Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

The Way Of The Future. If you don't get this reference then you want to watch the world burn
    Watching a film like The Magnificent Ambersons, as with most of Orson Welles' films post-Citizen Kane, incurs palpable sadness. Because the promise of what could potentially have been is so present in every frame that the entirety of the film becomes a specter of genius. I was hooked by the first few minutes of the film and my expectations soared as to what the remainder of the film had in store. The film though took a noticeable dive about halfway through and never managed to recuperate some of its former brilliance. Flaws and all, I loved The Magnificent Ambersons and appreciated it both for what it was and what it could have been.
    Welles' second feature film effort is adapted from the novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington. Young Isabel, of the revered Ambersons clan, rejects her beau Eugene Morgan due to his wild, crazy and embarrassing antics. She does so in favor of Wilbur Minafer. Isabel and Wilbur soon get married and bear one child, the spoiled and out-of-control George. Many years later, George returns home from college and a reception is held in his honor. At the party, he immediately falls for the new girl in town: the beguiling Lucy Morgan, who is none other than Eugene's daughter. Eugene has returned to Indianapolis after several years away as an inventor. He is currently working on automobiles, or horseless carriages as they are called in the film. George immediately disapproves of this, saying that he prefers things the way they are. He immediately grows a disliking for Eugene. From his aunt Fanny, Wilbur's sister, he discovers that his mother and Eugene have history together. When Wilbur dies, leaving the family no money in the process, Eugene begins to spend more and more time with Isabel, to both George and love-struck Fanny's disapproval. George is tested when he has to choose between protecting his mother's reputation and denying her her happiness with Eugene, and making peace and marrying lovely Lucy.

   This film features an amazing cast. Even Tim Holt in the unlikable role of George shows some admirable acting chops. The best of the best for me are Agnes Moorehead as Fanny Minafer, Ray Collins as Uncle Jack Amberson and surprisingly Anne Baxter as Lucy Morgan. Agnes plays the shrill Fanny to perfection, even going so far in territory that could have been categorized as overacting. Yet, she manages to ground her character in truth, making the viewer sympathize with Fanny's shortcomings. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is towards the end when the Ambersons have lost the financial security they once took for granted and Fanny loses her shit. I mean, she goes from sobbing to lamenting then to laughing maniacally and then back to crying. It's a heart palpitating moment when Agnes Moorehead reveals just how versatile she is as an actress. This is the same woman that played the wooden and long-suffering Mother Citizen Kane. Ray Collins provides a welcoming warmth in his role as Uncle Jack. And, though Agnes gave hands down the best performance in the film, it is Anne Baxter that manages to surprise me. What she does here is nothing extraordinary, but it is so different from her role as the backstabbing Eve in All About Eve; a performance I loathe to this day. But in The Magnificent Ambersons, Anne is natural and gives depth to her character who could be read as either a bland femme fatale or a dense high society girl. But, she manages to show us the complexities behind her Lucy, grinding down to the very bone to do so.
   The cinematography is a key component of the film as it most certainly sets the mood. In this way, The Magnificent Ambersons can be seen as Citizen Kane Jr. That is true for other aspects of the film such as the subtle soundtrack and the familiar performers. This film does differ from its predecessor in that Welles himself narrates the story. The man had a voice! And, as I mentioned, I loved the first half of the film because it felt so fresh and innovative. You had the townspeople commenting on the story and the characters as well, almost as if they were pointedly telling the camera.

Welles' short-lived snow motif
   As I said before, the film took a major dive after the first half. The rest becomes a disjointed mess. The editing is painful to watch, with several scenes abruptly cutting off into other scenes. It's not that those scenes do not add anything to the overarching story, because they do. It's that I feel that the story moves at too fast a pace in the second half. It's as if everybody involved in the production of the film were on payroll and would not be paid overtime so they tried to hightail the heck out of there. Everything feels so rushed that it becomes hard to ponder over the developing themes or find the characters grounded in reality. Of course, we all know the true story. RKO, the film's studio, decided to edit down the film from Welles' original version. More than 40 minutes of footage was removed. Welles was unable to intervene in time because he was all the way in Brazil working on another film prospect for RKO (this is a recurring pattern it seems for Welles). The footage of the excised scenes was destroyed, though a rough cut was sent to Welles. However, its whereabouts remain unknown to this day. To add pain to the injury, RKO made the assistant director film extra scenes for the movie, resulting in a "happy" and tacked-on ending. Another minor complaint that I had with the film is the small cast. I do understand that this couldn't be helped because it is after all an adaptation, but having such a small amount of characters makes the film feel too contained. I think the themes, especially that of incoming social change and loss of status, would have fared better with a bigger cast. After all, the title alludes to a bigger cast and more focus on the Ambersons' change of fortune. Instead, the romance aspect of the story gets more attention. But that's something that could understandably not be helped, so I won't hold it against the film.
  What The Magnificent Ambersons has is promise. The first half is brilliant and deserving of a 5-star rating. But the second half is just disappointing. It's like the film died halfway through and became a ghost for the remaining 40 minutes, floating whichever way with no concrete purpose or direction. Thus far, this to me is the worst Welles film and, even then, I still love it. I love it solely for those first 40 minutes. If you're a fan of Welles or Citizen Kane, then this film is a must-see.

Ludovico Rating


  1. I hats "if onlys" and "what could have beens" but that is exactly what the film will always be. It's really a shame.

    1. Sad. I still hold hope that footage of some of Welles' films will find the light of day.

  2. I have not seen this film as of yet (shame ;-( ) but I enjoyed your review. I'm going to add this to my ever growing list of films I need to watch.

  3. I have not seen this film as of yet (shame ;-( ) but I enjoyed your review. I'm going to add this to my ever growing list of films I need to watch.

    1. I think it is worth checking out. And I feel you on the ever-growing lists. Recommendations keep pouring in.