Magnificent Ambersons, The – US, 1942
For all of the indelible moments in The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, perhaps none of them is as memorable as a quick close-up of George Amberson Minafer with a look of utter disbelief on his face. He simply cannot believe his ears. In his befuddled expression, we can almost hear the inner gasps of incredulity. Me? Push a horseless carriage? It goes against every fiber of his being, and he seems more than ready to remind the man who dared to give him such a request that he is an Amberson. In fact, I have no doubt he would say much more than that if a certain young lady were not sitting in the back seat. But she is there, and so George acquiesces begrudgingly and suffers rather mightily as clouds of exhaust assault his nose and eyes. The moment perfectly captures George Amberson Minafer.
The Ambersons are the pride of the town – wealthy, respected, and powerful. They also seem to be rather nice folks, their only vice, it seems, being pride. The slightest mistake is all that it takes for a grudge to begin. So when a young man named Eugene Morgan slips and breaks his musical instrument during an attempted moonlight serenade of Isabel Amberson, Isabel feels thoroughly embarrassed and moves on to Wilbur Minafer. The two of them eventually marry and have a son, that being George, of course. At a party years later, Isabel and Eugene reunite, and both of them seem perfectly thrilled at how strong their connection is after all of these years. At the same party, George meets a young woman named Lucy who completely sweeps him off his feet. Their long conversation as they journey through the enormous ballroom of the Amberson estate is one of the most believable scenes in which two people meet and instantly click that I’ve ever seen.
Like Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane, George Minafer is a man whose destiny seems tied to the actions of his mother. However, unlike Kane’s mother, whose actions created in him the need to be loved by everyone, Isabel, through her overindulgence of George’s faults and her overprotective nature, instills in George a sense of entitlement. In a rather telling scene early in the film, we watch as George rides his carriage roughshod through town. It says something that he is dressed in clothes befitting a British lord in the scene. Years later, he’ll pronounce that it is his goal in life to be a yachtsman. He seems more interested in adventure than work.
At its core, The Magnificent Ambersons is about the inevitability of change, regardless of how welcome or unwelcome that change is. In the film’s opening scene, the film’s narrator (Orson Welles) paints the audience a picture of a simpler time, one in which people had the opportunity to ponder the right style hat to wear or which shoes matched which season. It was a time when people could take afternoon carriage rides with their sweethearts during the spring and embark on wondrous sleigh rides in the winter. Technology, it seems, changed all of that. In the film, the technological achievement that brings about change is the motorized carriage, which soon became the automobile, but it could just as easily be the cellular phone or the Internet, for as Welles tells us, technology seems to make us get places faster, but have more to do. In essence, it takes away our time when it is supposed to do the opposite.
In The Magnificent Ambersons, we are presented with a story that was likely repeated all over the United States, if not the world, in the early twentieth century, the advancing of machines and the resistance of those who recognized their potential for destruction. The changes that have taken place by the end of the film may have been unavoidable, but they are startling nonetheless. In an interesting montage, Welles shows us how the skyline changes from vast to congested and how the sky itself goes from being clear to being filled with smoke from factories and automobiles. However, there are other forms of resistance that have equally devastating consequences to the characters in the film, in particular, pride and the unfortunate things people are willing to do in the name of preserving it. It is this pursuit that proves most damaging to Isabel and Eugene.
Like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons has some incredibly beautiful moments. In one of the most touching, a character remembers standing at a train station years earlier with the woman he loved as they said what they both thought were temporary good-byes. In another, we watch as a young lady’s wide smile fades into a look of sorrow, as she wishes the man she loves well on his travels. She knows that she may never see him again. And in one of the saddest moments, a lonely single woman acknowledges that all that is holding her together is her attachment to a man whom she knows does not love her.
The back story behind the version of The Magnificent Ambersons that exists today is well known, perhaps even more known that the film itself. RKO Pictures seized control of the film and edited it without Welles’s input. It then apparently burned the footage that was edited out, thus leaving the world with the version we have today instead of Welles’s original vision. I suspect that much of what was removed was part of the film’s second act, for that part of the film, especially the last twenty minutes, feels rushed, especially given the masterful pace of the first half. In the second half, events unravel incredibly quickly. There are fleeting references to the Amberson’s fortune having been lost, and one member of the Amberson clan appears to have gone crazy by the end of the film. The latter event seems particularly unexplained, and the scene is odd to say the least. In addition, George’s aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) goes from jealous to conniving to remorseful in hardly any time at all, and the result of this is that her character seems more mentally unstable than unnerved by jealousy and fear. I also have a feeling that Welles may have intended for the film to end differently, for while Citizen Kane ended at exactly the right spot, the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons is both startling and abrupt.
Having said that, there is no mistaking the fact that The Magnificent Ambersons remains a powerful and beautiful film, one full of memorable moments, terrific performances, and complicated situations. Joseph Cotton is a delight as Eugene Morgan, and Tim Holt excels as George Amberson Minafer. He succeeds in making the character both frustrating and sympathetic. Anne Baxter, here in her sixth film, also deserves kudos for her wonderful performance as the object of George’s affection, Lucy Morgan. It is hard to believe that The Magnificent Ambersons was the last film that Orson Welles directed for a major studio. (on DVD in Region 1 and 3)
*The Magnificent Ambersons was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Film. It lost to Mrs. Miniver.
*Orson Welles was not nominated for Best Director.