Many film fans proclaim The Magnificent Ambersons Orson Welles' greatest film -- not Citizen Kane, which has consistently topped every "Greatest Films Of All Time" list since the 1950s.
It's true Ambersons, the film Welles made one year after Kane, is a beautiful film. Stanley Cortez' B&W photography, while not as experimental or audacious as Gregg Toland's work in Kane, performed miracles. With one intricate movement after another, his camera prowled the shadowy rooms, corridors and stairs of the Amberson house like another character in the tale. The acting was also stunning, especially Agnes Moorehead as the neurotic, suffering Aunt Fanny (Welles called Moorehead "the best actor I've ever known").
But in spite of these and other wonders, Ambersons is notoriously flawed. The reason is simple -- it was mutilated by bottom-line producers no longer enamored by Welles' talent and mystique. Approximately 45 minutes were not only edited from the film, but forever consigned to the dust bin of history.
From all accounts, it was not extraneous footage that was destroyed. Film scholars have studied surviving storyboards and stills from missing scenes, and insist it contained some of Welles' greatest work (Welles referred to a particular tracking shot as "the greatest tour de force of my career").
The reasons for the massacre are varied. The film previewed disastrously -- one audience survey read, "Two hours of gloom and camera acrobatics." The main reason, however, was the film's studio, RKO, wanted to squeeze Ambersons onto a double-feature package; hence, brevity was key.
Simon Callow, in his recently published Orson Welles: Volume 2, Hello Americans (Viking; $32.95), devotes over 150 pages to the meticulous production -- and swift evisceration -- of The Magnificent Ambersons. This is, needless to say, more information than most readers desire. But to movie lovers who have always wondered "what went wrong" after Welles' remarkable success with Kane, the tale is instructive: The career may have derailed, but it was Welles who was minding the controls -- or, rather, not minding the controls.
There have been -- and continue to be -- many biographies of this endlessly fascinating, ultimately tragic man. But none begin to approach the ambition of Callow's multi-volume, scrupulously researched project, in which every waking hour of Welles' life is documented.
I exaggerate, of course, but examine the evidence.
Orson Welles: Volume 1, The Road To Xanadu was 688 pages in length, and concluded just as Welles' debut film Citizen Kane was released to theaters in 1941. The so-called "Boy Wonder" was 24 years old.
Picking up the trail at that point, Hello Americans is not exactly greyhound sleek. With 528 pages of obsessively researched material, it covers a mere six years of Welles' life, culminating in 1947 with the release of his stark, low-budget Macbeth. The detailed coverage, however, is merited: Welles was not an artist who enjoyed being stationary. A whirling dervish of creative energy, he worked hard to sabotage his movie career.
Which brings us back to the bizarre fate of Ambersons (was this Welles' fatal Rosebud?). In early December 1941, Welles was preparing crucial post-production work on the film. He was also overseeing the production of two other films, while writing and performing in various weekly radio shows and contemplating a turn as Hamlet on the Broadway stage.
The sudden attack on Pearl Harbor -- and the declaration of war on Germany and Japan -- altered his plans a bit. Within weeks, Welles received an enticing request from the government. Would he be interested in flying down to Brazil to shoot a film promoting "pan-American unity"? The subject would be Carnival, Rio de Janeiro's annual explosion of dance, costume and unbridled celebration.
To his many friends and associates, the project sounded like either a very good or a very bad idea. To Welles, it sounded very good, indeed. As the book states, "His hedonistic impulses needed little encouragement; he plunged right in. Welles ate, he drank, he smoked, he blithely shoveled amphetamines down his throat; he reached out for all the flesh he could get his hands on, which was a great deal."
He also filmed some footage, though the anarchy and formlessness of Carnival proved a logistical nightmare for the cumbersome camera equipment.
RKO executives, meanwhile, found it convenient -- with Welles 1,000 miles away -- to make ruthless decisions over Ambersons' fate. Callow delivers the hard evidence that Welles received plenty of warnings his "masterpiece" was in danger (in fact, Hello Americans contains too many of these unedited letters, telegrams and memos).
Instead of taking the first plane back to Hollywood, the intrepid director continued to tramp around Brazil long after Carnival ended, aiming his camera at various fishermen and street urchins. This scattered, disorganized footage would eventually comprise an omnibus of short segments titled It's All True ("an entertaining, but scarcely radical, film," according to Callow).
The Ambersons debacle serves as a useful blueprint for examining Welles' post-Kane troubles. The other films covered in Volume 2 suffered similar fates. It's All True, The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai and Macbeth were all yanked from Welles' control; at least two were drastically recut. In each case, Welles had miscalculated the patience and tolerance of colleagues, producers and studios.
His restless energies were simply directed elsewhere. Callow takes the reader through this baffling, wandering period of Welles' life, as he feverishly attempted to reinvent himself with non-cinematic identities: as a Populist politician, a radio comedian, a newspaper columnist, a Broadway producer, a stage magician.
"His personality, like that of most human beings, was complex and often contradictory, but, unlike most human beings, he pushed those contradictions to such extremes that it sometimes seems that he had no center at all. It sometimes seemed that way to him, and he sought many antidotes to eliminate the sense of vacuum at the core; the most frequently deployed of these antidotes was the most effective of all, more reliable than alcohol, food, sex or love: work."
When not researching the minutia of Welles' life, Callow is a renowned stage and screen performer, perhaps best known as the boisterous kilt-wearer who drops dead from a heart attack in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But he's primarily an accomplished writer and indefatigable researcher, and it goes without saying Orson Welles is his big subject.
Callow claims he will conclude the Welles saga with a third and final volume. But, with almost 40 years to go in Welles' life -- encompassing several masterpieces, and more than a few personal and artistic disappointments -- I would guess at least two more volumes are headed our way.