March 8, 2014 by smumcounty
“The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, is the story of a great American family in decline. The story of a family unwilling or unable to ride the winds of change to a new life and so destined to be overwhelmed by those forces of change. It’s a bittersweet story because it so beautifully depicts life at the turn of the century, a life which must have been pretty fine if you were lucky enough to have been a member of the upper class.
The film begins with a voice over by director Orson Welles in that beautiful, resonant, baritone of his. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the film where, within a few minutes of screen time, he introduces us to the family. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he begins and then goes on to conjure an image of life at that time through a description of its quaint customs.
He then goes on to demonstrate the slight forces of change that were working even then by describing the changes in style of the well dressed man.
Throughout this description Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) is presented dutifully demonstrating the changes in fashion as he switches hats and breezes in and out of overcoats. Welles then goes on to describe the time-honored custom of serenading a young lady in which Eugene is shown getting drunk and putting his “foot through the bass fiddle” thus embarrassing Isabel Anderson (Dolores Costello), the young lady of his affections. Oddly enough this indiscretion has a profound influence on the history of the Amberson family for it is what causes Isabel to change her affections from Eugene to Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway) who she eventually ends up marrying. This causes one gossiping biddy of the town to make an ominous premonition, “…she’ll be a good wife to him. But they’ll have the worst spoiled lot of children this town will ever see…She couldn’t love Wilbur, could she? Well, it’ll all go to her children, and she’ll ruin them.” And here we’re introduced to the hero of our story (or at least its protagonist) in the body of young George Minafer, Isabel’s only child.
George is such a bad little boy, Welles tells us, that, “There were people, grown people they were, who expressed themselves longingly. They did hope to live to see the day, they said, when that boy would get his comeuppance.” George goes away to college and comes back no wiser and still a bad, now grown, boy. For his return, Isabel gives a grand party in his honor. “Cards were out for a ball in his honor, and this pageant of the tenantry was the last of the great long-remembered dances that everybody talked about.” This is the end of the voice over introduction and the film proper begins with the fabulous Amberson ball.
The ball is a wonderful scene where we are introduced to the entire Amberson clan and supporting players including Isabel’s father, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), Isabel’s brother, Jack Amberson (Ray Collins), and Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead), Wilbur’s sister. Eugene Morgan also attends the party with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Eugene has returned to town after a twenty year absence. He is a recent widower who has had some luck in the new automobile industry. George takes an instant liking to Lucy and an instant dislike to her father. It’s made clear in this scene that Eugene has become a symbol of change in the world and a forward thinker. He’s determined to ride the wave of change and overtake it before it overtakes him. When Jack sees him dancing with Isabel he comments that old times certainly are starting over again. Eugene replies, “Old times. Not a bit. There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.”
The next day Isabel, Jack, Fanny, and Eugene go on a ride through the snow in his newfangled automobile while George and Lucy do the same in a horse drawn sleigh. When the automobile breaks down, George and Lucy glide by with a taunting “Buy a horse!” only to have the sleigh tip over on the next bend throwing its passengers into the snow and causing the horse to run home. George and Lucy are forced to get a ride back with the rest after the automobile gets a push courtesy of George who has to eat engine smoke while doing so. This scene ends with an old-fashioned (yes, even for 1942) iris in to the departing horseless carriage and marks the beginning of the end for the Ambersons. In the next scene, George’s father, Wilbur Minafer, dies suddenly, a possible victim of worries about his investments.
Eugene would like to pickup his courtship of Isabel where it left off so many years before and Isabel is more than willing to have him do so but George won’t allow it. He’s never liked Eugene and he worries too much about what people will think of his mother remarrying. There is a wonderful voice over from Eugene reading a letter he has composed for Isabel to try to convince her to choose her happiness over that of her son’s.
George has no power over Isabel except what she gives him but she can deny her only child nothing and she agrees to give Eugene up. This decision is yet another small step that serves to seal the Ambersons’ fate.
Isabel goes away with George to Europe where they live for the next few years until Isabel takes ill and comes back home to be near her father. At this time, Eugene tries once more to see Isabel but George once more refuses him. Eugene tries to push past George but Fanny and Jack tell him that it would be best if he were to return later since Isabel is so weak, and he reluctantly relents. The shot of George watching through the window as Eugene departs is masterful. We see the exterior long shot of Eugene walking across the street with George’s face reflected by the window in close-up. Unfortunately for Eugene, he has missed his last chance to see Isabel since she dies the next day.
At this point, the downfall of the Amberson family occurs with great suddenness. Isabel’s father, Major Amberson, slips into senility and later dies leaving nothing of the depleted estate to his family, a victim of the Major’s and Wilbur’s bad investments. The great Amberson mansion has to be sold and the family is left to fend for themselves financially. Brother Jack leaves town to seek a new job promising to send money back as fast as they give it to him. George gets a position as an apprentice in a law firm hoping to make enough to support himself and his Aunt Fanny but when discussing his finances with Fanny he realizes that the eight dollars a week he would bring home won’t be enough to pay for the boarding house that Fanny has her heart set on. He meets with the head of the law firm, Benson, to whom he was apprenticed and asks if he can find him a position somewhere that they pay more for doing dangerous work, like at a dynamite factory, working with dangerous chemicals. “You certainly are the most practical young man I ever met,” Benson declares at the end of their interview, certainly a far cry from the spoiled young man whose only ambition was to become a yachtsman.
As George walks home after the meeting, we see images of a much changed town. Telephone poles have sprung up. Electrical wires run everywhere. The voice over from Welles now picks up to document George’s downfall.
(We see George, alone now in the old house, kneel at the side of Isabel’s bed to beg her for forgiveness.)
In the following scene, we see the aftermath of a car accident in which the George is the victim. He’s broken both of his legs and ends up in the hospital. Eugene learns of his fate and he and Lucy decide to go to visit him in his hospital room. The last scene of the film is of Eugene leaving George’s hospital room and meeting Fanny. They walk down the corridor as Eugene tells Fanny, “…it seemed to me as if someone else was in that room. And that through me, she brought her boy under shelter again, and that I’d been true at last to my true love.” By which we can assume that Eugene will share some of his good fortune with the Amberson family.
The film then ends with the closing credits but with a twist. The credits are spoken by Welles. He begins with the main technical credits, cinematographer, set designer, wardrobe, etc. He then introduces each of the main members of the cast and closes with “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production.” Welles said the choice of the spoken credits was influenced by his previous work in radio. I much prefer them to the voluminous credits we have today.
I love “The Magnificent Ambersons” first for its wistful recreation of a bygone era before the hustle and bustle of the modern age. You don’t have to have lived through a period to be nostalgic for it and that’s how I feel when I watch this film. I also love the characters in this film. The love affair between Eugene and Isabel is charming. Eugene is such a good, sensible man that you root for him to find happiness. George is spoiled but he so firmly gets his comeuppance at the end that you have to feel sorry for him. Agnes Moorehead is wonderful as Fanny. She is at turns conniving and hysterical but Moorehead still makes you feel for this lonely woman. It’s not surprising that her performance earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Finally, this film is just so utterly beautiful; so many of the scenes shot in the mansion can be frozen and framed as works of art which stand on their own. This is largely due to the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. Cortez used low-key lighting to paint with light like Rembrandt or Caravaggio, lighting only a portion of a face so deep shadows engulf the rest or silhouetting an outline against a lit background. That, combined with deep focus which Welles also used in “Citizen Kane” makes this one of the more beautiful black and white films you’ll ever see. This is especially noticeable in the mansion scenes during the ball. There are some long takes where the camera glides through the crowd following first one character and then the next which are really striking. These tracking shots were meant to be one continuous shot but unfortunately when the film was reedited, the middle portion of the shot was removed.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” had a very troubled post-production. Welles’ original cut of the film came in at 153 minutes and preview audiences were unhappy with the downbeat theme of the film. The studio for the film, RKO, fearing a flop, decided to make some drastic cuts in hopes of salvaging what it thought to be a sure-loser of a film. Welles had contractually ceded final cut of Ambersons to RKO in earlier contract negotiations so he had little control over the changes. To make matters worse, Welles was in Brazil at the time the changes were made, working on another film for RKO which Nelson Rockefeller had personally asked him to make as part of the war-time Good Neighbor Policy. So he had very little input on the recut of the film. RKO excised more than 40 minutes from the film, bringing the running time down to a mere 88 minutes and reshot Welles original ending which the studio considered too downbeat. The original ending has Eugene meeting Fanny at her boarding house after his visit to George’s hospital room. The dialog of the original scene is virtually the same as that of the studio’s reshoot but the tone is very different with Fanny appearing lonely and destitute. A detailed listing of the cuts from Welles’ original version of the film can be found at the film’s Wikipedia page.
Since “The Magnificent Ambersons” was Welles’ second film, coming only a year after his masterpiece “Citizen Kane”, many feel that Ambersons in its original state could have been a much greater film than what the altered version is now considered to be. But I’m not so sure. It’s interesting to think what a young Welles would have been capable of at the height of his filmmaking powers. But even in its altered state it is still a moving and beautiful film. The last scene of the film, certainly feels like a tacked on happy ending but it is still satisfying. Maybe I just like happy endings. Still, for as much as Kane is a masterpiece, I would much rather watch “The Magnificent Ambersons”.
Fun fact: the newspaper that Eugene reads to learn of the accident involving George contains an article in the upper left corner entitled “Stage News” by Jed Leland the character Joseph Cotten played in “Citizen Kane” accompanied by a picture of Leland.
The Magnificent Amberson’s Opening
George gets his comeuppance