It’s so interesting to think of where Orson Welles was following the critical, if not commercial, success of 1941’s Citizen Kane. If that were released in 2011 and had met with a similar fate he probably would have been mentioned on the short list of potential directors for an upcoming Star Wars movie or something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those franchises love to poach (men, mostly) from the independent film world, finding acclaimed directors and giving them big budgets and tight reins.
But this was the 1940s and Welles chose to follow Kane with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons. The story is a Victorian melodrama of the first order, following the travails of a wealthy Indianapolis family at the start of the 20th century. The focus is on George (Tim Holt), the son of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), who has a reputation around town as a troublemaker. When Wilbur dies, Isabel’s first – and true – love Eugene (Joseph Cotton) seeks to rekindle their long-dormant romance. Meanwhile, George is longing to woo Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Through it all, The Narrator (Welles), makes sure the audience is following along with all the machinations and manipulations that are part and parcel in a drama about high society, inheritances and arranged marriages.
The movie is infamous for having been taken out of Welles’ hands by RKO, for whom he filmed it and to whom he had ceded final edit. The studio not only cut Welles’ initial version by around 40 minutes but reshot the ending so it more closely resembled the source book’s, not the more melancholy and somewhat downbeat one written and shot by Welles. Those changes are part of Hollywood lore and have been for almost all of the intervening 75 years. Attempts have been made to locate any surviving footage, but the original film was destroyed by RKO because it was taking up storage space. Welles’ notes on the ending survived, though, and in 2002 A&E Network shot a remake that used those notes, though it didn’t adhere strictly to his wishes.
All this makes the movie more than a little relevant in this age of extensively-covered reshoots. After all, we spent six months awash in speculation over what was being changed in Rogue One reshoots and are about to experience the same phenomenon in the lead-up to Justice League. So with the movie celebrating its 75th anniversary this week, let’s take a look at how this was sold to audiences back in 1942.
First up, the theatrical poster which shows…
[record scratch] [peers in for closer look]
IT’S DESIGNED BY NORMAN ROCKWELL.
Yes, that’s right, the poster features the artwork of one of the masters of the 20th century, Norman Rockwell. His name appears down there below the face of Richard Bennett. That should be apparent if you actually look at the artwork, which is unmistakably in the artist’s signature style. That in and of itself would have been something notable to audiences of 1942 as this was well into his tenure at The Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere.
Moving on, the design of the poster doesn’t exactly sell the same epic tone we’ll see on display in the trailer. The faces of the six main characters are shown arranged around the poster, half framing the title, which is in the same size font as Welles’ name and the fact that it’s a “Mercury production of Booth Tarkington’s great novel…” Above the ring of heads is the reminder that this comes “From the man who made ‘The best picture of 1941,’” a reference to Kane, of course. Welles is name-dropped again at the bottom, where it’s stated he wrote, produced and directed the movie.
The trailer immediately starts out by drawing a connection between the movie and the novel, with the camera panning in on the book’s cover, which is adorned not only with the title but also a large representation of the Pulitzer Prize it won after release. The Ambersons are called “Literature’s most fascinating family” by the narrator, who calls out that it’s coming to the screen courtesy of the director of Citizen Kane. That movie is referenced a couple more times as the cast is introduced. We’re quickly shown that the main conflict will come between George and everyone else, from his mother Isabel to Eugene to the entire rest of the town, which can’t stand him and his irresponsible antics. George is going to get in the way of anything and everything just because he can. It ends with another reminder that the movie comes not just from the director of Citizen Kane but also features “many of the Mercury Theater players” who appeared in that film as well. The book closes to provide a closing to the trailer.
Considering it was not a box office success, Kane is mentioned pretty often here, so clearly it was well known enough and had a good enough reputation that it was assumed the audience would be moved by appeals mentioning it. Outside of that what’s on display here is a big, epic story of a wealthy family that is in danger of eating itself. There’s a line from the narrator about it enjoying all the privileges of royalty with none of its responsibilities and that’s indicative of the overall tone. In 1942, just as America was pulling itself out of the Great Depression and just about to enter World War II, the public is being sold on a 24-year old story about the problems of an affluent family. Why? Because it’s escapism of a sort. It’s the same reason people watch “Real Housewives of X” now, non-rich people enjoy watching rich people behave badly.
All in all, that focus on the movie’s connections to Kane are a bit surprising. While It’s not uncommon now for second efforts following an underwhelming, if critically acclaimed, debut film to reference that first effort, the film market is much different now. There wasn’t the same indie film scene, with devoted fans that will follow coverage of a director’s career from festival to festival and eventually try and find a limited release movie somewhere. 1941 was the middle of the studio system, when those powerhouses decided who was and wasn’t a star by sheer force of will. So it’s not as if there was the 40s equivalent of a Reddit forum that was devoted to Kane’s work and eagerly anticipating his next film.
That more likely, then, has to do with Welles’ influence. He was a big ego even then and obviously had the power to make sure his name was plastered everywhere it could be, even if he still wasn’t powerful enough to ensure the movie was released under his supervision. While The Magnificent Ambersons has gone on to become almost as revered as Kane, its reputation is focused primarily on its contentious production, a legacy that’s endured for three quarters of a century.