Not rated, but this is a movie about a guy who treats people terribly. There's no questionable content. I watched this movie in front of my kids. You could read into the story that there was some extramarital relationship going on. The movie implies that one of the characters was having an emotional affair with another. But in terms of actual content, there's nothing really to turn your head at. A kid beats up another kid. That's as far as I can take it. Not rated.
DIRECTORS: Orson Welles and Robert Wise (kind of...)
I normally shoot for getting images that are the proper aspect ratio above. I suppose that it is appropriate that when looking for images for The Magnificent Ambersons that I had to show you an image that is criminally edited. Nothing else was high-res enough or was watermark-free. As much as I was watching this movie to watch one of the great Orson Welles films, most of the experience of this movie was watching history unfold and understanding how studio interests can get in the way of making a film something marvelous.
Here's the really brief history of The Magnificent Ambersons. The movie was originally forty minutes longer and had a depressing ending. Robert Wise, who is slowly becoming one of my historical enemies, was hired by RKO to film a new ending that was way more optimistic. Yeah, apparently the new ending was closer to the book's ending. I went into the movie knowing that the ending was changed. The original cut is lost to history. There's no real way to watch that. The Criterion Blu-ray has a copy of the shooting script, so I could read that if I really wanted to. But I kept hearing that The Magnificent Ambersons is this great film. It's something that I would stick on a list of great films. That ending...completely ruins the film. Like, it doesn't even work. It's a completely crippled film through its ending. The movie is this slow progression through a character arc. Mirroring Ebenezer Scrooge (yet also his antithesis), we are supposed to see that George Minafer makes choices that either lead to his redemption or his demise. Great. The movie really suggests that he never really learns his lesson. There's a point in the movie where Minafer pretty much sees the error of his ways and embraces that evil. He has ruined his mother's life and he's ruined Eugene Morgan's life. He sees that he has been selfish and it has impacted his relationship with Lucy. He practically loses everything and still, he is kind of stubborn. It shows him praying. But from that moment, we never actually see the redemptive process. It's really odd. For the better part of a fairly short film, we see him as a jerk. Then we see him (maybe not? It's from a distance by the bed) and the rest of his arc is off camera. It's truly bizarre and actually kind of staggering to watch. It never actually felt like the movie was made with the full cast. It might be one thing if the movie actually felt seemless. If the film had Tim Holt with lines and a performance, it would be one thing. But instead, there's the voiceover from Welles. We have to assume that Welles had this scene in it. Minafer then gets his by a car and paralyzed. We get this from a newspaper. We don't even have a scene where this happens. The car accident, it is implied, is a major changing moment for the character. Apparently, the real catharsis was supposed to be with the prayer, but we never actually get the emotional impact of Minafer redeeming himself. Yeah, he gets jobs, but those jobs are out of necessity. We can't write him off as a changed character before that point because there's a gun to his head. Redemption doesn't really happen because of starvation. Rather, it is the value of a good day's work in conjunction with finding God. So when Minafer gets hit by the car and we read about it in the paper, there has to be one final confrontation with Morgan. But what do we get? The final shot has Joseph Cotton as Morgan summarizing the events of a conversation that happened off screen. It's the Poochie ending from The Simpsons! Morgan tells us that he apologized and that all was forgiven? What? This is a story ABOUT redemption. How can you possibly tell the story of redemption / lack of redemption without actually showing the climax of the film.
The film centralizes around an internal conflict. From Minafer's perspective, he wants his mother to need him as the central figure in her life. He needs Lucy to fall in love with him. He needs people to stop hounding him to get a job. He needs Morgan out of his life. These are his character goals from about a third of the way through the film. It is his interaction with others that begin to shine light on the value of treating others with respect and the product of a hard day's work. While lots of characters have internal conflicts that are shown off screen, often, these internal conflicts are tied to the external conflict. While the resolution could potentially be off screen in the form of a "what happened to these people" moment, like Animal House, the climax is on screen. I hate when my students memorize the definition of climax as "the most important moment in the story" because it is wildly subjective. But the climax should have value. It should be at least somewhat important to see. To make these moments off-screen baffles me. I want to play devil's advocate for a little bit. I can see a bummer ending ruining a movie. While I tend to lean hard into bummer endings, I understand that some movies need a change of tone to fix them. Let's all assume that Welles's rough cut of the movie wasn't great. I highly doubt this, but that's the purpose of Devil's Advocate. After all, that's what Robert Wise said and he directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a cinematic knock-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Look at me quickly lose objectivity.) The studio had a movie that had an awkward tone. But what happened was somehow more bizarre. At the expense of having a happy ending, the studio chose to have an abrupt and incomplete ending. I was convinced that I had another hour of movie left when I was watching it. I have seen theatrical cuts that wildly destroy director's cuts. I know that Ridley Scott also claims that his "director's cut" of Alien is inferior to the theatrical cut, but that's a prime example. But how did a room full of people watch what Robert Wise shot and say, "Nailed it. We have a good movie now?" It's really poorly done. Was the original cut so bad that this truncated cut function as a stop gap? From a financial point of view, they had to know that no one would be happy with that ending. The movie tanked really hard. In both scenarios, from the studio's perspective, the movie was going to tank. Why not leave the longer, artistic cut that no one was going to like? The most sympathetic version of me is thinking that they could get more screenings of The Magnificent Ambersons with a shorter film. But the movie is straight up bad.
Like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons took me a while to get into. It is a very complex backstory. Also, you snobs who are ready to write me off because I admit that Citizen Kane takes a while to win me over, that just me being honest. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece and I'll never fight that. But it also has a hard time finding its fun at times. The Magnificent Ambersons does so much with the family background that it often gets a bit confusing. There are really intense family dynamics to the film. I honestly didn't get on board until we see the adult Mr. Minafer. Georgie as a boy is fun to watch. That crushed velvet suit and long curls are perfect for the film, but the movie places a lot of attention on Morgan. It's kind of frustrating to see those scenes presented so quickly. As much as this is a tale about George Minafer, the story needs the sympathetic character of Eugene Morgan. He's the emotional core of this movie. I mean, I love when the protagonist is unlikable, but that unlikable character brings something dark out of the audience. Looking at someone like Walter White, we kind of secretly root for Walter. Heck, it might not even be so secret. Part of it might be outright joyful. There's really nothing to root with when it comes to George Minafer. We actually root for Joseph Cotton in the film. It's why it is so heartbreaking when things don't work in the Hollywood method. Also, while as a Catholic, I'm a big fan of forgiveness, we don't really have Morgan react to the slight that he had. He gets depressed. What that creates instead is this character who is constantly noble. He's flat and it also somehow makes the slight less. Again, I didn't read the shooting script. But the story is there in the bones. Morgan becomes removed from the world. His cars bring him no joy. He sees that Minafer has been crippled by one of his creations, but his anger and sadness stops him from confronting Minafer. On one hand, it is his creation that has brought down this man who is doing good for the first time in his life. On the other hand, Minafer is responsible for his lifetime of sadness and wanting. That's where the story is. In fact, shifting the movie from Minafer to Morgan makes the story interesting. If you wanted a happy ending, do it after years of deliberation. That's where there conflict is. But simply resolving it because one of his cars hit him? That's upsetting. It isn't really forgiveness. Right now, the car has no bearing on Morgan visiting Minafer. Instead, it's just a weird oddly-lucky accident that brings the two together. It should be an inverted story. For a portion of his adult life, Minafer hated Morgan. When Morgan's vehicle strikes him, he has reason to hate him more. But by then, he has learned the error of his ways. So when he wants to make amends with the man he hurt and, through circumstance, hurt him, there needs to be something that holds them apart. There's no tension.
Honestly, the end of the movie is like kids playing with action figures. There's no sense of suspense or tension. That RKO change is so film-breaking that it is almost hard to appreciate the rest of the movie. I think the last time I got this worked up about an alternate cut was Greedo Shoots First, but this might be worse. This was such a bonehead move that the story as a whole doesn't really work.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.