Yes, the presentation is superb but where this edition absolutely kills it is in the supplement department, all of which makes this edition about as definitive as one could hope, short of including the film’s missing footage of course.
The big bonus here is the inclusion of Criterion’s original 1986 audio commentary featuring scholar Robert L. Carringer, recorded for their LaserDisc edition. Carringer’s contribution is invaluable here, with him talking about the backstory of the production, what issues the studio had with the film, why they re-edited it and so forth. He also talks about the structure of the story and the effects work in it. But the strongest aspect is when Carringer gets into detail about what was changed and what Welles originally intended, and he even gets right down to pointing out how the film’s look changes when reshot footage is used. The track is loaded with a wealth of information, all thoroughly researched by Carringer. The only drawback to the track is that it is one of the earliest commentaries recorded and it can be a bit rough, Carringer sounding a bit stiff and clinical. Despite this the track is still a terrific one, and I get a nostalgic kick out of it since Criterion has left in the LaserDisc references (like when Carringer makes note of side 2). It’s great this track could be saved.
Criterion then presents a second audio commentary, this one recorded exclusively for this edition and featuring scholar James Naremore and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The track is a sort of update on Carringer’s, which clears up some details about the film’s production and updating on things learned since Carringer recorded his track. It also works as a defense of the film, the two talking about its strengths and what they most admire about it, despite the studio butcher job that went on behind-the-scenes, and they also talk about Tarkington’s novel in detail.
Together the two tracks manage to cover just about every aspect of the film and its production but Criterion doesn’t stop there and they pack on even more material. First is a 26-minute interview with actor and Welles scholar Simon Callow, who offers his own summary about the film’s troubled production with more details about Welles’ work in Brazil making It’s All True, and the infamous screenings of the film, which led to the re-edit and then RKO just dumping it in theaters. I’ve always been more familiar with Callow as an actor (and it does make me cringe a bit when I remember he was in second Ace Ventura film) but his scholarly contributions for Criterion’s releases are always outstanding.
A video essay by François Thomas looks at the film’s various cinematographers that worked on the film. Stanley Cortez originally worked on the film but his way of working frustrated Welles and was eventually replaced by Harry J. White (though Cortez still did do work on the film). When the studio performed reshoots, though, they used a number of photographers and here Thomas looks at the various scenes (and even individual shots) determining who shot what and how the look of the film seriously differs from Welles’ footage. It’s a painstakingly detailed and fascinating essay, running a nice 16-minutes.
Criterion then digs up a 36-minute clip from The Dick Cavett Show, featuring Orson Welles, along with Jack Lemmon off to the side. Welles is usual entertaining and larger-than-life self, sharing a number of stories that we have been warned in all of the previous features are guaranteed to be exaggerations if not outright fabrications. But that doesn’t matter, it’s an entertaining interview, Welles even getting into the technical details behind some of his films (specifically Citizen Kane) and he and Lemmon even talk about modern films. There isn’t much on Ambersons (I recall it just getting mentioned) but this is no less a great addition.
Joseph McBride next pops up for 29-minutes to talk specifically about the studio’s reasons for re-editing the film, and the politics that more than likely played into it. He sorts out some misconceptions, even repeated in other features on this disc, and explains how the studio heads dealt with Welles while trying to “save” the film (basically ignored him as he tried calling from Brazil). He also talks about blow-ups Welles had had made from footage cut from the film, a number of these blow-ups now missing, with him and Peter Bogdanovich possibly being the last people to have seen them (some still exist and are showcased here).
Bernard Herrmann’s score was also severely butchered to fit the re-edit of the film and an essay by Christopher Husted goes into a an insane amount of detail (referencing musical cues that still exist) into how the rhythm and structure of the film was changed. This also manages to offer a look at how the film was initially intended to be edited by Welles. It runs about 19-minutes.
Similar to their LaserDisc edition Criterion offers existing footage from a 1925 silent feature Pampered Youth, another adaption of The Magnificent Ambersons. The version here is a cut down 1931 two-reeler that runs 28-minutes. Though severely trimmed down and featuring some significant differences, it’s interesting to see some similar set-ups to Welles’ own version.
Criterion then goes to the archives, digging up audio from a 1978 AFI Welles Symposium, featuring discussions from several Mercury Theater members including assistant Richard Wilson, sound recordist James G. Stewart, and actress Jeanette Nolan. The discussion is wide ranging from the original film Welles had intended to start with (Heart of Darkness, which never really got off the ground) to the sense of family felt between the group and even Stewart’s sound work. This is then followed by two radio adaptations from the group: The Magnificent Ambersons (featuring Welles as Georgie) and then an adaptation of Tarkington’s Seventeen. Both run about an hour.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer. The release then comes with a rather lengthy booklet, made up to look like a heavily revised script. The booklet opens with an essay by Molly Haskell, covering the film in terms of what it is and what it was meant to be, followed by an essay on the film’s look and structure by Luc Sante. Criterion then reprints an essay (written originally by Welles for an abandoned memoir) about his father Richard Head Welles, who was apparently a friend of Tarkington and was the inspiration for The Magnificent Ambersons’ Eugene Morgan. Ferran Smith Nehme then provides a wonderful, short essay on the effectiveness of Welles’ voice and how it aids in the narration of this film, and the booklet then closes with an essay by Jonathan Lethem, seeming to appreciate what’s there in the film, despite knowing what else was supposed to be there. In all it’s an incredibly thorough and well-rounded booklet.
The release doesn’t carry over everything found on the LaserDisc (it contained the screenplay for example) but I couldn’t imagine a more stacked and exhaustive release for the film, which covers every detail about the production and its troubled history, while also trying to give an idea of what Welles’ original intention for the film probably was. 10/10