- Director: Orson Welles
- Writers: Orson Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington
- Starring: Joseph Cotten, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Don Dillaway, and Orson Welles
- Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#82), 4 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress – Agnes Moorehead, Best Cinematography – B&W, Best Art Direction – B&W)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
The Magnificent Ambersons was Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, on his two-movie contract at RKO Pictures that lured him away from New York. It is less seen and less talked about today than its more famous predecessor, but there is a significant number of people who think it is as good as Kane, if not better. Even Roger Ebert, a major defender of the movie, would admit that “it’s not as exciting as Kane,” but he may have seen that as a feature, not a bug. The real problem with The Magnificent Ambersons is that the version of the movie that we have today is decidedly not anything close to Welles’ original.
Faced with a movie well over two hours long (at a time when very few movies were), where things get worse and worse for the main characters until the movie ends, RKO cut an hour out of the movie while Welles was in South America making a documentary at the request in the US Government during World War II. They also re-shot the ending without Welles’ permission (under the supervision of future West Side Story and The Sound of Music director Robert Wise), tacking on a couple of scenes that give the story a somewhat inexplicable and entirely tone deaf happy ending. The original cut of the movie was later destroyed to make vault space. Supposedly RKO sent a copy of the original to South America at Welles’ request so he could work on it, but nobody today has any idea what happened to it. It is one of the great missing pieces in film history.
My opinion is that the people who profess love of The Magnificent Ambersons are in love with the movie they’re imagining as opposed to the movie they actually have. Even Welles criticized the studio version as “just a bunch of rich people fighting in a house,” and I’d say he’s basically right. Yet there is still so much here. Ebert called it “one the greatest ‘memory movies[,]’” and there’s something in that. There’s one bit where automobile pioneer Henry Morgan (Joseph Cotten, one of several Kane vets in the cast) says that there’s “no such thing as old times, old times are dead. All times are new times.” Yet this is a movie entirely about old times.
The title, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, is ironic. Except for that ending, this is a movie about the decline and fall of a major family of a small Midwestern town, the Ambersons, roughly over the time period of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Much moreso than Kane, it is a movie about what it was like to live through those times, made at a time when a good amount of people actually remembered. Booth Tarkington’s novel about the destruction wrought by the advent of modernity had won the Pulitzer Prize, and Welles seizes on the novel and, particularly, the advent of automobiles, as a sort of metaphor for society writ large.
Tim Holt (whose other best known role today is as Humphrey Bogart’s betrayed partner in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) plays the headstrong scion of the great Amberson family, George. He starts the movie romancing Morgan’s daughter, played by Anne Baxter (who would later play the title character in All About Eve), insisting that work in general is beneath him, and dismissing the automobile as a passing fad. In the last half-hour of the movie, the girl is laughing in his face when he tells her he’s leaving town, he’s giving up a possible job at a law firm to “work in a dangerous chemical factory” (because he needs a lot of money fast so he doesn’t lose the big family mansion), and wandering, shell-shocked, through his town to find that its bucolic, horse-filled streets have been replaced by factories and speeding automobiles.
The performance from this movie that many pick out as an all-timer is that of Agnes Moorehead (perhaps best known today to a mass audience for her appearances on Bewitched), as George’s “Aunt Fanny.” She’s pathetic, conniving, sympathetic, whining, spiteful, occasionally almost feral. She realizes before anyone else that it’s all falling apart, and can’t seem to convince anyone of it. There’s a famous scene near the end where she collapses with her back to a boiler, crying, “It’s not hot, it’s cold! They turned off the gas!” Earlier in the movie, a sort of “greek chorus” of gawkers marveled that the house had “hot and cold running water.”
I found one review that refers to Welles’ “legendary mise-en-scene” as a highlight of the movie, and they’re not wrong. His camera drifts through the Amberson mansion as it turns from spectacular into cavernous and haunted, traveling from conversation to conversation. The full house was built, with removable walls to allow for freer camera movement, and Welles takes full advantage. In one scene, George has a conversation from a second floor balcony with a couple of other characters in the Great Hall below. Then the camera tilts up to show that Aunt Fanny has been listening from the third floor. This is a moment that feels startlingly modern in a movie from 1942, not least because there was no way to do it without having the whole house built. This past week I watched the new Netflix release The Woman in the Window, directed by Joe Wright, in which he several times follows his lead actress Amy Adams from floor to floor of a house without cutting. Wright has the aid of CGI to piece together different sets if he needs it, but Ambersons feels like a transplanting of these modern techniques into an entirely different context.
Ambersons is a technically impressive movie, but not necessarily one that I find an emotional connection with. Its basic problem, for my perspective, goes back to what Welles said about it being “rich people fighting in a house.” Certainly Tarkington’s novel, and I think probably the movie too, wants us to lament the passing of this bucolic America. Cotten even gets a long, dramatic speech that “maybe you’re right, and I’ll come to believe the gasoline engine should never have been invented,” a clear reference to future wars and other destruction wreaked by modernization. But the essential failure of the movie, for me, is that it never comes close to getting me on board with this. It wants me to feel a sense of loss for the Ambersons and their world, but I’m left more with “Good riddance!”