Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twelve

12 ambersons

#12 — The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

Orson Welles was happy to cultivate legend. The towering wunderkind brought an overwhelming panache to absolutely everything he did, but he was rarely more at comfortable home than when engaging in something that burnished his own monumental reputation, either as genius, a showman, or, increasingly as his career progressed, a semi-tragic figure discarded by the very entertainment establishment that could have most benefited from his distinctive brilliance. Just one look at Welles facing the press in the aftermath of the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, playing every variant of chastened when questioned about the panicked reaction to his faux news report approach to the fantastical story (it’s arguably Welles’s most transparent phony performance during this era), and the cheeky showmanship in his personality is apparent. Welles presided over any number of ingenious creations, none more impressive than his own tumultuous history. Amazingly enough, every last bit of his beset genius identity shimmered into full clarity during a stretch of less than five years: the jubilant audacity defined by 1938’s “War of the Worlds,” the absolutely command of cinema with 1941’s Citizen Kane, and — maybe the most potent of them all — the cruelly abused iconoclastic master with 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

It is maybe the clearest measure of Welles’s nearly unrivaled capabilities for narrative innovation that the obviously compromised The Magnificent Ambersons remains an invigorating, transformational work of art that bests nearly all other films of its era. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, the film follows the triumphs and travails of the stalwart Midwestern family of the title. The story is rife with the sort of dramatic challenges that represent the best of high-minded American sagas: thwarted romance, the twisty fates of capitalism, the foolhardy hubris of the socially exalted. It is the novelty of the story that elevates The Magnificent Ambersons the elevates the film, but the restless ambition of the telling. The sly instincts toward innovation Welles employed in Citizen Kane are modified and emboldened into overt, splashy manipulation of technique in his follow-up. Watching the film is basically an ac of engaging with the writer-director (and narrator) in a full-fledged dialogue about the ways in which traditional Hollywood narrative can be bent and pulled like taffy, opening up completely different possibilities in digging beneath the surface of the text even as it’s being offered up for consumption.

The studio mangled the film, but couldn’t erase the filmmaker’s touch. Welles, out of the country while most of the manipulations took place (both with and without his consultation), was understandably distraught about the changes his film endured, a special disgrace that seemed to be heartless retribution for perceived arrogance when given the rare perk of final cut on his debut feature. But, in a perverse way, the injustice served Welles, if only to create the long-standing myth of a great artist who was cruelly misunderstood. It is a bleak romanticism that infuses almost everything he touched across his career, giving the flaws of his work the rough beauty of dents in a chassis that are somehow more glorious than the pristinely engineered piece of machinery. That this served Welles’s inherent impulse towards hucksterism doesn’t make the pure truth of it any less profound or moving. Like the Ambersons, the doomed marvel of Welles was indeed magnificent.

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