The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) Director: Orson Welles
Released just after Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is a powerful film that is beautifully shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez and narrated by Orson Welles. The story is based on Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of the same name published in 1918, the second novel to ever win the Pulitzer – you can review my reflections on the novel here. Welles originally narrated the story for one of his radio programs in 1939.
Tragically, just before release the film was significantly cut and revised by RKO. Welles was distraught, as more than an hour of the film footage was cut and destroyed, and a new ending was added in attempt to leave audiences with a positive and hopeful ending. Just before the release of the film Welles was personally asked by Nelson Rockefeller to make a movie in Latin America. He was in Brazil as part of the wartime “Good Neighbor Policy” at the behest of Rockefeller and President Roosevelt, while RKO was busy revising and re-shooting certain scenes of his film. The Magnificent Ambersons was nominated for four Academy Awards, unlike Citizen Kane. The film is considered one of the greatest ever made, though it earned a substantial loss at the box office.
It tells the story of the fabulously wealthy Amberson family, local aristocrats in a mid-western town (based on Indianapolis). The lady of the family, Isabel Amberson (played by Dolores Costello), rejects an offer for courtship from Eugene Morgan, and instead she chooses the boring Wilber Minafer. Together they have a spoiled child, George (played by Tim Holt, a B Western film star who also appeared in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a hell-raiser around town. Neighbors and friends grow tired of “Georgie” and they look forward to one day when he gets his “comeuppance.” George returns home from college to one of the last great balls hosted by the Ambersons, and he falls in love with Lucy, (played by Anne Baxter) while at the same time ridiculing her father, Eugene Morgan (played by Joseph Cotten who appeared in other Welles films, like Citizen Kane), a burgeoning automobile magnate and widower who is back in town after a 20 year hiatus. Eugene is the lead investor in the new “horseless carriage,” device. The next day George and Lucy tumble out of a carriage and they are picked up by Eugene in his automobile, much to the frustration of George.
George returns to college but soon after his father, Wilber, dies and the Amberson family investments have largely gone sour. Lucy rejects George’s proposal for marriage, but meanwhile George has found his mother and Eugene are smitten with one another. Frustrated, George turns Eugene away, and he and his mother decide to travel indefinitely in Europe until she falls seriously ill and they return to Indianapolis, but George does not allow Eugene to be in the presence of his mother. Soon, George’s mother dies and George realizes the distraught order of his family’s wealth. He goes to work at a law firm, but then in order to receive a higher income, he takes a more dangerous job. He is forced to sell the old Amberson mansion and move into an apartment with his Aunt Fanny. Suddenly one day he is hit by a car and both of his legs are broken -his comeuppance has finally arrived though no one is around from the old days to witness his downfall.
The heavily edited ending scene shows a scene of reconciliation between Eugene Morgan who had just reconciled with George. Filming took place in and around Los Angeles, and the large Amberson mansion was constructed with mobile walls to allow cameras to move through and film scenes. It later served as the set for low budget RKO horror films. Bernard Herrmann completed a delightful score for the film, but sadly it too fell under the RKO knife. He threatened legal action if his name was not removed from the film.
The Magnificent Ambersons is an extraordinary feat of somber nostalgia, and despite the hack-job from RKO, it is still a beautiful albeit heavy film. We can only surmise what might have been had they left Welles’s original shots and Herrmann’s original score untouched. Orson Welles is the larger than life, grandiose, director, actor and narrator. He is one of my favorite directors of all time. Actress Agnes Moorehead, who played Fanny Minafer, later recalled on the Dick Cavett Show how Orson Welles was one of the most exciting and creative to work for! The Magnificent Ambersons comes highly recommended to lovers of classic cinema. It is a wonderful follow-up to one of the great films of the 20th century, Citizen Kane.