‘Swell Welles’ Part I: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons (1939, 1942, and 2002) & More!

March 6, 2012 | By

The standard approach to tackling Orson Welles on home video is to start from scratch and begin with his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), but I’ve decided to begin this review wave of Wellesian material on DVD and Blu-ray with his 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, partly because it’s so imperfect.

Let’s step aside for a moment.

To claim Ambersons is one of the greatest films ever made is a bit rich, given it was recut, reshot, and released in a much shorter version than Welles had ever intended. It was perhaps the most significant act of studio butchery ever committed on a sound film without a director’s approval, and a rather vindictive attempt by the studio’s newest top-level production executives to get rid of a prima donna they feared would either bring them to ruin via esoteric depressing million dollar productions, or establish a new standard in directorial freedom; but Ambersons in its current state is a deeply problematic picture that begs more than a simple set of 500 words punctuated with ‘it’s a flawed masterpiece’ or ‘a  hint of greatness that resonates even deeper with each viewing.’

When he began at RKO, Welles was the wonder boy of radio, gifted with a marvelous voice, genuine acting talent, a superb writer and dramatist, and a director with a kind of special arrogance that pushed him to break rules because his unusual choices, when compared to conventional studio hacks, were amazing and outlandish.

I’ll get into the stylistic issues he codified in Kane – a film that remains amazingly contemporary in spite of being minted in 1941 – later, but right now, Part I is about Ambersons, which has been available on DVD overseas for a few years now (not to mention prior releases on VHS and laserdisc), but until late January, remained an Amazon.com exclusive deal if one bought Kane from the retailer.

Now widely available as a standalone DVD, Warner Home Video’s release features a bare bones transfer, but that’s okay; the lack of extras ignited a search for related review materials. What’s been uploaded is a lengthy comparative essay of sorts in which Welles’ 1942 film is examined in its 88 mins. release version and augmented by observations from Robert Carringer’s commentary track from Criterion’s 1986 laserdisc; then contrasted with A&E 2002 filming of Welles’ original shooting script; and finally closing notes on the 1939 Mercury Theatre radio broadcast. That’s the first review [M].

To contextualize Welles’ dilemma in 1942 – writing, directing, producing Ambersons, and starring & producing Journey into Fear – is a review of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles [M] (1993), the documentary about the documentary Welles was working on in Brazil while Ambersons was being hacked up.

Paramount released the film as a bare bones DVD in 2004, and the doc contains plenty of rare footage and interviews, plus the lone surviving (and most complete) segment of three tales that were supposed to make up “It’s All True.”

Part II of ‘Swell Welles ‘will include a review of Citizen Kane and a handful of related films, and later parts will include Journey into Fear, and Touch of Evil (1958), the latter available only in England on Blu-ray because Universal in North America perhaps believes Welles’ noir classic is undeserving of a Blu-ray release during their 100 year anniversary.

Really? But Waterworld is?



Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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