Monday, 31 December 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

After Citizen Kane Orson Welles could do anything, so he did The Magnificent Ambersons, a film that is considered by several critics including myself to be highly underrated. Their budget was $850, 000  - most of which was used to build the main set, an extravagant mansion. This set was later used to shoot several low-budget horror movies. Little is known about the pre-production, most likely since it wasn't a particularly interesting pre-production. However, there is quite a story that took place in post-production.

The Magnificent Ambersons was 148 minutes long. It was previewed to an audience and the public reception wasn't extremely positive. Welles thought that the film could use a few scenes to be cut out so film editor Robert Wise (who later went on to direct some of the most successful Hollywood movies of all time) cut out several minutes. The movie was previewed once again, but sadly there was no improving in the audience's opinion. RKO was then given the film to cut it down. They cut out 40 minutes and forced Orson Welles to re-shoot such things as the ending. RKO was unsatisfied with his down-beat ending and they wanted a happier one, like the one in the novel it was based off. Orson Welles was to say the least angered. He said "They destroyed Ambersons, and 'it' destroyed me." Even though so much was cut out, this is still a masterpiece. However, one can always wonder what the original cut looked like.


Our story begins around the late 1800s or the early 1900s. There lives a young, handsome and wild man named Eugene. He falls in love with Isabel Amberson, daughter of a very wealthy family. Unfortunately for Eugene, Isabel selects Wilbur Minafter as her spouse. Together they have a child named George. Being their first child, Isabel and Wilbur are unaware how to raise George. Therefore, George is raised as selfish and spoiled. 

Time goes by. Wilbur has passed away leaving Isabel as a widow. Then one day, Eugene returns. He is now a very successful widower. When he lays his eyes upon Isabel he is immediately re-stricken with the love that had blinded him years ago. Once more, Eugene asks Isabel to marry him. Unlike the previous attempts, Isabel accepts this time. This does not meet with George's approval. With the help of his aunt, Fanny, George tries to sabotage Isabel's romance with Eugene. This begins to create a disaster in the Amberson family.


The Magnificent Ambersons dares to do what few modern movies would dare to do. We meet these characters  we understand their personalities. Some characters we respect, some we hate and some we can relate to. No character is evil, because from what I sense, Orson Welles did not believe in plain and sheer evil. Every character in this has something that drives them, something that makes them realistic. 

What a cast, indeed! In the main male lead role, we have Joseph Cotten. Personally  he is among my favourite actors. He is a very versatile actor, and this is the living proof. In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten played a deranged serial killer, a completely different roll than the one in this. Let me say this, in classic Hollywood movies the characters are all so perfect - except for the evil characters who try to create problems for no apparent reason. This makes it difficult to truly relate to anyone. However, The Magnificent Ambersons allows you to sympathize with these people because they feel human. Joseph Cotten takes on the role of Eugene.

I would like to comment on Tim Holt's performance as well. He took on this role very well, even though most of the time we wanted to strangle him.

Also, although Orson Welles was never seen in the entire movie, I felt he did an excellent job refraining from showcasing himself. He took a small role as the narrator, a role that was suited for his interesting voice.

This will be something odd to discuss, but I felt that the end credits were superb. Allow we to attempt to explain my feelings. These credits don't feature any text, only the narrator and quick video clips on the screen. You can see them here. These credits are very similalr to what Orson Welles did in The Trial, however The Magnificent Ambersons does it better.

There is one last positive things left to discuss. The Amberson's towering mansion left me in awe. The set designers did a fabulous job making the Ambersons' wealth believable. 

I have a slight quibble with this. Although I said the characters were quite realistic, I don't feel that the issues these characters had to deal with are such that anyone will ever have to in real life. The tragedies that seem to be piling on these people will make you raise an eyebrow. Orson Welles' did a great job paying attention to detail however he did miss a slight portion of the main focus.

All in all, The Magnificent Ambersons is a masterpiece of period dramas that has something to say about social life and the greed, jealousy and betrayal in all humans. 

The Magnificent Ambersons,
Directed by Orson Welles,
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt
9.5/10 (A+)


1. F for Fake
2. The Magnificent Ambersons
3. The Lady From Shanghai
4. Citizen Kane
5. Chimes At Midnight
6. The Trial
7. The Stranger
8. Macbeth
9. Othello

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