrous test screenings, whilst he had been dispatched to South America to make a long-forgotten multi-movie meant to cement the Good Neighbor policy in the middle of World War II. Unlike the reworking of his later "Touch of Evil", we have no notes as to his intentions and the lengthy missing footage had never been found. So unlike many later movies, we will never be graced with a 'director's cut' and can only guess at how much even greater this film might have been without its unbelievable happy ending.

Even with the studio mutilation, it remains one of the great classic American films. Welles both directed it and wrote the screenplay from the novel by Booth Tarkington; he does not appear himself, but his mellifluous voice as the narrator guides us along into a more gracious age and an involving family saga, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Sidney Cortez. Many of Welles' stock company are employed with major roles for Joseph Cotten as a lovelorn inventor and an Oscar-nominated Agnes Moorehead as a needy spinster. Cotten's lost love is played by silent star Dolores Costello (once Mrs. John Barrymore), but the pivotal role is taken by Tim Holt as Costello's spoiled son who is so hateful that he makes the viewer's blood boil. Son of Western player Jack Holt, this is definitely young Holt's best role ever, as the bulk of his career both before and after was relegated to minor Western parts in his dad's footsteps. A young Anne Baxter (later to go down in movie history in "All About Eve") plays a feisty daughter to Cotten and a would-be lover to Holt.

Rumour has it that the relative failure of both this film and (believe it or not) "Citizen Kane" are what ended Welles' Hollywood career, but the truth of the matter is that his next starring role -- again with most of his stock company -- in another director's "Journey into Fear" (1943) also proved to be a money loser for the studio who promptly washed their hands of him. And so we were left with the tragedy of Orson Welles, who spent the rest of the days trying to raise the cash for his pet projects, very much against all odds. Just imagine what might have been...
Post a Comment