Magnificence

“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” Orson Welles intones deeply as he speaks one of my favorite opening lines to a movie.

On June 8, 2015, I was able to enjoy these lines from the 1942 movie The Magnificent Ambersons for the first time from the big screen.

The Michigan Theater presented the movie as part of both the Cinetopia International Film Festival and a University of Michigan symposium that marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the film’s director, Orson Welles.

Those opening lines pulled me into the movie more strongly than they ever had in my many television viewings of it. From there, I traveled on a cinematic journey that met all my hopes and expectations from the many years when I dreamed of finally seeing The Magnificent Ambersons in a theater.

The carefully constructed scenes jumped out more powerfully. I could more greatly appreciate how Welles set up the scenes, especially the ballroom scene where actors and actresses glided around each other with natural grace while at the same time exchanging lines of dialogue that advanced the story in many important ways.

On the big screen, the staircase in the Amberson mansion that is the backdrop for so many scenes almost becomes a character in the movie because of all the significant conversations and images that take place there.

Agnes Moorehead’s crying scene towards the end of the movie by the cold boiler had such a shrill, shredding quality that I could almost physically feel it tearing through me. At the end of the scene, I had tears in my eyes.

One particular moment has always impressed me on television, and it was a highlight of the Michigan screening as well. It is the scene at the end of the automobile ride through the snow, where the large tree and the automobile are positioned dramatically in front of the big, gray winter sky. It’s the kind of transcendent cinematic moment that keeps me interested in film.

For many years, film buffs and writers have debated the final scenes of the movie, which were shot without Welles’ involvement after preview screenings gave the RKO studio doubts about the commercial worth of the movie.

But those scenes have never bothered me. I’d love to see what ended up on the cutting room floor, but I’m satisfied with what was left, including:

  • The solemn scene where Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter walked through the garden, with quiet organ music in the background, addressing several important themes in the movie.
  • The joy on Agnes Moorehead’s face at the very end when Joseph Cotten says that he has been true at last to his true love, as the closing music swells up in the background.

The Magnificent Ambersons was Orson Welles’ next movie after his famous first film, Citizen Kane (1941). I confess to being partial to Ambersons. Citizen Kane is a stunning collection of cinematic tricks, but the ensemble acting and narrative force of Ambersons always grabs me more than the pursuit of Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

But what fun it would be if one of our great alternative film theaters programmed these two movies as a double bill.

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Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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