Friday, February 10, 2012

Tonight's Movies: Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) at the Egyptian Theatre

This month I've had the rather remarkable experience of seeing classic films in four historic theaters within just a 10-day period.

My tour of old movie palaces began on February 1st with A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach, California. The Bay opened in 1947, making it the youngest of the four theaters I've recently visited.

Last weekend I had a wonderful experience seeing LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) at the beautifully restored El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, established in 1926.

Wednesday evening I enjoyed a film noir double bill of THE BIG COMBO (1955) and PITFALL (1948) at the Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. The Million Dollar Theater is the granddaddy of them all, dating from 1918.

Tonight I returned to my favorite venue, Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre, which opened in 1922. The occasion was an Orson Welles double bill consisting of CITIZEN KANE (1941) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). Ironically, CITIZEN KANE had its world premiere over seven decades ago right down the street, at the El Capitan.

I'm taking the unusual step of jointly reviewing these two Welles classics, released within just a year of each other, in part as I have fairly little to say about CITIZEN KANE. It's a movie well known to most film fans, and as the saying goes, it is what it is. I hadn't seen it since I was in college, when I was surprised to find myself unimpressed with the film's self-consciously showy techniques in service of a dark and depressing story.

I remembered virtually nothing about the film from that original viewing, so I was able to re-evaluate it tonight from a fresh perspective, having seen a few thousand movies in the intervening decades. I was glad to experience it in the best way possible, via a beautiful print on a huge screen.

I appreciated the film more now, especially the stunning cinematography by Gregg Toland and the editing by Robert Wise; and I admired what was accomplished by so many actors at the outset of their film careers. Joseph Cotten is a particular favorite of mine, so I was glad to revisit his performance in this. But while I admired the film's creativity and found it interesting enough to hold my attention, it's never going to be one of my favorite movies.

I was more interested in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, the first film to be checked off my "10 Classics for 2012" list. I found this film of Booth Tarkington's novel about the decline of a grand family, which the studio famously edited down from Welles's original vision to a mere 88 minutes, even more visually beautiful than KANE, with deep, rich blacks and whites. The effect projected on the big screen was incredibly powerful. The images from this film, photographed by the great Stanley Cortez (THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), will long remain in my memory; even the happiest and loveliest scenes, such as the dance or the drive in the snow, are haunting in retrospect. It seemed, when the film was done, that we'd been visiting with ghosts.

Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter's finely drawn characters relieved the unrelenting gloom of the Amberson family; I was greatly impressed by the 18-year-old Baxter, especially the scene where she laughingly says farewell to George (Tim Holt). It's also remarkable to realize that Agnes Moorehead's first two films were CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS; she's quite amazing as Aunt Fanny in AMBERSONS. I also admired the performance of Dolores Costello as Isabel.

Costello, incidentally, was the mother of John Drew Barrymore and the grandmother of Drew Barrymore. Richard Bennett, who played the most senior member of the Amberson family, was the father of Joan and Constance.

Despite the film's positive attributes, the movie is in some ways difficult to watch because Holt's George Amberson Minifer is such an insufferably boring prig. Apparently opposed to his mother's suitor Eugene (Cotten) because Eugene is in trade -- with perhaps a dash of incestuous feelings for his mother thrown in -- George is obnoxious and inscrutable. For instance, there's little understanding regarding his willingness to jettison his own relationship with Baxter's Lucy in order to thwart his mother's romance. (There's also no real explanation for why Lucy loves George, among a sea of willing suitors.) When George finally has his "comeuppance," his body literally broken, the audience doesn't even get to enjoy the catharsis, it's over and done so quickly. Perhaps some of these issues were addressed in the film's original cut, but as it stands the film is a gorgeous mystery.

Jim Lane's Cinedrome has been running a very interesting series on this film, making the case that AMBERSONS is Welles' greatest film; Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here, with more to come in the future.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was previously released as an extra in a CITIZEN KANE 70th Anniversary Blu-ray set. It's just been released as a single-title DVD, but sadly there are no extras included which might shed more light on its production and editing history.

VHS releases of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS include the RKO Collection and a Turner Classic Movies edition.

CITIZEN KANE is available on standard DVD in a 2-disc special edition and a 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition. VHS releases include an RKO Collection video which I own. It can be rented on DVD from Netflix or streamed via Amazon Instant Video.

As a final comment for Southern Californians, I became a member of the American Cinematheque last Christmas and am very glad I did. Due to my membership I received two free passes, which we used this evening, and members can buy one ticket per film, at both the Egyptian and the Aero, for just $7. Additional perks include a members-only ticket phone line (no more Fandango fees for advance purchases) and 10% off at the Pig 'N Whistle restaurant next door to the Egyptian, where we've enjoyed a couple of good meals over the past year. And membership is tax deductible!


Blogger Matthew Coniam said...

Glad you enjoyed Ambersons!
I would certainly say it's his best film - by a comfortable mile.
I wrote a Christmas piece about it back in 2010 that has a lovely, typically thoughtful comment from Gordon Pasha.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Matthew, what a beautiful post you wrote. I especially liked this: " carefully and beautifully are the latter evoked, the film seems often almost eerily like a vanished age come to life)." I think that captures some of what I was trying to express about feeling as though one had been watching ghosts.

I enjoyed all the comments as well as your analysis. Thanks very much for pointing us to your post!

Best wishes,

1:38 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

ten or twelve years ago Peter Bogdanovich published a book length interview with Orson Welles that included the compelte draft of The Amberson screenplay. My perception, the finished product wasn't all that removed from either the Welles script or Booth Tarkington's novel. and, I enjoyed all of it.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for that info! I'd enjoy learning more about the production history and the changes that were made.

Best wishes,

8:31 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older