Movie Critique – The Magnificent Ambersons

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A woman suffering with stupid pride; a child spoiled rotten; an aunt half-jealous and half-ashamed; and a family caught in all this with only an outsider who can see the path they were taking to depravity and decay. There was nothing "Magnificent" about these Ambersons.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a 1942 American period drama film produced, directed and screenplay written by Orson Welles; with uncredited directorial debut of Robert Wise. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Ray Collins and Agnes Moorehead among others. It was released by RKO Radio Pictures and Mercury Productions.

Isabel Amberson, one of the Ambersons - the wealthiest family in their city in the end of the 19th century - marries a passionless Wilbur Minafer (portrayed by Don Dillaway) even though she had loved Eugene Morgan (portrayed by Joseph Cotten). Twenty years later, Eugene now a widower with a daughter Lucy (portrayed by Anne Baxter), attends a party thrown for George (portrayed by Tim Holt), Isabel and Wilbur's son. Despite the social and personal differences George starts courting Lucy. But times change, and bad luck befalls the Ambersons; turning the tides in favor of the Morgans. And the feud between the magnificent Ambersons and the rising Morgans begin.

The film was based on the 1918 novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington. My interest in the film came from it being continuously mentioned in a few of the film noir and horror flicks I had seen over the past few months.

The set used in this film was reused in several films by RKO and low-budget horror films made by Van Lewton. We can see it in the 1943 American horror film The Seventh Victim; the 1942 American horror film Cat People; and the 1944 American psychological fantasy horror film The Curse of the Cat People.

Joseph Cotten was Orson Welles' Mercury Players cast and a good friend of Welles. They have both together done several films. We saw him recently in one of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Channel's movie line-up, the 1949 British film noir, The Third Man. Cotten also had an illustrious career on radio portraying several kids of roles in many old-time classic programs.

This is the final role for Dolores Costello, one of the former silent film actress. She plays the lead actress Isabel Amberson Minafer. She was forced into retirement due to heavy scarring as a result of early makeup techniques.

This reminded me of Hindi (Indian language) Bollywood actress, Sadhana, who also took early retirement from movies on account of makeup causing disfigurement to her face. She hadnt even appeared anywhere in public, and there is but only a few of her photographs post-1975 until her death in 2015.

Agnes Moorehead's hysteria filled insane and inebriated scene garnered her an Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She was also from Welles' Mercury Players cast.

Check out her scene here:

Ray Collins - only star from radio play to star in the film, other than Welles' voice of course. We know him famously for his role of Lieutenant Arthur Tragg in the original Perry Mason TV Series along-side Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and William Hopper.

The narration for the film was provided by Orson Welles, as he does for most of his films. The credits for most part of the film were also spoken off-screen by Welles. He announces the cast at the end of the film, while they are shown again. For the technical credits, instead of the person, the machine that was used to perform the function is shown. Even for Orson Welles a microphone is shown as he narrates "I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production." The main theatrical poster for the film was designed by Norman Rockwell. The closing credits also show the actual book the film was based off.

Here is the snippet of ending credits

The film however was heavily edited by the RKO studio, including changing the ending to a happier version. Composer Bernard Hermann wanted his name removed from credits when studio cut most of his music as a result of the scenes being removed. This also resulted in strained relationship between Welles and Cotten; and a lifelong rivalry between director Robert Wise. 

Despite the editing, the film did not fare well at the time with the audience and the box office. It now is considered one of the greatest films of all time along-side Citizen Kane. Having not seen the original, and seeing only this version, I think it would have made a better film, and a powerful one if the ending was kept as what Welles had left it - the tour of decaying Amberson Mansion.

The tale felt a bit like Hatfields and McCoys; a little like Montagues and Capulets from Shakespeare's 1597 tragedy play Romeo & Juliet; a lot more like Lintons & Heathcliff from the 1847 novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

We can see the amazing film making by Welles where he brings out everything from the actor and making their characters prominent on screen so audience would not forget them even if the film failed. Several scenes Welles made in a single take with improvs from the actors including the four minute scene where George and Jack tease Fanny about her infatuation with Eugene. 

In many ways, Welles had always reminded me of Guru Dutt. I think I mentioned that in my earlier post of one of Welles movie. Both are genius at what they create on screen, and have really dramatic and explosive personal lives. There is certain similarity and familiarity when we see either of them on screen or their movies.

A woman suffering with stupid pride; a child spoiled rotten; an aunt half-jealous and half-ashamed; and a family caught in all this with only an outsider who can see the path they were taking to depravity and decay. There was nothing magnificent about the Ambersons except filled with these spoiled emotions; almost like a pretty shell but when you open you find sand instead of a pearl. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Welles had first adapted it for a 60 minute radio drama that aired on October 29, 1939 played by the actors from Mercury Players, Welles independent theater. Welles portrayed the role of George Minafer. Ray Collins was also part of the radio adaptation.

b. A 2002 television movie remake was done with the same name, and starring Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood, Jonathan Rhys, Gretchen Mol and Jennifer Tilly. It was made for A&E Network Television.

c. The film was shown as a double bill with the 1942 American comedy film Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost sometimes. 

d. Two inside jokes are shown in the film. A news item about increasing automobile accident appears on the front page of Indianapolis Daily Inquirer, which is a fictional newspaper owned by Charles Foster Kane in the 1941 American drama film Citizen Kane, Welles' first feature film. There is also another column with Joseph Cotten's photo in the Stage News by fictional reporter Jed Leland. Cotten had played the role of Jedediah "Jed" Leyland, a reporter for The Inquirer in Citizen Kane. 

e. Checkout the contraption that Cotten's Eugene drives to the Amberson's mansion.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. The scene where Lucy and George say goodbye, her hair keeps changing in between shots. They go from being tied at the back, to ringlets hanging in front of her shoulders, and then back to being tied at the back.


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