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The Preventable Box Office Failure of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Fritzi of Movies Silently, and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Orson Welles’ follow-up to his acclaimed film Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, is also considered a great film. Yet it occupies a place in film history as one of its most famous box office failures.

This is not unusual, as many films have been reevaluated over time, regardless of their initial reception. In this case, however, there’s a strong possibility its box office failure could have been prevented.

Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, the film explores the transition from the Gilded Age to the rapid industrialization brought about by the invention of the automobile. Set in a fictional Midwestern town, it focuses on the aristocratic Amberson family, whose fortunes decline as the social and cultural changes make their class virtually obsolete.

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At the center of the story is George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the only grandson of the Amberson patriarch. His mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) fiercely adores her son. Along with other members of the family, she coddles and spoils him, until he is so obnoxious and snobbish that people in the town eagerly await a day when he will finally get his “comeuppance.”

An old flame of Isabel’s, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), returns to town with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). At first, it seems that he is courting George’s aunt, Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead). Eugene is an inventor who builds cars. The Ambersons and Minafers think the automobile is a passing fancy and seem oblivious to how it is changing the town and society as a whole. George becomes fond of Lucy, but is also annoyed by his mother’s and aunt’s friendships with Eugene.

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After his father’s death, George is appalled when his aunt lets slip that people in town are gossiping about Isabel and Eugene becoming an item. In a misguided attempt to stop the talk, he instead makes everything worse. His draconian solution for “saving” his mother’s reputation leads to tragedy and several broken relationships. The fortunes of the Ambersons and Minafers collapse. George soon finds himself lost in a world he doesn’t belong in.

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of my favorite books. I can’t say George Minafer is a “favorite” character, but he’s certainly one of the most memorable in literature, in my opinion. While his actions are awful by any measure, he doesn’t quite fit the role of villain. He is a product of his class and upbringing, capable of recognizing his errors, but only after it is too late.

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The other characters are also remarkably layered. Lucy is a refreshing change from the usual ingénue characters of the time period; a complex young woman with agency who still can’t help loving a man she knows is worthless. Her father Eugene is a kind man who cheerfully participates in turning a pretty town into an ugly city. Fanny Minafer understands thoroughly how her status as an old maid makes people dismiss and ignore her. She is jealous of her lovely sister in law, but also loves her dearly.

It’s a rich, compelling story, which makes watching the movie very frustrating. It’s not that Welles didn’t stay true to the book—in fact, he lifts entire scenes and lines of dialogue from it. It’s not that he didn’t understand the themes and nuances, because he clearly did. It’s not that he didn’t do a good job of casting the roles—he did, using many from his stock company of actors, such as Cotten and Moorehead.

The problem is the studio insisted on a drastic edit of Welles’ original cut. Welles and editor Robert Wise did agree the original cut—about 135 minutes long—needed some editing after a horrendous response from a preview audience. It’s probably not irrelevant that the preview audience was waiting to watch a Dorothy Lamour comedy, and were unlikely to be in the mood to watch an atmospheric historical drama. A subsequent preview of a more carefully edited version of the film found a much more receptive audience. This did not satisfy the studio heads, who were terrified by then that their $1 million+ investment was in jeopardy.

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Since Welles had surrendered final cut to the studio and was soon out of the country working on the documentary It’s All True, it was easy for them to slash it to bits. They not only removed 40 minutes of the film, they also had Welles’ assistant director reshoot some scenes. (Even more horrifying, they did not keep the removed footage. As far as anyone knows, it’s lost forever.)

The result is like watching the Reader’s Digest version of The Magnificent Ambersons. It careens through the main plot points with astonishing speed. It drops an important subplot that is referred to later without any explanation to the audience. If one hasn’t read the book, it is likely to cause some confusion. Subtle changes were made to take some of the responsibility for George’s actions away from him, lessening their impact and weakening his character. The melancholy ending was made more upbeat.

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It’s easy to find a list of cut scenes, and they make the “what might have been” even more clear. As he did in Kane, Welles used elaborate sets that showed much more than most filmmakers did previously (such as ornate ceilings) to convey the absurd ostentation of the characters’ lives. The Amberson mansion and the Minafer house are almost oppressive, they are so lavish and spacious. Later, when George and Fanny are forced to move into a boarding house, the contrast is important both story and character-wise. The studio cut out every scene shot at the boarding house. In fact, they cut out huge chunks of what happens after the Amberson/Minafer reversal of fortune, wrecking George’s character arc and making the somewhat sappy ending unbelievable.

The film was a dud at the box office, losing about $620,000. But the after-effects of the film’s failure went beyond its financial loss. RKO and Welles parted ways. Welles was quoted as saying “They destroyed Ambersons, and the film itself destroyed me.” That’s a tad hyperbolic, but it did slap Welles with a reputation of being unable to finish a film and for only making “arty” and uncommercial films. While he made several successful films over his career, going forward he rarely worked for major studios.

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There are many admirers of the film who dream of finding the footage tossed by the studio and restoring it to fit Welles’ original vision, including directors Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich. In 2002, A&E produced a miniseries of The Magnificent Ambersons “based on” Welles’ screenplay.

(Spoiler alert: it’s dreadful. Along with Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, it’s an object lesson in how much the person behind the camera matters. The only reason to see it is if you’re a huge fan of actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays George, and feel you must see everything he has done. Otherwise, avoid it at all costs.)

Today, even in its mutilated form, The Magnificent Ambersons is considered one of the greatest films of all time. But fans of Welles and the book will never stop lamenting “what might have been.”

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10 thoughts on “The Preventable Box Office Failure of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  1. I didn’t realize the film had lost that much money when it was initially released. Ouch!

    I saw this film once, several years ago, before I had read about studio interference. I thought it had terrific potential but had squandered it. My friends and I asked, “Orson Welles, what on earth happened?”

    That’s why I’m so glad you brought this film to the blogathon and explained what on earth did happen. This film needs more recognition today, but the circumstances need to be explained as well – which you’ve done beautifully.

    P.S. You’ve made me want to see this again ASAP!

    1. I saw it years ago before I read the book and had the same reaction. Then I read the book and about how the studio interfered in the final cut, and was like, NOW I get what happened!

      LOL, funny coincidence that TCM is showing it tonight. Enjoy!

  2. So sad. 😦 I mean to lose the footage. What a great read, Debbie, and an important story to tell. Yes, I’ve always been a bit confused by Ambersons and have never read the book, but am still compelled by it for some reason. Just terrific. Thanks so much for including this in the blogathon.

    Aurora

  3. Hi Debbie. That was a wonderful essay. I think I first saw the movie in a film class and the professor talked about what the studio had done to the movie and he said we would be able to spot the scenes that Welles did not direct. He was right. I’m glad I missed the A&E version.

  4. This article’s title is misleading. I was expecting to read what steps the studio might have taken to prevent the film from being a failure. Otherwise, it’s a rehashing of info we’ve read before.

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