DVD debut of Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ is not very magnificent
By ROGER L. RYAN
On September 13th The Magnificent Ambersons made its very belated DVD debut in North America as an Amazon.com exclusive “add-on” for customers who buy the Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Citizen Kane. Even though fans had been very vocal about wanting Ambersons released on DVD for a decade or more, the disc has arrived with virtually no fanfare from the Warner Home Video publicity department. There is a good reason for this: the new Ambersons DVD is disappointing.
The release feels like it just barely escaped being issued on the “Warner Archive Collection”, a recent division of Warner Home Video that provides “burn-on-demand” product to a niche audience. With an emphasis on “B-movies”, these releases are primarily un-restored existing prints transferred quickly to DVD-R and sold via a dedicated website. The discs contain little-to-no extras and cannot be purchased in stores or rented. Thankfully, Ambersons arrives on a properly “pressed” DVD, but like many of the “Archive Collection” discs, the film looks and sounds like it received very little restoration effort and the release contains no special features whatsoever. During on-line chats and in interviews, Warner Home Video has insisted for years that the delay in releasing Ambersons on DVD was due to an on-going search to find “better elements”. Evidently, no “better elements” have been found.
The good news is that the new Warner DVD still manages to be the best home video version of the film available in terms of picture quality. DVDBeaver.com has done a screen-grab comparison of the new disc compared to earlier releases from France (Éditions Montparnasse) and the U.K. (Universal), and the Warner issue appears to have the sharpest picture and best contrast of the three. However, it is also clear from the screen-grab comparison that the image on the Warner disc is cropped more severely than the one found on the Universal U.K. release. While the Warner packaging states the film has been “Digitally remastered for enhanced picture and audio quality”, the result is a lot less impressive than what Warner has been able to do with other releases from this same time period. The print used features damage throughout in the way of dirt and scratches although nothing particularly detrimental that would distract the viewer from enjoying the film (by comparison, the new Citizen Kane Blu-ray has no noticeable damage at all). Although barely discernable, the bottom half of the frame shifts to the left for a split-second two or three times during the course of the film which suggests a less-than-perfect video conversion. The audio is acceptable and some of the more severe pops and clicks that were evident on the earlier VHS release have been eliminated. At the same time, some additional audio distortion and hiss makes itself apparent near the film’s end that wasn’t present on the videotape release.
As previously mentioned, the disc contains no special features, not even a chapter menu. You do get a Spanish language track along with English, French and Spanish subtitles. It would have been nice if the disc contained the film’s trailer which actually contains snippets of scenes present in Welles’s initial 131 minute edit that were excised when RKO completely reworked the film into its current 88 minute incarnation. Ironically, the two main production stills used as artwork on the front and back of the DVD case are both from scenes that are no longer in the movie.
It has been suggested that the outdated copyright scroll that appears at the end of the feature (used by Warner Home Video in the 80s and 90s) could indicate that this new DVD contains a transfer that is not new at all. Perhaps the search for “better elements” continues and Warner decided to issue this disc with an old transfer as a stop-gap measure. Perhaps a high definition Blu-ray version with plenty of bonus features will eventually be released within the next couple of years. This, of course, would be most welcome. But The Magnificent Ambersons was not treated well in 1942 and, so far, the film has been treated equally poorly in the 21st century.