film

Old School Review: Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)

Written and directed by Orson Welles with additional direction by Fred Fleck and Robert Wise, and additional script work by Joseph Cotten and Jack Moss in Welles’ absence, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a familial epic designed as a Shakespearian Tragedy set across several decades as the Ambersons chart their course in matters both historical and intimate. This being Orson Welles’ second feature after the powerhouse debut of “Citizen Kane”, known derisively in Hollywood at the time as “The Boy Wonder”, Welles was riding high after a decade of proving his naysayers wrong and possibly il-advised, he may have thought himself invincible, capable of the impossible even. This film however, was where his fracture with the studio system in Hollywood was forged, he never fully regained his artistic control within this system going forward. After digging into the story of the making of the film, I’ve found it to be a fascinating look into mistakes made by both the Hollywood executives, fearful of financial ruin after “Citizen Kane”, revolutionary as it was, didn’t make nearly enough profit to continually invest in the artistic whims of a supposed ‘boy genius’, and the mistakes made by Welles himself thinking that he could do it all. I’ve linked below this article to a story that Vanity Fair wrote on the entirety of the subject that I highly recommend for anyone seeking to understand the broader scope of it all, but for now, I’ll get back to the film at hand.

The story, while it remains an ensemble at it’s core, mostly follows the life and actions of George Minafer (Tim Holt) the son of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Though the inciting incident of the whole story begins with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) as a young man partaking in the dying tradition of romantic youth at the time, the serenade. A mishap with Eugene accidentally falling over his cello and smashing it to bits in the yard of the Ambersons, as he had hoped to take the hand of Isabel in song, immediately dashed his chances of any serious courtship as this made him a social outcast in the town. So, he took his heartbreak and funneled his ambitions into his invention of the automobile instead. Flash forward twenty years or so and Morgan returns to town with his burgeoning automobile business in fruition and a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), as he’s found himself an inventor and a widower. In that time Isabel had bore a petulant and insufferable child with Wilbur, a man she did not truly love, which harbored in young George a fiery and combative spirit. Young George was seen by the whole town as an annoying brat that they’d all like to see get the stuffing walloped out of him. Thus we have a lead character who’s unanimously seen as a blight on the town’s citizenry, and yet throughout the film we’re given moments and scenes in which the character’s complexity is hinted at, he’s not entirely a character that experiences sucess at every corner, but one that slowly eeks into abscurity in life, but most painfully, in love as well. Though, I have to say, he’s a character who’s earned a tragic end despite the upbeat studio enforced ending that we got. Which is that he’s ironically run over by an automobile, resulting only in a couple of broken legs with Eugene visiting him in the hospital in the last scene, hurridely conveying an off-screen resolved understanding between the two that belies the last half of the film’s path to tragedy. Which is the crux of the issue of this film. While broadly adequately telling the tale of the Ambersons and the notion of the erosion of family and tradition, this altered version of the film that we’ve got feels like it’s pulling its punches.

Even in this form, the film showcases Welles’ skill in framing, blocking, camera movement and his pioneering of ‘Deep-focus’ onscreen. There’s a lot to enjoy here even if the film does indeed feel the absence of those forty minutes cut from its runtime. The film still does hold onto it’s notion of being ‘an epic’ even though its 88 minutes feel at odds with the story at hand. You can tell that there’s something missing, but the overall decline of the Ambersons family is intact, if not as biting as it could be. The last scene in particular feels one-hundred percent at odds with the last half of the film narratively speaking. It still works, but nowhere near as well as you might expect from Welles- which makes the Studio’s cuts that much more obvious. When looking back at this film, especially alongside his later film in “Chimes at Midnight”, Welles seems indeed to be a man in love with the romanticized past. The opening of this film brilliantly showcases this notion as Welles narrates over the way of life that had benefitted the Amberson family so greatly in the late 1800’s. As we’re shown men changing their fashion styles in a large mirror over the seasons as they pass Welles narrates the seemingly increasing speed at which life was (and still is) accelerating. “Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spareā€¦.In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year’s, and all-day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade.” Throughout this he’s darkened the corners of the frames and made this sequence feel as though you were thumbing through old sepia-toned family photographs, a nostalgic and anxiety inducing look at the harrowing speed of humanity and its changing ways, which is more constant than we perceive it to be.

While the film isn’t what it could have been, I would still recommend a viewing of it. The performances, truncated they may be, are an idication of Welles evolving direction after ‘Kane‘. I also can’t forget to mention Agnes Moorehead as ‘Aunt Fanny’, she has some of the most playful and heartbreaking scenes with Tim Holt’s George throughout the film. Welles choosing not to impart his own performance as any of the leading characters allowed the audience to more aptly connect with them, or against them, on their own terms. Welles is all over the film in parts, but his bravado and presence would probably have taken away from the ensemble nature of the film, which I do believe was a wise choice. Though I have to admit the production design of the mansion itself, and the gliding, inventive, camera-work stole most of my attention the first time around. For the record, I do not believe that this film is better than “Citizen Kane” as some have come to say in recent decades, it’s a fine film- but just as almost every other film of the twentieth century, it’s no “Citizen Kane”.

Final Score: 2 Broken Legs

For an in-depth look into the history of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and it’s original edit’s status as film’s ‘Holy Grail’ of undiscovered glory, check out this article by Vanity Fair:

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2010/04/magnificent-obsession-200201

Here’s also another essay about the whole affair that appeared on The Criterion Collection’s ‘The Current’:

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6061-what-is-and-what-might-have-been