The Magnificent Ambersons

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The Magnificent Ambersons was Orson Welles’s second film. It is based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. RKO Radio Pictures drastically edited it, and, over Welles’s protests, they tacked on an unconvincing “happy” ending. Even in its mangled form, however, this film is fascinating to watch.

The story begins in a Midwestern town in the late nineteenth century. The Ambersons are a wealthy family whose mansion dominates the town. Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) marries Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). Their son, George (Tim Holt), is the heir to the Amberson fortune. Isabel’s former suitor, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) shows up at a party one day. After Wilbur dies, Isabel and Eugene begin to strike up their former romance again. At the same time George becomes infatuated with Eugene’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). When George learns of his mother’s affair with Eugene, he is adamantly opposed to it. While the Ambersons lose their money through bad investments, Eugene’s automobile company prospers.

Welles’s film is an exercise in nostalgia. It presents a vision of an America that was more elegant and humane before the rise of the automobile. This is, of course, based on a highly selective view of the past. There were a lot more people working twelve-hour days in factories than there were living in stately mansions. Welles was no doubt aware of this. He apparently saw the belief in an idealized past as expressing a human desire for goodness. Also, he does not portray the Ambersons as perfect. George is essentially a spoiled brat. It’s not until when the Ambersons lose their fortune that he begins to show a sense of responsibility and consideration towards others.

The Magnificent Ambersons was a labor of love for Welles. He put considerable effort into making it. For example, he filmed the winter scenes in an ice house near downtown Los Angeles, so the actors’ breaths could be seen. He was reportedly deeply bitter at the studio’s drastic editing of the film. These cuts are perhaps the reason why the second half of the movie feels a bit rushed. The Ambersons seeem to lose their money all at once. Still, The Magnificent Ambersons is a remarkable achievement.

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