Mozert: Magnificent Ambersens, the Opera (Super-8 review)

Restored Director’s Cut, with Orson Bean, Joseph Cottontail, Elvis Costello, Tom Hulce, and Agatha Sorehead. Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III, Toontown Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. 1930; 260 minutes. Standard and enormously overblown extra-widescreen presentations; B&W and color; 2-D, 3-D, and DD-T soundtracks.

By John J. Puccio

As every opera buff knows, Magnificent Ambersens (1930) was the writer, producer, actor, composer, film editor, gaffer, grip, and best boy director Wolfgang Orson Wellseyan Mozert’s enigmatic musical follow-up to his celebrated antiestablishment idyll, The Citizen Kane Mutiny. And, as every musical film buff also knows, Ambersens was corrupted, shredded, mutilated, and maimed by its studio, R.K. Maroon International, when the filmmaker left it in their care whilst he took a cruise to South America with his girlfriend, Jessica Rabbit. Mozert always said that he regretted what later happened. (The studio’s cutting of his film, not his fling with Ms. Rabbit.)

Providentially and unbeknownst to anyone outside his immediate circle of friends, Mozert was able to retrieve most of the excised portions of the movie from a dumpster behind the Maroon studios, footage that only today, over ninety years later, he has reconstructed into a true Director’s Cut. The incomprehensible new version--restored to its original operatic setting--now includes several hours of expunged words never before heard outside the Mozert household. The new version runs some 260 minutes, with about three-and-a-half hours of additional, inexplicable verbiage. “A Magnificent Ruin,” as one critic once called the truncated edition, is once again “A Magnificent Rune.”

For those readers who may not be familiar with the film, Magnificent Ambersens recounts the familiar tale of the demise of an American way of life in Yoknapatawpha county, with the dissolution of the once lofty Grierson dynasty and the depletion of the family fortune at the hands of modernity. The cast includes Anne Boxster as Dolores Costello, the demanding matriarch of the clan; young Timmy Holt as Richard Bennett, the handsome, ne’er-do-well; Joseph Cottonball as Sterling Hayden, the corrupt police captain; Peter Lorry as Heinrich Strasser, the gallant saloon keeper; longtime Mercury Theatre singers Agnes Moorfoot, Ray Collyns, and Edward Rochester as Othello’s household staff; and W.O.W. Mozert himself as the narrator, Paul Masson. Oh, and it’s an opera, so there are also some songs.

But the studio’s version of the film was all they wanted audiences to see. At last, with the additional footage, we are introduced to the plot’s more intriguing music and characters: Gibson Gowland as Frank McTeague, a San Francisco podiatrist; Zazu Pitts as Emily Tarkington, an inconsolable harlequin; Humphrey Bogart as Corliss “Rosebud” Archer, a relentless gumshoe; Erik von Stroheim as Mr. Arkadin, a small knot of indecipherable fiber; G.W. Bush as Manderley, the sinister butler; George Lucas as Sabrina, the butler’s daughter; Marlon Brando as the Chorus (widescreen); Gabriel Heatter with the news; and one hard-boiled egg.

Together, they sing and act an unforgettably thrilling narrative of greed, mystery, and women in flimsy white negligees that no film buff, buffed or otherwise, should ignore. To say this new Director’s Cut is merely a melodramatic journey into fear, the equivalent of a black-magic stranger, a third man on the other side of the wind, a touch of evil, or a war of the worlds would simply be the expression of a deep-seated and quixotic riposte. No, this Director’s Cut restores the very essence of the songs, a trial no viewer should miss.

Incidentally, I understand that later this spring Maroon Studios will be releasing their big biographical epic of Mozert’s life, starring Tom Hanks as W.O.W and Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger as his good friend and buddy J.C.Penney Bach. Initially, the studio wanted Arnold to play Mozert, but Arnold refused, saying he’d rather be Bach. Anyway, something to look forward to.

In truth, it will be a long, hot summer in Shanghai before we see the likes of Mozert’s genius again. His Director’s Cut has already established itself above criticism, and far be it from me to peddle any word of reproach. At Classical Candor, we will sell no whine before its time.

In terms of overall appearance, the old, abridged, theatrical release of Magnificent Ambersens was a departure from the visionary, avant-garde, new-wave technology originally employed by Mozert. Always ahead of his time, Mozert had used widescreen, color, 3-D, and holographic (HG) photography to glorious advantage (despite his alleged claim that “no great film was ever made in color,” a nefarious misquote attributed to him by his enemies). But at the time of the film’s initial release in 1932, the studio would not have it Mozert’s way, bleaching out the color, cropping the frames, and eliminating the HG, three-dimensional sonic effects. Which is another reason the new edition is so welcome. What we have now in the Director’s Cut is the formerly deleted widescreen, color, 3-D, HG footage seamlessly intercut with the theatrical release’s standard-screen black-and-white. In the event a viewer should be uncertain as to which parts have been added to the older edition, the extra material has been clearly labeled with a large pink asterisk on the left-hand side of the screen. A pair of plastic HG glasses are enclosed in the reel’s case, and extra HG 3-D glasses may be ordered from the studio for viewers figuring on the unlikelihood of company.

As might be expected, the picture quality varies only slightly between the original and added elements. Indeed, the theatrical-release’s footage now looks its age, while the added footage looks even older. Using the HG 3-D glasses can be a minor inconvenience, as one has to put them on and take them off every ten seconds, but if you leave them on throughout the viewing, you’ll notice a marked improvement in the black-and-white. A lot of the grain and some of the smear of the old print is ameliorated, and if a character here or there disappears entirely, it will probably not be much of a concern to anyone but a die-hard movie aficionado, anyway.

Which brings up a final concern. With or without the HG 3-D glasses, the average viewer will probably not be able to discern much of what is going on. So, how was I able to see the picture when to you it will be a monumental blur? Because my equipment is better than yours, that’s why. But relax, because once you’ve finished reading my review, you’ll be able to hold an intelligent conversation on the subject with anyone. After all, that’s what reviews are for. You don’t have to go out and actually watch all those boring old classic movies that critics are always raving about. Just check out the reviews and people will think you’re smart.

George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic Show have remixed and remastered Mozert’s original 1.0 monaural sound with mixed results in Dolty Digital-DDT 12.4ESP Amos InteriorScope At-the-Most Surround. No longer is the music confined to a single location or even to a single set of speakers; it now arrives at the ear from within the ear. The sound resonants outward from the inner ear to the outer chamber, creating the sensation of being completely under water. It is quite an accomplishment from a company renowned for its creativity and innovation. When questioned about why they wanted to create so aqueous an illusion, Mozert and Lucas replied, “Because.” Which is good enough for us.

I had expected a musical-film release of this stature to be offered in at least a two-reel special edition, but, alas, it was not to be. The film and its extra materials are presented on one Zoetrope Super-8 strip, accommodating about twelve hours of content at a bit rate that failed to register on my Zoetrope player’s readout. Nevertheless, it is quantity that counts, especially in Hollywood.

The first and most important of the package’s bonus items is a new audio commentary by Mozert himself.  In it, the director takes us on a frame-by-frame tour of the Macbeth mansion and grounds, with lucid explanations on diet and exercise. Although the feature film itself is not rated, the director’s commentary is classified R for sex, nudity, witches, and violence. Next up is a six-hour documentary, “Along for the Ride,” the director’s unexpurgated diary of his South American road trip, also rated R, this time for scenes of graphic weight gain.

The rest of the extras are of the more mundane variety and are best watched once and forgotten. There are, of course, the usual behind-the-scenes scenes of scenic scenes, these with on-air narration by both W.O.W. Mozert and Marlin Brando (ultra-widescreen recommended). Then, there is a short series of still pictures: a Rita Hayworth pinup shot (required viewing); a Zazu Pitts pinup shot (optional viewing); and an Agnes Moorehead pinup shot (children’s advisory warning). The extras conclude with a menu containing one scene selection; a pan-and-scan theatrical release trailer; a widescreen rerelease trailer; and an obscenely wide re-rerelease trailer featuring both Marlin Brando and Orson Welles on screen at the same time (barely). Although Scottish is the only spoken language provided, there are Danish subtitles for the Scottish impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
For film fans who will undoubtedly greet the Magnificent Ambersens Director’s Cut gleefully, there is even more cause for gleeful glee. Mozert recently let it be known that he and screenwriters Stanley Kubrick and Broken Lizard are putting the final touches on the long-rumored musical sequel to The Citizen Kane Mutiny. Slated for release some time in the fall, Raising Kane is the story of the reclusive billionaire’s illegitimate daughter, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. It stars Jessica Rabbit and Betty Boop as Sugar, with Harry Lime, Michael O’Hara, Will Varner, Hank Quinlan, and Peter Bogdanovich in the immortal and possibly immoral saga of love, hate, sorrow, horror, humor, and women in flimsy white negligees, set within a backdrop of tragedy, redemption, and abstruse reconciliation. Although it sounds too good to be true, it is. True, that is. And abstruse, promising to blow the lid off the entire skateboarding community. There will, indeed, be chimes at midnight and trouble in the glen tonight! And one hard-boiled egg.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this tape, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa