It’s surely an act of cockeyed optimism to love something so monstrously flawed, to prefer it, even, to the chiseled artistry of Citizen Kane. But The Magnificent Ambersons—which exists, for now, only in a cut that Orson Welles didn’t authorize and never would have—is dappled with such delicate, elegiac beauty that it’s hard to turn away from it, even with its gaps, its curious ellipses, its odd, patched-on ending. Drawn from Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, the story follows the decline of a wealthy midwestern family, the Ambersons, a fall they don’t see coming until it’s too late. Joseph Cotten plays Eugene Morgan, deeply in love with Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but she spurns him for another man, with whom she bears a child, George, who will grow up to be a wretched soul. (He’s played by the eminently pouty Tim Holt.) Eugene and Isabel reconnect many years later, but time seems to have sped past them; it’s this aura of inevitable desolation that Welles captures so well. The Magnificent Ambersons was being completed just as Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the releasing studio, RKO, was unhappy with the cut Welles delivered, declaring his original ending to be too much of a downer for audiences reckoning with an escalating war. They hacked 43 minutes from the picture—allegedly destroying the footage—and added a falsely cheerful ending. There are those who think the missing footage is out there, possibly in Brazil, where Welles spent time just after completing the film. But even in its mutilated state, Ambersons glistens quietly, almost proudly, as if it’s merely waiting to someday once again be made whole.
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