The Magnificent Ambersons

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The Magnificent Ambersons starts the long and tragic tradition of studio interference with the films of Orson Welles.  Some mark The Magnificent Ambersons above Citizen Kane, and maybe I could see that if the film hadn’t been tampered with. The Magnificent Ambersons is a good film, but it feels like something is missing (like maybe forty or so minutes of footage, for instance).

In the newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane, the announcer observes that “Kane’s world now is history. The great yellow journalist himself lived to be history. Outlived his power to make it…” That comment sets up The Magnificent Ambersons very well. The film deals with the Amberson family’s fall from grace, against a backdrop of the industrial revolution and the invention of the automobile. The film starts with a prologue, describing how respected and influential the Ambersons were. It also shows how Isabel Amberson (Doloros Costello) was embarrased by the drunken antics of the boy she loved, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), and so married a more conventional and more boring man. They have a son, George Minafer (Tim Holt), who grows up to be spoiled and obnoxious, which comes as no surprise to the townspeople. After George is grown, Morgan returns triumphantly as the inventor of a new type of automobile. He tries to pick up where he’s left off with Isabel (both of their spouses are now dead), but George with the help of his Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), put a stop to that. George also falls for Morgan’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), but the two are not a very good match. Adding gravitas to this tale of a dying family is Orson Welles himself as the narrator.

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Crowther in the Times’ review remarks that the film is incredibly well done, but its main character is not worth the examination Welles puts into him. I see where he’s coming from. George is a terrible person, but not in a great or interesting way. He’s petty and small, and crushes the happiness of those around him because he’s an Amberson and therefore he can. He’s very easily understood, not having much dimension to speak of. The film still has a lot to offer besides George being a jerk.

In the background, there is a tortured romance. Isabel and Eugene should have gotten married in the first place, and paid the price for their mistake in George. Isabel is very devoted to her only child; it’s heartbreaking to see a grown woman be deprived of her greatest happiness because her son is worried what everyone else will think. Added to this is the desperate scheming of Aunt Fanny, who always loved Eugene even back in the day. Unlike George, she comes across as very sympathetic because she has an actual motive for doing what she is doing. She is a sad and lonely woman acting out of desperation, while George is just petty and mean.

Arguably the greatest part of this movie is the Amberson mansion. Characters are often shown speaking to each other from different floors, visually demonstrating power relationships in the film.  The mansion is crowded and ornate, giving a real sense of affluence and luxury. The mansion, more than anything else, shows how powerful the Ambersons were. This is contrasted later in the film with smokestacks and factories crowding the town, showing a different kind of social power than the Ambersons had, one that is more forceful and direct.

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The main problem with this film is that it’s so short. We’re supposed to be taking in the slow decline of a powerful family, overrun by the industrial age. This type of exploration takes time, for no other reason than if it’s over too quickly it doesn’t feel that important. It starts out as if it is supposed to be an epic, there are constant references to the passage of time and the changes in the social climate, putting the Ambersons on a large stage. But it’s over too soon. It’s basically the same problem I had with the old Scarface vs. the new one; the new one’s longer so it just feels more important. With epics scope is everything, but this film only goes about halfway. Also, a lot of the events don’t seem to connect very well. The film is never unintelligible, it just feels like its skipping around to singular events without showing all of the events that motivated them.

Though the cuts significantly hurt it (at least as far as anyone can tell, as we can’t see what the film would have been like without them), The Magnificent Ambersons is a worthwhile film. The acting is good (Moorehead is a standout), Welles’ style is as interesting as always, his narration also lends a lot to the picture, and there several very very good scenes. It doesn’t quite add up to a great film, but it does add up to an incredibly interesting one.

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“George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
The Best Picture Project review

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2 responses to “The Magnificent Ambersons

  1. Nice review. I feel that The Magnificent Ambersons (or at least the first half) is as powerful as Kane. I keep hearing rumors that there might be a full print in Brazil, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like Welles’ original vision will ever be screened.

    • Thanks! I personally cannot put it up there with Kane, just because Kane himself is so much more of an interesting character than anyone in this film. Welles’ attitude towards his subject and the society at large is great here, but in Kane you also have that plus a better story. Of course the original film may have been able to change my mind, but as it stands, that’s my opinion.
      Yeah I read about that a bit as well; would be great if somebody found it, but I’m not holding my breath!

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