We’ve recently written about the premier — after a 48-year delay — of what is considered Orson Welles’ final movie, The Other Side of the Wind, filmed between 1970 and 1975 and mired in rights disputes and other industrial muck ever since.
The picture was unveiled at the recent Telluride Film Festival, and will soon be seen via Netflix, which effectively financed its tardy emergence. The reviews are not fully in yet, but early ones are positive.
What caught our eye was the succinct summary offered by The Wall Street Journal’s film critic, Joe Morgenstern. He found The Other Side of the Wind to be a florid parody of a newly emergent Hollywood… grandiloquent and emotionally vacant.
Those last two words can, perhaps, be applied to Welles’ lesser work, but not to his best. Which brings us to The Magnificent Ambersons.
If there is any Welles movie more emotionally engaging than The Magnificent Ambersons, we have yet to discover it. The movie is his screen adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel about the fortunes of an aristocratic family in small town America as the 19th century approached the 20th.
Although little read or discussed today, Tarkington’s work was immensely popular in the 1910’s and the 1920’s (there is his mugg on the cover of Time magazine in the mid-Twenties.)
The story tells of the plights of various Amberson family members against a bittersweet backdrop and the passage of time. There’s the spoiled heir to the family fortune, played by Tim Holt. A radiant Delores Costello superby portrays his mother, a widow prevented from consummating her lifelong love of automobile inventor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) by her ingrate son.
Agnes Moorehead provides a bravura performance as Aunt Fanny, the family spinster who quietly nurses her own affections for Morgan. Moorehead was nominated in the best supporting actress category for her turn. (It was the first of the actress’ four career nominations; she lost to Teresa Wright for Mrs. Miniver.)
The surest sign of any great movie classic is the presence of strong supporting players. The Magnificent Ambersons is full of them: notably Anne Baxter as Morgan’s winsome daughter; Richard Bennett and Ray Collins as two Amberson elders and Erskine Sanford, who yearns for ‘Georgie’ to get his comeuppance.
Much has been written about the movie’s inconclusive ending provoked by Welles’ precipitous disappearance to South America. RKO Radio Pictures charged editor-director Robert Wise to film the picture’s final scene presumably under the long-distance suggestions of Welles. Whatever the case, The Magnificent Ambersons’ ending seems abrupt and arbitrary in contrast to the wonderful subtleties of the rest of the picture.
Welles isn’t in the movie, but his narration is spot perfect for the material: droll, tender and sympathetic. As a result, The Magnificent Ambersons is anything but “emotionally vacant.”