The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

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Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) is a young and dashing man with a bit of a reputation for being wild. He wants to marry Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), a girl from an upper-class family, but she marries Wilbur Minafer instead. Wilbur is a dull man, but suits her social class better than the rambunctious Euguene. Wilbur and Isabel’s only child George (Tim Holt) is a total brat.

Years pass and Eugene returns to town, having found success in the auto business. When Wilbur passes away, Eugene takes the opportunity to start putting the moves on Isabel, but he won’t win Isabel over again if George has anything to say about it.

Orson Welles directs The Magnificent Ambersons, an RKO romantic drama adapted from Booth Tarkington’s novel. Welles wrote the script and provides the film’s narration as well. Starring alongside Cotten, Costello and Holt are Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead and Richard Bennett.

The film opens in an interesting way that has no trouble catching the viewer’s attention. Welles’ narration showcases the changes in technology and trends as time passes. Not only is he an amazing narrator, but the content of his narration is thought-provoking. Quite a few films through the years have made use of the “newsreel” technique to convey the larger societal environment of the time in which the film is set. Welles’ technique here is similar, but with a unique twist.

Awesomeness of Orson Welles aside, the entire cast of this film is highly capable. Very solid portrayals are given across the board. Moorehead gives what I consider to be the film’s best performance. Her character of Fanny is very fiery, and Moorehead’s delivery has a fantastic spark to it.

The Magnificent Ambersons is also visually beautiful. Much like Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, great use is made of light and shadow, with many of the film’s scenes featuring wonderful visual contrast. Equally as wonderful are the sets and costumes, which are beautifully designed.

(Image via Greenbriar Picture Shows)

Unfortunately, even with all of these elements working together splendidly, the studio did not take kindly to Welles’ work. They felt that the film was too long, so they butchered it, cutting out nearly an hour of material. I, and just about every other fan of Welles, would love to see the “too long” cut that he made, but it no longer exists. What’s left is more than sufficient, but the viewer can’t help but wonder how much more significant the film would have been had it been released in its original form.

Even with all of the cuts, The Magnificent Ambersons is a very emotional piece of work. The characters are complex, elevated by energetic performances. The plot provides a commentary on the ever-complicated relations between family and friends in a quickly progressing world. The mood is often a bit relaxed (which may be due to the absence of some of the lost scenes), but the moments of high tension still keep the viewer hooked into the story.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a well-written, visually beautiful film packed with talent in both cast and crew. It doesn’t beat Citizen Kane in my book (though I’m not sure why most reviewers of this film seem forced to choose between the two!), but it’s definitely one of Welles’ best. The score: 4/5

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4 thoughts on “The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  1. I admit that this is one I haven’t yet seen. I have this funny thing about the Welles films I have seen, though; I adore his directorial style, but I’ve found that I’m ambivalent to the stories he tells. From what you said about this film, I’m wondering if this might be one whose story I’ll like. Congratulations on 300 posts, by the way!

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    1. Thank you!
      I’ve enjoyed every Welles film I’ve seen, but I definitely enjoy his directorial efforts most out of his many talents. I’d give it a watch if I were you, but keep in mind that the story isn’t as full as he intended it to be, thanks to all of those pesky studio cuts!

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