The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!

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6 thoughts on “The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  1. I have a version of this movie that I copped from TCM. I will have to look at it again to see how complete it is and if the is any additional commentary by Robert Osbourne. Often times it is the back story of a film that makes it interesting enough to be on the list. Much like Erich Von Stroheim’s “Greed” which I had to capture from TCM, as well.

    There are a few that have just stopped me in my tracks and that I just HAVE NOT been able to find. Bruce Conner’s “Report” And Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” to name a couple. Although Welles’ “Chimes At Midnight” was one of them, the Euless Public Library actually borrowed a DVD copy from another library so I now have it. I was hoping to soon knock out all the Orson Welles library when I finally sit down to watch it.

    Great observations about Welles’ fondness of shadows.

  2. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

  3. I found that A&E produced a remake with a claim to have used Orson Welles’ original script. I just found it at the library and am bringing it home today. Stars Bruce Greenwood, Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell, Jonathan Rhys-Myers and Gretchen Mol. Not nearly as impressed in the casting as I am in the director. Alfonso Arau, who has directed “Like Water For Chocolate” and “A Walk In The Clouds” but I will always remember him as the Mexican General’s Lieutenant in “The Wild Bunch” Pleeease senor. Cut the fuse.

    • I’ve seen the box for the re-make but that’s as close as I’ve come to checking it out. Did you get a chance to watch it yet? How did it stand up? Unless you say otherwise, I’ll remain skeptical just on principle.

      • I watched it this weekend. It did take a little getting used to, especially with it being in color, but I must say they made great use of the color. Exceptionally extravagant sets seemed to glisten. As far as a period drama, it was pretty good. The hardest thing to get through for me was Jonathan Rhys Myers lack of accent (or do I mean his use of a midwestern spoiled rich American kid accent) that I am so used to hearing in his Henry VIII portrayal. Without the original comaprison to the Welles film I probably would not have been willing to watch it, but having seen it I have a greater appreciation for Arau’s work. Jennifer Tilly’s Aunt Fanny seemed to make more obvious the desire that she had for Eugene.

      • It looks like I’ll have to give it a watch then. I must admit that I am completely unaware of Mr. Arau’s body of work. Jennifer Tilly seems like a decidedly more desire prone actress than Agnes Moorehead, but perhaps that’s just the mis-conception I have. It’s going on the Netflix queue!

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