Film: The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons is a 1942 U.S. Period Drama, the second feature film produced and directed by Orson Welles. Welles adapted Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel, about the declining fortunes of a proud Midwestern family and the social changes brought by the automobile age. The film stars Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello (Drew Barrymore's grandma!), Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, and Ray Collins, with Welles providing the narration.

Welles lost control of the editing of the film to RKO (thanks to the trouble the studio went through with his other film), and the final version released to audiences differed significantly from his rough cut of the film. More than an hour of footage was cut by the studio, which also shot and substituted a happier ending. Although Welles's extensive notes for how he wished the film to be cut have survived, the excised footage was destroyed. Composer Bernard Herrmann insisted his credit be removed when, like the film itself, his score was heavily edited by the studio. Robert Wise, who did the editing and shot the revised ending (which actually was taken from the novel), spent years defending his cut as better than Welles' version.

In either case, the film had two previews with Welles' edited version. At the first preview, editor Robert Wise stated that the test audiences were literally laughing at how bad it was. Though researchers note that while ninety percent of the score cards called it terrible, the other ten percent declared it a masterpiece. The second preview at Pasadena was vastly more favorable and audiences reacted to it with enthusiasm even if they felt it was bleak but the studio felt it was too much of a gamble and refused to listen to producer David O. Selznick who saw the original cut, loved it and insisted it be sent to the Museum of Modern Art. They cut out 40 minutes, shot a new ending and ordered that the original footage be burnt.

Even in the released version, The Magnificent Ambersons is often regarded as among the best U.S. films ever made, a distinction it shares with Welles's first film, Citizen Kane. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, and it was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1991.

This film provides examples of:

  • As You Know: Some expospeak from the townspeople in the beginning about the Ambersons and their fancy house.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Isabelle is dead, and she and Eugene never married. George has been brought low enough to work for meager wages, and then he's injured in an automobile accident. The Ambersons are broke. But there's an implication that Lucy and George might get together after all, and Eugene takes some comfort in believing that Isabelle's spirit is with them and knows about his reconciliation with George.
    • The somewhat happier note with the scene in the hospital hallway was the principal addition that lightened Welles' Downer Ending, which was more bleak, with Fanny alone in a boardinghouse and a final meeting with Eugene reminding her of what she'd lost.
  • Break the Haughty: George, oh so very much.
  • Chiaroscuro: Used for several scenes in the dark old Amberson mansion, including a striking shot when Eugene and Lucy are leaving after the ball, and beams of light from outside are cast upon the people in the dark foyer.
  • Dances and Balls: George meets Lucy, and Eugene is reunited with Isabelle, at "the last of the great long-remembered dances" at the Amberson house.
  • Gay Nineties / The Edwardian Era: The film bridges these two eras, and incorporates features of both.
  • Hitler Cam: This effect, used in Citizen Kane, is used here in an even more inventive manner, with a moving camera positioned down below and pointed up at George and Lucy as they take a carriage ride.
  • Idle Rich: George says in no uncertain terms that he desires to be this. It doesn't work out.
  • Interactive Narrator: Only briefly. Some town busybody chatters about how Isabelle is going to pop out a bunch of children. Welles the narrator says that in fact she had only one, and the busybody says "Only one?".
  • Iris Out: This effect, which in 1942 was already old-fashioned, is used as Eugene drives away in his experimental car, possibly to illustrate how times are changing.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Many people's reactions to the "horseless carriage", though George remains convinced of this long after everyone else starts to come round to the idea.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: George delivers a rude and pissy monologue at dinner about how the automobile shouldn't have been invented and is ruining everything. Eugene is hurt, but admits that George might be right. Later in the film Welles' narration mentions how the new growth inspired by the automobile "befouled" the town. And a newspaper headline reports the rash of injuries and deaths caused by automobile accidents.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: George is brought low, very low indeed.
    Narrator: Something had happened. A thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.
  • Lost Forever: A good chunk of this movie was edited and thrown away by producers while Welles was abroad.
  • Man Child: George, who as a grown man still wants to hang out with his mommy and be spoiled.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: George is introduces as an awful child, before the film cuts forward to George as college-aged and played by Tim Holt.
  • Mommy Issues: George has some issues regarding his mother's personal life.
  • Mythology Gag: Or maybe Identical Stranger. Or maybe Celebrity Paradox. But in any case, the town newspaper includes on its front page a "Stage Scene" column by Jed Leland, complete with a picture of Joseph Cotten.
  • Narrator: Welles, who doesn't otherwise appear in the film.
  • Nostalgia Filter: One of the themes of the film.
    Narrator: The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window ... put on her hat and coat ... went downstairs... found an umbrella... told the 'girl' what to have for dinner...and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare.
  • Oedipus Complex: Isabel and George ALL. DAY. LONG.
  • Parent with New Paramour: George does not deal with it at all well when Eugene and Isabelle start dating.
  • Romancing the Widow: Eugene starts putting the moves on Isabelle after her husband dies.
  • Spoiled Brat: George is an awful little twerp as a child, and he doesn't get any better when he grows up.
  • Title Drop: Welles mentions "the magnificence of the Ambersons" a couple of times.
  • Video Credits: Not only video credits, but narrated video credits, with Welles reading off the names of each actor and who they played in the movie. The credits end with Welles reading off his own credit over a shot of a microphone.
    "I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production."