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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Film Study - Welles in the Classroom

Hello there.  Many years ago, while in college, I took a Film Study course.  In addition to the lectures there was a weekly Monday night film to view.  It was not a bad way to spend a  Monday night.  At these showings, I was exposed to many different genres of film (i.e., westerns, horror, foreign, sci-fi).  One of the first films I watched and have enjoyed since was Citizen Kane, listed as one of the top films of all time, directed by Orson Welles.  This was Welles' first film and he was given total creative freedom to film a movie by RKO Pictures after making a name in New York City with his Mercury Theatre of the Air performing radio plays.  While making radio shows, in 1938 during an adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, Welles convinced many listeners that Martians were actually invading New Jersey.  The hysteria caused by this incident showed the influence and power this new medium had over its users. 

Citizen Kane was notable for its camera techniques (deep focus and unique angles), creative use of light and shadow, its use of sound as well as its unusual story structure.  The movie begins at the death of its title character and works backwards through various points in the life of Charles Foster Kane.  The film was not an inital success when it was released.  Some felt the story was similar to the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and there were rumours that Hearst put out all the stops to ensure that Citizen Kane was not a success. 

Welles was given another opportunity to direct another feature film and he chose to make an adaptation of the novel by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.  For whatever reason, the plans to film this story would have to wait and Welles set out to find another story to film.  Thirty-five years later, Francis Ford Coppola would adapt Heart of Darkness in his work Apocalypse Now.

Welles decided to film an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Magnificent Ambersons.  It was only a few years after I was out of college when I first saw this movie on television.  In the movie, Welles used many of the camera tricks he displayed during Citizen Kane.  The movie is set at the end of the 19th century during a time of great changes (automobiles, paved roads, electricity, pace of life, etc.) occuring in the town, soon to be city of the film.  Each member of the Amberson family has to deal with these assorted changes and how it affects their lives is central to the drama in the film.  There is also a bit of a love story going on in the film between several characters. 

Welles used many of the performers he used in Citizen Kane and Joseph Cotten in particular really shines as Inventor, Eugene Morgan.  Morgan is an early pioneer in the horseless buggy, automobile, and in one scene he must defend his invention against one who thinks they're a nuisance.  

During the filming of this movie, World War II broke out.  Orson Welles was asked by our government to film a pro-American film in conjunction with our nation's Good Neighbor Policy of keeping the nations in Latin and South America on our side during the war.  As a result, Welles missed a lot of the editing of this film since he was not in the United States.  After the film tested in front of audiences, the studio requested over 1 hour of film be cut and a new ending was filmed.  The missing footage has never been found and remains lost to the ages. 

In 2000, A&E cable network filmed a complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons using the Welles script and included the missing parts from his film. 

The Magnificent Ambersons marked the end of Orson Welles having total control over his films.  This is kind of sad that at age 26 he had everything and lost it all.  Yes, he would continue directing, acting, and as he grew older he made commercials but the creativity he displayed in these two films would only show again in brief flashes. 

I recommend this film from a historical perspective.  As a teacher, I would show this to a class studying the Industrial Revolution with the changes brought on by the development of the automobile.  Compare and contrast the changes depicted in The Magnificent Ambersons with the changes at the end of the 20th Century (i.e. Internet, Cell Phones, Skype, Flat World).

I would use Citizen Kane, to illustrate the assorted points of view each character has about Kane and explore the influence of the media.  In additon to these 2 great films, the assorted radio plays made by Welles' Mercury Theatre can be used in the classroom to creatively explore the themes presented in a work of literature or as a model for students to create their own radio play which today could be called a Pod-play. 

How would you incorporate Welles in your classroom?  Do you enjoy these films?  Are there any other Welles films or non-Welles film you like? 

Would love to hear back from you.


  1. Thanks for this lesson on O.W.. It would be cool if we could show The Magnificent Ambersons at school. I have never seen it but you have piqued my interest. Roy

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this post Roy. I would love to show this movie but I think the themes might fly over some of the kids. It does show a much simpler time in the country before automobiles and the inventions effect on the country. One of these days, I'll have to get a DVD of it. I have Citizen Kane.
    Thanks for dropping by.