Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Dolores Costello, and Tim Holt in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)


(director/writer: Orson Welles; screenwriter: from a novel by Booth Tarkington; cinematographer: Stanley Cortez; editor: Robert Wise; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Orson Welles (Narrator), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Tim Holt (George Amberson Minafer), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack), Erskine Sanford (Roger Bronson), Richard Bennett (Maj. Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilber Minafer); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Orson Welles; RKO Radio Pictures; 1942)
“Told in a magnificently opulent cinematic style.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Orson Welles’ second feature, following the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Citizen Kane, was boldly different in style, mood and substance but nevertheless told as an enjoyable soap opera story of the rise and fall of a prominent Midwestern family of wealth–the Ambersons. It’s based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, about a lost America that will never again be the same. The film was badly butchered in the editing room by the RKO studio, who revised Orson’s contract and took away his right at final cut. As a result the studio had the editor Robert Wise cut the originally 131-minute film down to 86 minutes when Orson was absent, making a patriotic documentary in South America, which made the third act choppy, different in tone from the rest of the film and incoherent. Orson never approved of the changes and raged against the studio. But despite the studio interference, the film has a striking poignancy and magical power that can’t be ruined even by the unnecessary confusion created. It also had great acting from the ensemble cast of the Mercury Theater, especially from Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead.

Welles, as narrator, begins the tale in 1873, in the small town of Indianapolis, which he suggests was a time when life was slower paced and people seemed to have more time for everything–even for frivolous things such as sleigh rides. What changed this attitude was the dawning of the Industrial Age, where materialism ruled the land and time meant money. Maj. Amberson (Richard Bennett), the family patriarch, made more money than anyone else in town through trading and building and lived in the richest and biggest mansion that was located on the edge of town. His beautiful daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello, former silent screen star) was courted by inventor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who came drunkenly courting her one night with a serenade under her window but fell through the fiddle. Out of embarrassment, Isabel refused to see him any more and instead married staid businessman Wilbur Minafer. They had a son George, who was detested by the locals as a spoiled brat; they hoped he would some day get his comeuppance.

The film picks up many years later when prosperous widowed automobile inventor Eugene returns to his hometown, with his lovely daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), and builds a factory. At a ball in the Amberson’s mansion, the obnoxious and pompous college student George (Tim Holt, usually played in cowboy roles) courts Lucy while her dad renews his friendship, with the love of his life, Isabel. When George finds out from his Uncle Jack (Ray Collins), a Congressman, and his spinster sister Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) that his mother was in love with Eugene before marrying his father, the mean-spirited twerp reacts with jealous hatred towards Eugene. When later on Wilbur, a quiet man, dies, George acts to break up the marriage plans of his mother and Eugene. They go away on an extended world tour and by the time they return it’s too late for Eugene to get together with the dying Isabel. Soon the families wealth will be squandered away and George will get his comeuppance.

This truly wonderful film, even in this truncated version, told in a magnificently opulent cinematic style, uses the lively family saga to paint a remarkably keen picture of America’s transformation from the turn-of-the-century to the early days of the 20th century. The period reconstructions are richly documented, as well the manners, snobbery and sense of community from the citizens. It stands as a personal and heartfelt film for the director (his father was also a wealthy auto inventor) and a very moving romantic story that makes one ponder about such things as lost possibilities (not only about the romance onscreen but what if the director could raise money for all the projects he sought and had full-control over his films!).

It was previously filmed as Pampered Youth (1925).