(The Magnificent Ambersons screens at the Grand Illusion today, tomorrow, and Sunday.)
Most anybody who's seen and loved Citizen Kane knows the story of The Magnificent Ambersons. It's the original Hollywood fall from grace: A brilliant young director's second film scares away test audiences, so the studio trims it down in an effort to make a more commercial product. (The Grand Illusion volunteer who introduced the screening of Ambersons last night said the film went from about 140 minutes down to 88 minutes.) Unlike modern Hollywood, in which even shitty films eventually get director's cut releases on DVD, Welles's version of Ambersons is lost forever. So all we have is the studio cut, which is haunted by the ghost of the film that Welles intended for us to see. You can't watch Ambersons without wondering about Welles's intentions. You're watching two films at once, and you're also kind of watching half a film.
I'd never seen Magnificent Ambersons before last night's screening at the Grand Illusion. It is definitely a studio cut. The last scene is so terrifically bad that it may as well be a comedy, and the film is full of weird transitions and long rhythm-less stretches. But genius shines through everywhere: Welles continues his mania for exquisitely rendered tracking shots and wild experimentation, panning his way through a long, lively party scene at the opening of the film that, in the hands of a lesser director, could've been a snooze. And the plot that Welles adapted from Booth Tarkington's novel—one family's fortune collapses as another family's fortune explodes—is a classic American conceit. Ambersons uses the rise of the automobile as a symbol for both a new kind of wealth and a new kind of American neurosis. Viewing it now, on the other end of a century-long automotive boom, gives the film a special kind of poignance.
Ambersons will never be more than a footnote in cinematic history, but sometimes the footnotes are the best, most interesting part of a text. It's a limping mass of brilliance and disappointment and ambition and failure and art and commerce that represents the battle for Hollywood's soul. If you've only seen Citizen Kane, you're missing the other side of the story. It's not as slick, or as satisfying, but in many ways, it's just as beautiful.