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People may initially be thrown by the title MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Some
consider it a stuffy period piece before seeing it if they know only of
novel. Don't make this mistake if you have not witnessed this cinematic
milestone. The title, of course, is caustic and refers to the 19th
family sarcastically. Who else but the great Orson Welles could follow up
masterwork like CITIZEN KANE with such a cynical and important drama. The
"magnificence of the Ambersons" is neither grand, nor respectable. It is
tragic and doomed, epitomized by young "Georgie" (played by Tim Holt),
main ambition in life is to be a yachtsmen. He is buried under the lore
his family name and he is headed towards his well-deserved "comeuppance".
The film itself, like many of Welles' great pictures, was absolutely butchered by the studio (RKO Pictures) and destroyed the credibility of the young auteur. In many ways, the mess surrounding the film's release, the tragedy and loss of the Ambersons, and the theme of modern technology "taking over" all come together to leave all parties disappointed. Disapproving moviegoers miscalculated the message, led the studio to make the cuts behind Welles' back, and placed a lot of artists in some bad situations. (For an excellent account of this truly remarkable story behind the film, read Joseph McBride's bio "Orson Welles") 50 minutes of film were burned, however, the 88 minutes left for us to see contain some incredible, even revolutionary moments.
Joseph Cotten plays his consummate "2nd place" character, a man unable to have his real true love. (See THE THIRD MAN, NIAGARA) He is in love with an "Amberson" (probably the only righteous family member played by Dolores Costello) but loses out to a more "respectable" man. The essential themes of industrialism and change that will ruin the Amberson family stem from Cotten's position as an inventor. He has created the horseless carriage, or automobile, however primitive, which is continuously trashed by the hateful "Georgie". Cotten's invention is part of the growth and change that many families of the late 19th century may have ignored, only to have their lives passed over and fortunes lost. Plot elements aside, this central theme is the powerful backbone that leads to the inevitable destruction of the narrow-minded Tim Holt.
The latter aspects come across on screen so memorably because of Orson Welles' continued experimentation with film. Incredible b & w photography, at first a hazy glow depicting the early prime years of the Ambersons, then a stark, dark force portraying shame and sadness, is amazing to see. Overlapping dialogue is used even better here than in KANE and Welles' narration is so omniscient and on the mark, relaying the town's thoughts on this once grand family. Long tracking shots throughout the constantly changing town go unnoticed unless seen a couple of times. When you realize the passage of time through these devices, you will be in awe.
Again, there is tragedy in both the film itself and its shoddy release and treatment in 1942. If only Welles stayed in America at the time and protected THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS from the long arm of the near-sighted studio system, he may have had #'s 1 and 2 on the AFI's list of 100 Greatest American films.
I think I'd give just about anything to see a restored version of this film,
like "Touch of Evil."
Its reputation is quite justified, however, and the top critics of today have generally agreed that it's one of Welles' best efforts as director. Some have even said that, scene for scene, it's a better film than "Citizen Kane."
The opening montage, set to Welles' narration, is as good as anything of its kind that's been done before or after -- brilliantly, and I hate to use that word because it's so often overused, it achieves two things: 1) it sets up the dramatic side of the story, with Eugene's fawning for and losing the affections of Isabel, and 2) putting us in a specific, historical time and place. The story of George Minafer's downfall parallels the changing times of America during that time, as well as American aristocracy.
Then there's Agnes Moorehead, who does the most amazing work as Fanny Minafer, George's aunt. She's a pressure cooker to begin with, but when the Ambersons hit rock-bottom she lets go, in a torrential, hysterical performance that's still getting praise today.
"The Magnificent Ambersons" also carries an equally dramatic story of Hollywood's assault on artistic expression; almost everyone knows that RKO seized the film and cut it to pieces while Welles was out doing his documentary "It's All True." Today there's other ways for great directors (Kubrick, Altman) to dodge the system, but film stock and equipment in those days could only be procured from big studios, and for the remainder of Welles' career his genius would only be seen fleetingly (his adaptations of Shakespeare, Kafka's "The Trial"). It's a story as tragic as George Minafer's.
The fate of this almost magnificent film must rank as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the cinema. viewing it in its present state is like looking at the Venus Di Milo, or at a beautiful Greek vase that has been shattered. One can only admire the fragments...and what gorgeous fragments they are: Major Ambersons heartbreaking meditation by the fireplace,the quarrel between Eugene Morgan and Georgie about the Automobile, Isabel's death, Agnes Moorehead's magnificent performance, the splendor of the Amberson mansion, and the ballroom scene. Perhaps someday, some powerful computer might be able to reconstruct the missing footage from stills and from Welles script...perhaps. Until that almost impossible moment, one can only envy the handful of men and women who were able to see it whole, and to understand what they were seeing.
If one could have a single wish regarding movie history, surely it
would be the rediscovery of the nearly one hour cut out of what seem to
be all existing prints of this! Even with the tampering, it is a
gorgeous movie. To me, it is superior to "Citizen Kane." Wells himself
was partially at fault for its being butchered: Had he stayed in the
United States and not pursued a new, eventually unfulfilled dream, he
surely could have fought RKO.
The narration by Welles at the beginning is like the dream storytelling of any child or young person. The words so beautiful, the tones so calm and mellifluous! And the final credits, in which he reads the crew and then the cast, are astonishingly moving.
In between is a touching story that is acted and filmed with rare integrity. Dolores Costello is a haunting presence. Agnes Moorhead, as the Neurotic aunt, gives a performance rarely equaled in movie history.
Stanley Cortez was cinematographer for three great movies (and many other fine ones): "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Night of the Hunter," and "The Naked Kiss." Each relies strongly on its look and Cortez created three very different, memorable canvases.
One fan hope against hope that the lost footage turns up in someone's basement, unlikely as that is. Even so, once seen this movie is never forgotten.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As most reviewers have stated, Welles' film suffered at the hands of studio
interference and it is to the film's credit that, despite such butchery, it
still remains a marvellous piece of entertainment.
The emotional story revolves around family relationships, about love denied, unrequited or made to suffer. It is also a social portrait of the failure of one family to come to terms with progress (symbolised by the motor car in the film).
Tim Holt is excellent as George Minafer and I think we are meant to view him ambivalently: he is both a loveable ne'er do well as well as a spoiled egotist who puts his emotions/feelings before everyone else's. Agnes Moorehead deservedly won praise for her portrait of the plain Aunt Fanny. Her final disintegration (blackly comic when George thinks she's scalding herself at a hot boiler only to be told that there's no water due to their reduced circumstances) mirrors the descent of the Ambersons into obscurity and genteel poverty. The only memory of their faded glory is in the names they give to the new roads leading to the suburbs.
As with Citizen Kane', wealth does not always protect people from unhappiness. And it's interesting to note how the Amberson's huge mansion, once the social centre of town with its balls & serenades, becomes an empty derelict monument to a by-gone age.
In a sense, the whole film is ambivalent. You can't stop progress as Eugene (Joseph Cotton) states in the dramatic scene where he & George clash over motor cars, but Gene is also aware that things might not necessarily change for the better. Life will become faster etc. After George receives his comeuppance, I quite liked the symbolic irony of him falling victim to a car accident.
Finally, it would be nice if production companies could have the courage of their convictions and actually left capable, intelligent directors to make films without interfering with their vision. Prod companies are still obsessed with preview viewings and initial reactions to films. Yes, sometimes a film might need altering, and most studios want a decent return on their investment but it would be good if they could keep faith even if a film receives an initially hostile reaction. Many great works of art have been initially misunderstood; and great films, like great art, stand the test of time.
This is a wonderful film, one of great pathos and sensitivity. Orson
was drawn to Tarkington's novel because Tarkington had been a friend of
Welles' father and Welles identified strongly with the story, seeing
something of his own family's history there.
Whether it is better than Kane is a fun question for film clubs to debate (I did once but I don't now), but it is interesting to note that while Orson Welles was particularly bitter that RKO re-shot his ending to make it more appealing to audiences, if you read the novel you will see that it is the novel's ending that RKO tacked on. Welles' ending was of his own invention and would have given the film a completely different tone.
So it is ironic that Welles always seemed to claim that RKO had destroyed the integrity of the novel's story when they only preserved it, if rather poorly in execution.
If you think Citizen Kane is wonderful, then, if you haven't already seen it, find a copy of "Ambersons" as soon as you can. To me, "Ambersons" surpasses "Kane" in complexity and perhaps richness of characters. The story of the long-term results of love deferred, unrequited love, and long-suffering love, are even more interesting with Welles' direction using overlaid dialogue and odd camera angles. My favorite part is when old Major Amberson speaks to the camera and it becomes apparent he's lost his mind. Chilling. The Ambersons captures a time more than a century ago in America when passions were suppressed and civility masked a boiling interior. This film was edited severely, I've read. This is another mystery, because the remaining footage is superb. We can only wonder what the original "Ambersons" might have been.
This is the tale of a well-known and respected American family - "The
Magnificent Ambersons" and their rise and fall. The movie is not bad at all,
there are some superlative performances from stars and character players
alike. However, it is a sad fact that this, Orson Wells second masterpiece,
suffered from the scissors in the cutting room. Being an RKO/Mercury Theatre
production, executives reduced the picture from a much-required 135 minutes
to a satisfactory, but a speedy 88 minutes, therefore, not giving
satisfactory time for the viewer to understand the masterpiece
Now, for my review of the players. Joseph Cotten gives an irregular performance as the romantic lead, silent star Dolores Costello is very much underused, as is then very young Anne Baxter, who would could onto bigger stardom in the next decade. Stealing the acting honors throughout the production are Tim Holt with his superb portrayal of the spoiled brat heir-to-the-throne, so to speak and Agnes Moorehead as his Auntie, who put their plan into action to sabotage a relationship between the widowed Isbabelle Amberson and charmer Eugene Morgan.
Overall, lives up to it's expectations of success, but suffers due to limited screen time and a very confusing plot for audiences of our generation.
With an excellent cast, interesting characters and setting, and a
thought-provoking story, dramatic cinema does not get much better than "The
Magnificent Ambersons". No one will ever know what it would have been like
if Orson Welles' original version had been allowed to stand as it was, but
what is left is still extremely good despite the missing
The story of the leading residents in a turn-of-the-century town combines some interesting themes. The snobbishness of the Ambersons, and its effects on their lives and others' lives, is illustrated alongside the ways that increasing industrialization is changing everyone's lives. The period setting is also quite interesting in its own right, and very nicely done. The characters are all convincing and well-defined, and are matched nicely with fine performers who bring them to life convincingly. Welles regulars Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead are especially good.
The only real disappointment in the movie is that, due to all the cuts made against Welles' wishes, there are times when it is obvious that a scene or information is missing, since characters at times refer to events that are not quite familiar to the audience. It is fortunate that the acting and writing are good enough to help us fill in the blanks to some degree, but it is really too bad that we can never see the whole picture.
As it stands, this is a fine film filled with good scenes and memorable characters, and a movie that will be much appreciated by fans of classic cinema.
One wonders what movie would have resulted if Orson Welles would have
been able to get his own cut, as opposed to what RKO Radio decided to
show to the world. In spite of what one sees on the screen, even a
chopped up film by the studio and directed by Orson Welles is better
than no Orson Welles, at all!
Booth Tarkington wrote a novel that reflected America's entrance in the industrial age. Mr. Tarkington being a good friend of Mr. Welles' father, must have been an early influence in young Orson. We can see that in a way, both men were interested in the changes America went through in the XIX century.
"The Magnificent Ambersons" presents the saga of a prominent family in their spiral downfall. At the same time, Eugene Morgan, a revolutionary inventor is laughed at because of the contraption that will change the face of the country: the automobile. While the Ambersons lose their fortune, Eugene Morgan makes his own. In the end, it is sad to see how Morgan with all his money couldn't have Isabel, the love of his life, or his daughter, for that matter, couldn't make the snobbish Georgie care enough for her.
What Orson Welles can't be fault on is the impeccable performances he got out of most of the Mercury Group. Joseph Cotten, as always, projects an elegant figure as Eugene. The gorgeous Dolores Costello is seen in all her beauty. The young Anne Baxter was perfect as Lucy. Ray Collins and Richard Bennett also do an outstanding job, as well as young Tim Holt. The best of all is Agnes Moorehead, who makes Fanny a creation. Ms. Moorehead is in fact a luminous presence in all her scenes in the movie.
Robert Wise, who went to become a film director, is credited with the original editing, although two others were not credited, who could have been instrumental in what RKO did to the picture, Mark Robson and Jack Moss. The original costumes by Edward Stevenson are incredible.
One could only hope that somewhere, hidden in a vault, a director's copy will be found as Orson Welles directed it and then, hopefully, we shall see the marvelous movie Orson Welles intended to make.
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