The Magnificent Ambersons [50 Films Older Than Me #19]

Over six months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #19. So, that’s 19 movies out of 50 in somewhat over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Magnificent Ambersons

Directed by Orson Welles

Release Year:  1942 (28 years before I was born).

What it is about:  George Amberson Minafer grows up wealthy and spoiled. When his mother’s former suitor, the industrialist Eugene Morgan, he becomes defensive and protective for his mother’s reputation. George and Morgan’s daughter Lucy are in love but are driven apart by their different perspectives on wealth and work. George eventually takes his mother away from their home town for a long time, until she becomes ill and returns shortly before dying. George and his remaining family lose their money and he eventually finds he must pursue work. After he is badly injured in an accident, he finally reconciles with Morgan.

Starring Tim Holt as George, Dolores Costello as Isabel (George’s mother), Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, Anne Baxter as Lucy Morgan, Agnes Moorehead as George’s Aunt Fanny, Ray Collins as George’s Uncle Jack, Richard Bennett as Major Amberson (Isabel and Jack’s father), Erskine Sanford as Roger Bronson (a man George eventually works for), and Don Dillaway as Wilber, George’s unassuming father. Director Orson Welles also narrates the film.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I had the idea that The Magnificent Ambersons was a depression-era drama. I had seen something of it years ago when I was in college, and thus had a vague recollection that at the end one of the main characters “got his comeuppance.”

Reality: The Magnificent Ambersons was Orson Welles’ second film–his follow-up to the seminal Citizen Kane. It is not the undisputed classic (or nearly undisputed–I once met a guy who told me that Citizen Kane was the worst thing he’d ever seen) that the earlier film was, but it is still in many ways a great movie.

What stands out to me immediately is the camerawork, which freely moves in every direction possible as it follows the main characters through George’s house in several extended and continuous shots. Actors are choreographed beautifully within the expansive (and apparently quite adaptable) which is filled with intricate light and shadow. Conversations frequently move in and out of silhouette, through doors and up stairwells–it all creates one of the more immersive three dimension environments that I have ever seen, especially in an “old” movie.

The story itself is strong, featuring an interesting philosophical clash between the “old money” of the Ambersons against the entrepreneurial spirit of the Morgans, with George and Lucy’s love caught in the middle. George’s inability to see life as anything beyond what he’s been taught leads to the unhappiness of many people. There is a fascinating though depressing scene where Lucy has completely given up on being able to communicate with George, and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his attempts to confess his sadness at saying goodbye to her when he chooses to take his mother away.

All of this is on the backdrop of a world that is fast changing, where George finds himself increasingly outdated (although I was wrong in my assumptions above–it has nothing to do with the depression, though George does eventually lose all his money). The whole narrative is quite dark and brooding, save for the strangely incongruous ending (see below).

Tim Hilt does a good job playing the blindly privileged George, so utterly convinced of the soundness of his convictions. He’s surrounded by a strong collection of actors, especially Joseph Cotton, Anne Baxter, Dolores Costello and Agnes Moorehead. Moorehead received particular praise for her work, and it’s easy to see why–she’s quite compelling as the aunt whose life never really got started. Many of the cast had worked with Welles previously–Cotton, Moorehead, Erskine Sanford and Ray Collins were all in Citizen Kane, for example.

In a lot of ways, The Magnificent Ambersons feels saturated with Orson Welles’ artistic style and vision, complete with lots of stagy narration, until one gets to the ending. Apparently, this was actually taken out of Welles’ control, with something like 40 minutes of the movie’s original cut being removed and a new ending added. Sadly, the earlier cut of the film (including all that footage) seems to be lost, so all we have is a strangely abrupt ending where George is injured in a car accident but ends up reconciling with Morgan. It’s not that this more upbeat conclusion couldn’t have worked for the movie, and it’s not that it’s badly shot or performed; it’s just that it’s terribly rushed and unmistakably tacked on. Even though he remains central to the story, George does not actually appear in these scene at all, so it feels very strange.

This is followed, incidentally, buy a novel end title sequence where all the credits are read out loud by Orson Welles as the narrator, with nothing printed on screen at all. It’s unusual but I really liked it.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I don’t know if I’d have wanted forty more minutes of the movie, but it’s unfortunate that the ending is such a step down from the rest of the film. Still, even with that, it’s really good piece of cinema, full of the same sort reckless mastery of the art form that Orson Welles showed with Citizen Kane.

See here for the Master List.

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