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With: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Ray Collins, Richard Bennett, Erskine Sanford, Donald Dillaway, Orson Welles (narrator)
Written by: Orson Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 88
Date: 07/10/1942

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Family Slathering

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When watching Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons again, I can't help but be pulled in two directions. One is enthusiastically embracing the film for its beauty, poetry, brilliance, ingenuity, and greatness. The other is mourning the fact that the movie could yet have been still more.

As everyone knows by now, The Magnificent Ambersons, based on Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, was meant to be 131 minutes long. Welles has said that this version would have been better than even Citizen Kane. But as the film was going into post-production, Welles was hired by RKO to go to South America to make the documentary It's All True for the war effort. After he left, The Magnificent Ambersons was shown to test audiences, who mostly hated it. (This is due somewhat to the mood of the country during World War II.) RKO made editor Robert Wise cut it up and shoot new scenes, including the happy ending that's on the film today. (It was a fine debut for Wise, who went on to make films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Haunting.) The Magnificent Ambersons was cut down to 88 minutes, and the missing footage supposedly no longer exists anywhere. (I've heard a rumor that footage may exist in South America somewhere, but other documentation disputes that notion.)

The 88 minute version was released quietly, at the bottom half of a double bill with a Lupe Velez comedy, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. (This was to be the fate of nearly all of Welles' films.) Still and all, it was well received by a few brave critics, and it wound up with Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead).

The Magnificent Ambersons concerns Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), who, at the beginning of the film, rejects suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) after he drunkenly falls into his bass fiddle outside her window. Isabel gets married to the more respectable Mr. Minafer, and bears a child, George Minafer Amberson (Tim Holt), who is spoiled beyond belief. Everyone in town can't wait until George gets his comeuppance. Years later, Eugene shows up at a party with his beautiful daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter) to whom George takes a liking. Isabel's husband dies, and Eugene becomes a suitor again. George doesn't like this, and neither does his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who was in love with Eugene. George takes Isabel away on a round-the-world trip. When they return, Isabel is ill and on her deathbed. George is left penniless, having got his comeuppance at last.

One of Welles' favorite themes is aging -- looking back on the past with nostalgia, and noting how things change as one gets older. He opens The Magnificent Ambersons with a sequence showing the fashions and the wisdoms of the times. Everything moves slower, he tells us in his famous baritone narration. These sequences are all framed with a sort of discolored edge, like the brown edge of a faded photograph. (In one scene, Welles even manages to use an "iris-fade", in which the image fades to black around a circle that grows smaller and smaller, an effect that D.W. Griffith used in the silent days.) From that nostalgic starting point, everything slowly collapses. This is due to the invention of automobiles, with which Eugene is making his fortune. At one point, George berates Eugene about the automobile during dinner. Eugene counters with a melancholy speech about how right George is, and how the automobile will change men's souls. It's a great speech.

One of the best things about The Magnificent Ambersons is that Welles was still with a major studio and able to concentrate on the quality of sound that he was used to, coming from radio. In later Welles films, as his budgets got more and more minuscule, he was not able to put much effort or time into his sound, which is a shame. You can tell from The Magnificent Ambersons what an immense talent he was. Characters talk to each other from across cavernous rooms, and the character at the back of the room sounds different from the character in the front of the room. One scene that takes place outside in the snow has that strange dead, echo-y effect that you hear outside in the snow. And, of course, there's the overlapping dialogue that sounds much more real than characters waiting for each other to talk. (Welles had also done this in Citizen Kane, but Howard Hawks beat him to it by one year with 1940's His Girl Friday.)

Another of the film's great achievements is the fact that Welles was adapting a novel, but still made it look like an Orson Welles film. It was a meeting of minds -- an compromise of two styles. Most directors, even today, are afraid of making movies out of books for fear of alienating the fans of the books. They stay "faithful" to the printed page. They don't allow themselves the freedom to let the work be a blueprint and make it fly. So, we get films like Jude (based on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure), which seems more like a book-on-tape than a movie. The Magnificent Ambersons is Tarkington, and it is Welles.

Welles' touches include using the incredible Amberson mansion as a character in the story. He wraps it around the characters, using its ceilings and staircases for dramatic effect, rather than just backgrounds. In one scene, Isabel and her husband are having a fight, and we see George listening from the spiral staircase. The camera tilts upward, and Fanny is listening from a flight above, unbeknownst to George. The photography is by the brilliant Stanley Cortez (who went on to shoot classics like The Night of the Hunter and Shock Corridor). Cortez' work is all sharp and deep-focused. In Wise's re-shoots, you can see the plain, flat photography, and the out-of-focus backgrounds. After several viewings, they stick out like a sore foot.

The music is by the great Bernard Herrmann, although he took his name off the picture after RKO mucked with his work. I don't know exactly what they did, but the score works beautifully, and never draws attention to itself. It underscores the scene and gives a mood to the picture.

Agnes Moorehead gives one of the cinema's greatest performances as the spinster aunt Fanny. The scene at the boiler is especially memorable and heartbreaking. Realizing that they are broke, she collapses to the floor with her back to the boiler. George tells her to move. "It's not hot, it's cold," she rasps. She tells George that it was turned off. "Even if it were," she says, "I wouldn't care..." She loses her breath, inhales, and screeches, "I WOULDN'T CARE IF IT BURNED ME." That gives me the chills. (Moorehead lost the Oscar to Teresa Wright in Pride of the Yankees. Typical.)

The story of The Magnificent Ambersons is one of decline and darkness and sadness. But it is one of the movies' greatest works. If you've ever sat through Gone with the Wind or Giant or other such passionate soap operas, you can handle The Magnificent Ambersons. Watch it for its grace, poetry, astounding beauty, wizardry, and imagine that it could have been even more.

In 2018, at long last, the Criterion Collection released this film on new DVD and Blu-ray editions. For whatever reason, the last DVD release of this film by Warner Home Video was somewhat annoying, at first packaged only as part of an expensive Citizen Kane package, and then quickly gone out of print. At last it can be seen again, and in a lustrous transfer and uncompressed mono soundtrack. It's essential. Bonuses include two commentary tracks, featuring scholars Robert L. Carringer and James Naremore and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum; new interviews with film historians Simon Callow and Joseph McBride; a new video essay on the film’s cinematographers; new video essays by scholars François Thomas and Christopher Husted; Welles on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1970; a segment from a 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons; audio from a 1978 AFI symposium on Welles; audio interviews with Welles conducted by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; two Mercury Theatre radio plays: Seventeen and The Magnificent Ambersons, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes essays by Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem, and excerpts from an unfinished 1982 memoir by Welles.

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