The Magnificent Ambersons begins and ends with the powerful, compelling voice of Orson Welles. This was Welles’s second film, following up on Citizen Kane. In contrast to that debut, though, other than these bits of narration, he never appears as an actor in The Magnificent Ambersons. It is clear, though, that he wanted his presence in the film to be felt in every other way. When the film ends, he announces that he was the narrator, writer, director. He was a genius. Now, though, nearly eighty years after the film was released, instead of being known as Welles’s second masterpiece, maybe even a film that eclipsed Citizen Kane itself, The Magnificent Ambersons is more famous for what it is not. Genius isn’t always good for business.
The film started production in late October 1941, and in early 1942 Welles delivered a final product to RKO. By that time, when the film was previewed for test audiences, the world had changed. Though there were some in the audience who thought the film was a masterpiece, most felt it was “downbeat.” RKO wanted to deliver something hopeful and upbeat in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and The Magnificent Ambersons, as Welles delivered it, was not that.
But by then, Welles had left the country to help the war effort in Brazil. RKO took matters into their own hands. The film was 135 somber minutes long. When RKO finished with it, it had a cheery final scene and had been stripped down to 88 minutes. That hurts to type, but not as much as this: RKO then disposed of the footage. Sure, there are those who still believe it might be hidden away — such things have been found before — but I think it no longe exists. RKO fired Welles. Their stationary declared that at RKO you’d get showmanship, not genius. Welles claimed late in life that he never fully recovered from this. Perhaps there were those who felt Welles had gotten his comeuppance.
In many ways, the tragedy behind The Magnificent Ambersons is a fitting backdrop to the film we actually get, which has recently been released by The Criterion Collection in a wonderful, detailed home video edition.
Welles’s introductory narration reflects on an ideal way of life permanently situated in the past. There is a haze around each frame of this introduction, as if it’s just a dream of the past. It shows a time at the end of the 1800s when the Ambersons have wealth and beauty, and — perhaps most importantly — the illusion of time to enjoy it all. Not only do things seem to run slower, but the future look bright and prosperous and never-ending. I’m not sure, but I imagine Welles felt similarly after the success of Citizen Kane. But in this introduction there’s an awareness that this is fickle. Some paths to bright futures are blocked, one dream, here or there, terminated before it even begins. We, like the characters, do not recognize this at first.
The Ambersons have a young, charming, handsome neighbor named Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten). He’s courting the regal Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but one night when he means to gift her a song he falls and breaks his cello. It’s incredibly brief and played for comedy. It seems a light moment, something these wealthy people should be able to laugh at instantly and forget.
But, for reasons I don’t fully understand, this public embarrassment is too much for Isabel, and she rejects Eugene. What might have been will now never be.
Soon the gossip spreads: Isabel is going to marry a man who seems much more down to earth, Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Wilbur would never frolic with a cello. They have one son, the spoiled, entitled terror of the town, George Amberson Minifer (played as an adult by Tim Holt, but whom we first see as a child, dressed up as a bonnie prince, charging around town in a carriage and getting in fights).
Though everyone seems to like Isabel, and they recognize her love for her son, most in the town do not like George. Indeed, as Orson Welles himself narrates in this introduction, everyone is anxiously awaiting the day when the young man receives his comeuppance.
The years continue to pass, and soon George is returning from college for the holidays. It is clear he hasn’t changed. Still charging around town as if he owns the roads (he believes he does), George looks down on the people who work. It’s not exactly that he thinks he’s inherently better than they (though, surely, he does); it’s that he thinks they are dumb for putting so much of their life into work. Such enterprise is beneath him. So The Magnificent Ambersons is a film that looks at the unstoppable passage of time but also at what we do to fill it. In the end, are we satisfied or do we have a comeuppance?
We see soon that everyone has been affected by the passage of time as George grew up and then returned from school. Eugene has returned to town as well, now a widower bringing with him his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Eugene has put the last two decades into his work, developing the automobile. Together they all meet at a lush holiday ball at the Amberson mansion.
I think it’s a fascinating conflict. George wants to get to know Lucy better, but he resents her father, both because of his work (George is also not a fan of the automobile) and because of the whisperings he’s heard: that this man and his mother were once quite fond of each other. They’re clearly quite fond of each other still.
Welles and Holt create a fascinating character in George Amberson Minifer. He’s arrogant but not entirely empty. At times he seems to want to join and share in some of the fun, but he knows when he does so the folks around him (particularly his grandpa and uncle) think he’s ridiculous. Lucy brings out the best in him. She sees good in him. However, Lucy is a strong young woman who seems to understand the future. She may love parts of George, but she withstands his advances, knowing he is not on the right track, managing to befuddle the young man the entire time.
We might hope George will rise to the occasion, become the man his mother hopes he becomes as well as a man Lucy can love fully. George’s ideals, though, lead him to some awful behavior, more suited to the film’s many deep shadows.
At war with an older man he sees as a rival — a rival in philosophy, a rival for his mother’s affections, a rival for Lucy’s affections, a rival as the old town shifts to new, when the once rich avenues become more crowded and shaded by buildings — George still doesn’t get his comeuppance. Instead he threatens to make a tragic waste of the lives around him.
Not that him getting his comeuppance would really be satisfactory either. Like the Amberson’s pursuit of wealth and George’s pursuit of his ideals (while relying fully on that wealth), the pursuit of karmic justice rarely leaves one whole in the end. Time passes. The things we think we will build to last forever don’t last. They might not even be that impressive. What, then, to make of the time we are given? I think the film explores this beautifully.
The Criterion Collection release comes with several exceptional supplements that explore the film as well as its history. I have seen the film and read about it for years, but this is the definitive edition and one people can use to get a full picture of the conflicts within and without the film stock.