The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 28 min.

Release Date: July 10th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Orson Welles Actors: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins




irector Orson Welles himself narrates (quite somberly) the setting and the time: 1873, full of horse-drawn carriages, picnics, serenades, changing fashions, the buildings, local gossip, the fact that the rich knew the rich and personal possessions and property were easily recognizable, and the magnificence of the Ambersons and their $60,000, luxuriously furnished estate. The townsfolk sneer at the wealth, the privileges, and the air of royalty of the Ambersons and the hopelessly spoiled little boy George, the sole child of overly attentive Isabel Amberson and reserved Wilbur Minafer. Years later, when George (Tim Holt) is back from college and all grown up (although still snooty, immature, arrogant, domineering, and lofty), the very last of the much talked about parties, a lavish ball, is thrown, giving George the opportunity to meet Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter), a young woman he immediately fancies.

Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), Lucy’s father, is working on the invention and construction of automobiles (“horseless carriages”) and George fears he wants a monetary investment from their family. Lonely Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) prefers to think he’s merely an available admirer for her. Meanwhile, unknown stresses eat away at Wilbur until he passes away (a quiet man whose death will inspire insignificant concern, huff the locals). The Ambersons are only momentarily distraught, especially as Eugene swiftly moves into Isabel’s life. George wishes to marry Lucy, but she’s hesitant because of his lack of interest in a career. Dreaming of being a yachtsman or simply living an honorable life as a charitable Amberson, George has no interest in working, which leads Eugene to similarly disapprove of the union.

Nobility is dwindling for the Ambersons and the Minafers, despite George desperately trying to hang on to the family’s reputation. Hotheaded and prideful, he’s appalled to learn of Morgan’s intention to marry his mother, but even angrier with the chatter of the neighbors who disesteem the scandalous relationship. As George interferes with Isabel’s decision, he simultaneously shatters his own chances with Lucy, who feigns emotional detachment at the news of George and his mother departing to tour the world. Isabel’s health deteriorates to represent mental anguish once again maturing into physical affliction. The wrong choices and cruel deception in the game of love results in painfully realized calamity. Regret, while more time-consuming, is equally disastrous. Lucy’s final speech about a grove named “They Couldn’t Help It” masterfully and poetically sums up the idea of her relationship with George: equal parts not wanting to be with him and the acceptance of never replacing their singular relationship.

Welles has a knack for heart-rending stories rife with comeuppance, tragedy, remembrance, the loss of success and affluence, doomed romance, and, most superbly, the pleasures of forgiveness and closure. He’s also adept at orchestrating powerful performances (here, taking Holt away from his Westerns and directing Moorehead to a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination). Through the adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, which possessed some autobiographical notes for Welles, he further molds disillusionment in relation to socialite expectations and the eye-opening revelation of the meaning of a fulfilled existence – with lifelong earning and expenditure of money.

Crafted with a contemplative tone and inspiring dialogue, Welles goes on to explore the realization of past highs and contrastingly present lows, newfound despair, and the disruptive rifts in social classes, as demonstrated by Morgan’s original loss of Isabel to a wealthier, more highly regarded businessman. His tragic characters acknowledge the mistakes of refusing to conform to changing times, advancements in technology, and stances on work, exhibiting pathos while maneuvering in cinematographic assuredness and technical mastery. Although “The Magnificent Ambersons” was famously taken away from Welles, with producers chopping out about an hour of footage and altering the ending, it’s still a striking film, retaining a majority of the impact he’d aimed for, despite remaining greatly overlooked and underappreciated in comparison to 1941’s “Citizen Kane.”

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10