While Citizen Kane was notable for its camera techniques (deep focus), creative use of light and shadow, its use of sound as well as its unusual story structure, it begins at the death of its title character, 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 life 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 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 USA. After the film tested in front of audiences, the studio requested over 1 hour of film be cut and a new ending 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 including the missing parts from his film.
This marked the end of Orson Welles having total control over his films. Which 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.