Also in Slate: Read Fred Kaplan's essay on the new Blu-ray of Citizen Kane.
Perhaps another thing that drew Welles to the material was its moral complexity. Tarkington's book was no simple wallow in nostalgia or mindless critique of progress. The author complicates our allegiances throughout. Yes, Eugene is a decent and likable man—but he also represents the industrialization that proves the undoing of small town America.And yes, Georgie is unbearable—but his yearning for a simpler time is one that we all share. That tangle of sympathies and resentments makes Ambersons an unusually rich experience. When George finally gets his comeuppance, it hardly feels like a vindication—and it yields one of the most haunting passages in Welles' oeuvre.
It's a shame that the harrowing and crepuscular movie that Welles made builds up to a fraudulent ending. Struck down by an accident, Georgie ends up in the hospital. There Eugene, Lucy, Fanny, and George reunite after years of estrangement. "He's going to be all right!" Eugene chirps after coming out of Georgie's room, slapping false uplift on the film. Welles' original screenplay ended quite differently, with Eugene visiting Fanny at the boarding house where she lives. As Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, the ending showed that "there's just nothing left between them at all. Everything is over—her feelings and her world and his world. … The end of the communication between people, as well as the end of an era." Reportedly Welles' favorite scene in the movie, the original ending never stood a chance with preview audiences and studio executives. (The irony here is that Welles' original ending was actually his most notable departure from the novel. The reshot ending that mars the picture was pretty close to Tarkington's, with its redemptive nonsense. Welles knew better than Tarkington how to end the Ambersons' saga.)
And so it was that The Magnificent Ambersons was taken away from Welles. Granted, it wasn't too hard to do that—Welles' decision to edit in absentia was a mistake, especially considering his declining clout at the studio. Some have therefore pinned the blame for Ambersons' fate on the undisciplined, distracted Welles. But to do so ignores what actually happened. After all, if the Japanese hadn't attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the U.S. hadn't entered the war, Welles would have remained at home throughout post-production. Moreover, one could hardly blame Welles for thinking he could finish the movie his way despite being away. Part of the plan for the film was for editor Robert Wise to travel to Rio with the print to work side by side with Welles—a plan that never panned out when Wise was prohibited from traveling because of wartime travel restrictions. Seen in this context, the beginning of Welles' end—and the legend of Ambersons—could be traced back to that date that will live in infamy.
Welles never recovered from the debacle. "They destroyed Ambersons, and it destroyed me," he would claim. The decades that followed saw him scraping by, piecing together compromised, jury-rigged productions as a Hollywood pariah. And what of that original version? Years later, Welles told Bogdanovich, "It was a much better picture than Kane—if they'd just left it as it was." Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps Welles romanticized that version too much—after all, his own frantic, lengthy cables from Rio revealed a director willing to make other drastic (and damaging) cuts.
And our yearning for the lost version has over the years claimed a casualty: the movie itself. Welles may have felt it destroyed, but the Ambersons he left us doesn't merit disowning. Unlike anything the era produced, The Magnificent Ambersons, the one we have, is a diminished masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless—still beautiful despite its wounds, and defiant despite our dreams of its ideal self.
Correction, Sept. 15, 2011: This article originally misspelled Joseph Cotten's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)