Day 316: ‘A Not-So-Magnificent Life’ 2018

Day 316
Saturday 12 May 2018  11.38pm
‘A Not-So-Magnificent Life’   2018

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland towns spread and darken into a city.”


– The Magnificent Ambersons, Screenplay, Opening narration

Top 100 Films Ever Made –
This film is #81 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll and #174 in the Directors Poll (4 votes).

When I press PLAY and watch most of the two-hundred greatest films ever made, don’t know what they are going to show or tell me. With this film, however, I had no memory or idea of what it would look like or what kind of story it would tell. I only knew the things I’d heard and read about. I knew of its famous history. This is what I think I know:

Orson Welles wrote and directed the film and was not present for some of the post-production. I think he was away, working on another project. In that period of time someone with power – presumably at RKO – organised to have scenes rewritten or new scenes added, actors gathered to shoot new scenes, and a director or two was given the task of directing the new scenes. Under someone else’s direction a different film to the one Welles had conceived and directed was created and released. The discarded footage was lost forever. Some people – presumably those who have been able to read the original shooting script – think that Welles’s original vision could have been a film as great or greater than Citizen Kane. All of this is hearsay and I have no evidence to backup any of these statements.

What we have today is an 89-minute film which has moments, mere suggestions, of something stronger. It feels like a story in which most of what remains are the dramatic turning points of Booth Tarkington’s novel. The last scene, in the corridor, suggests that George A. Filander, had in these final moments of the film, turned into someone of whom his mother would have been proud. It feels like a potboiler ending and the film lacks the depth that would show that George had undergone any kind of journey to take him somewhere, some place, where he was likely to be able to change, to become a better person.

Most odious and insensitive are the end credits – where Orson Welles’ own voice states the names of his collaborators and credits himself as writer and director – if it is true that the film was taken from him, edited without him, had new scenes shot without him, and ended up running 89-minutes. For RKO to release this tepid film with Orson Welles crediting himself as writer and director when it clearly was a shadow of what he had in mind, is the final insult of a studio system which has ruined many films because of the power of people at the top. So often power and money gives them the right to judge the worth of a work of art even if their background gives them next to nothing in terms of knowledge about what is good and bad when, often, they don’t have the artistic background to even have an opinion worth saying aloud.

What surprises me most is that this film ranks in the BFI Top 100 Films Ever Made. It must surely be the sympathy-vote, given because of what it isn’t – but could have been.

Among the most famous of broken films, Orson Welles’ masterful follow-up to Citizen Kane was taken out of his control and re-edited by the studio.

– BFI Website, Sight & Sound Poll 2012