Friday, February 19, 2010

1942: The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

1942: The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

I'll never forget the first time I heard this narration below.  It was 1995. I was a student at the University of Caen, in France, and I was watching a double-feature on campus of The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil:

"The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873.  Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city.   In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage.  The only public conveyance was the streetcar.  A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, .. put on her hat and coat, ...went downstairs, ...found an umbrella, ...told the 'girl' what to have for dinner...and came forth from the house.  Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare."

In some ways, this narration, and the film in general, changed my life. It made me aware of what is still probably my biggest obsession:  life is moving too fast, how can we slow it down? 

Welles conveys this theme beautifully throughout the film.  We see it, experience it, feel it, and know it on some level to be true.  It's a film of a bygone era that when it's all over makes me want to scrap everything and go back in time 140 years.  

Although this film is one of the most famous victims of studio interference and recutting, the version that remains still has great power to move me.  And, as always with Welles, the movie humbles me with its absolute mastery of the medium.

Other contenders for 1942: This is a year where I fortunately have fewer gaps.  The only major films I haven't seen are Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, George Stevens' Woman of the Year, and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione.  This is also one of those years where I only have one close runner-up.  I like Casablanca, but it's never been a favorite of mine.  I really like Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be.  It's probably my second favorite of what I've seen so far from the director.  And, I love The Palm Beach Story.  In fact, I might like it the most of all the Preston Sturges films I've seen.  My only true runner-up though would be Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim.  For me, it's one of Flynn's greatest performances, and like my top pick for 1941 (Sergeant York), it's a biopic that pulls me into Corbett's life and completely satisfies me with the telling of his story.   Ultimately though, I have to give the top pick to this Welles film, which has always been very personal to me.  Its themes, its grace and charm, and even its playful streak, affect me deeply. 

8/30/10 I watched George Stevens' Woman of the Year.  It covers some very interesting territory at times, probably more Mankiewicz than Stevens.  But it doesn't feel totally fulfilling.  But when it's mining some of the possible shortcomings of marriage, it's as depthful and adult as anything I've seen from this period.  

9/7/10 I watched Humphrey Jennings' Listen to Britain.  It's an interesting twenty minute short film that uses sound to drive the narrative.  But it's mostly a propaganda film that I admired more than really liked or loved.

9/8/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur.  I found it to be one of the less accomplished films I've seen from Hitch, particularly the second half.  But as with all the great director's work, there are several excellent scenes, including the initial explosion, as well as some unexpected warmth at times from the film.  

9/14/10 I watched Luchino Visconti's Ossessione.  I was blown away. It seemed like such an influence on Godard's Breathless and the way that he wanted his film to look and sound.  And I found it so much more satisfying than either American version I've seen of the same story. Visconti seems incredibly inspired, and his film is full of many wonderful details.  

2/3/11 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's There Was a Father.  Ozu is without a doubt my favorite directorial discovery of the last year.  His movies tell us so much about ourselves, and when it comes to showing us aging and family, I'm not sure Ozu has a rival.  I particularly like his bold, editing style in this one.  He jumps ahead between scenes, always knowing that we'll eventually catch up.  I'm not a huge fan of the actor playing the older son in this one, but all in all, another wonderful experience in the world of Ozu.    

2/11/18 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be.  Another Lubitsch that I don't think is up there with Shop  or Cluny but it is fun a good amout of time.


  1. Jeffrey,

    A beautifully written review about a film that seems to have had a strong emotional hook on you. Excellent! This film however represents that another gap in my viewing is exposed here, though I know the history of this film’s turmoil well from reading about Welles.

    My own favorite is the traditional but ever engrossing “Casablanca”, an example of the Hollywood studio system fumbling upon greatness without even being aware of what they were creating. Curtiz was one of the great studio directors of the era. Unlike Welles, he worked perfectly within the system. Don’t misunderstand, I am not saying Curtiz is a better filmmaker or artist, Welles is a master.

    Other top picks for the year include:

    To Be or Not To Be
    Woman of the Year
    The Talk of the Town
    The Man who Came to Dinner
    Pride of the Yankees (more of a personal favorite being a Yankee fan. The film is too sentimental but I cannot be rational about this film (lol).

  2. John, thanks so much for the very kind words. The Welles is a film I really love. If you seek it out at some point, I 'd love to hear about it.

    I love these sentences you wrote and couldn't agree more:

    "Curtiz was one of the great studio directors of the era. Unlike Welles, he worked perfectly within the system."

    Welles' career is one of the saddest stories in the history of film, I think. The guy was a giant and so masterful, yet could never quite find his footing anywhere.

  3. Ah, Jeffrey, that passage is one of the greats, no question about that, coming as it did orginally from Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. And again, your years in France have given you some really unforgettable and incomparable reference points! Fantastic. Well, after naming KANE the best film of 1941, I won't be giving Welles the top spot two years in a row, but it does push close. As you rightly note it has the power to affect and to move greatly, and in spite of its blasphemous cuts it works exceedingly well in its current form. It's a masterpiece.
    However, I must agree with John that CASABLANCA, one of the greatets of all romances, and a film with a script that is sheer perfection, is the film that I see as the best of that year, and indeed one of the very best of that decade. More unforgettable lines appear in that film, than in perhaps any film in the cinema. And some of cinema's greatest scenes as well. Those two (and Jennings's brilliant war-time British documentary LISTEN TO BRITAIN)are the only three 'masterpieces' of that year, but there are a number of other great films, including the superlative Visconti film that John notes. (John Greco actually in fact wrote one GREAT review of the film at Twenty-Four Frames!)

    My Own #1 Film of 1942:

    Casablanca (Cutiz)


    The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
    Listen to Britain (Jennings)
    Ossessione (Visconti)
    Bambi (Hand)
    Kings Row (Wood)
    Thunder Rock (Boulting)
    Cat People (Tourneur)
    To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch)
    Les Visiteurs de Soir (Carne)
    The Palm Beach Story (Sturges)
    Journey Into Fear (Foster)
    I Married A Witch (Clair)

    And my sentimental side must acknowledge:

    Yankee Doodle Dandy (Cutiz)
    The Pride of the Yankees (Wood)

    Cagney's performance of course in the first is legendary.

  4. Sam, excellent comments! I love what you say here about CASABLANCA:

    "More unforgettable lines appear in that film, than in perhaps any film in the cinema. And some of cinema's greatest scenes as well."

    It's a film I'll certainly revisit at some point.

    And I'm so glad to hear that you also love those lines from AMBERSONS. When I think of them and the way that Welles puts images to them, I'm still in awe.

    I have just added LISTEN TO BRITAIN to my queue, as well, as it's one I've never seen.

    Thanks, Sam, for the fantastic knowledge and perspective!

  5. Well, I'll add on to the CASABLANCA love, one of my twenty or so favorite films.

    In high school, when I first watched CITIZEN KANE, it was somehow ingrained in me that Orson Welles made one great film (KANE) and the rest of his career was an attempt to live up to that aka everything else he made is a disappointment.

    Of course, there is only part of that statement that is true (Welles trying to live up to his press clippings), but it's part of the reason I've never anxiously sought out films such as THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in all these many years. Something I'll definitely need to correct.

  6. Troy, thanks so much for the great comments!

    I don't think you're alone in approaching Welles in that way. I think many people actually think he only made one movie.

    In my opinion, Welles has maybe the greatest eye of any director the cinema has ever had. And I admire greatly almost everything I've ever seen from him. In addition to the two mentioned, I also highly recommend OTHELLO, MACBETH, THE TRIAL, TOUCH OF EVIL, THE STRANGER, and MR. ARKADIN.

    Thanks so much, Troy!

  7. I won't type out a long-winded response but will just piggy back on the great comments from John, Sam and Troy - for me, it's Casablanca without a doubt. It's a Top 10 all time movie for me. I can watch it at any time.

    But there are some other great movies this year. I LOVE Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, which is second only to Trouble in Paradise in my favorites from him. Here would be a Top 5 for me for '42:

    1. Casablanca (Curtiz)
    2. To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch)
    3. The Palm Beach Story (Sturges)
    4. Cat People (Tourneur)
    5. Kings Row (Wood)

  8. Dave, thanks so much for the great comments! I am definitely in the minority when it comes to CASABLANCA and will have to revisit it at some point. I haven't seen KINGS ROW, but I like the other three you mention quite a bit.

    Thanks, as always, Dave, for the great perspective! By the way, your noir knowledge is damn impressive, too.