A spoiled young child of a wealthy family comes between his widowed mother and the man she always loved.
This movie is freaking great!
I honestly can say that I ate up every frame of this film from start all the way up to the last five minutes of the film, and I had sort of anticipated a letdown of an ending just because of this film’s reputation for being one of the movies that studios meddled with most. As this week we had intended to do a series on studio films, I thought, what better time could there be than now to watch this picture?
Before we get too far into the review however, I want to address the meddling, which, I must say, feels quite obvious as it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the picture, and, I personally, find the history of this film to be one of the most interesting things about it. If you’d rather just read the review, skip over the next section.
Most of this picture is rather depressing, yet it’s tinged with a light of hope, but apparently that wasn’t what American audiences wanted right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and unfortunately the original cut of the picture tested poorly with audience screenings. So, as we come to the darkest part of the film, where our main character George (Tim Holt, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) is at his lowest and where we think he’s about to learn more about himself and the world, the film just sort of skips ahead to an end that, while it might wrap up some of the plot points, feels a bit rushed and a bit tawdry, especially considering some of the things we’ve seen George do. It feels as if we miss an entire portion of George’s journey, which, we do.
RKO, the studio behind “The Magnificent Ambersons”, scrapped more than forty minutes of footage from the ending of the film while Orson Welles was out of the country in Brazil (according to IMDb, one rough cut was sent with Welles to Brazil, but it has yet to be found). Welles himself was furious, saying that the eighty-eight minute version looked as if it had “been edited by a lawnmower,” and that this film could’ve been better than “Citizen Kane” had the ending been left untampered. Obviously, since I haven’t seen the original cut of the film, I can’t say if this could’ve been better than “Citizen Kane”, but I will say this: as it is, the eighty-eight minute cut of the film is a masterpiece. It might’ve just been Welles’ anger making him speak hyperbolically, but if studios would’ve left it alone, I fully believe him when he said could’ve been better than “Kane.” This might be one of the greatest lost footage stories in history.
Anyways, on to the review.
“There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.”
In a small American town lives the magnificent Ambersons, a family of enormous wealth and reputation. The entire town knows the gossip surrounding the family and their love lives, and most interesting is the gossip surrounding the love triangle between Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten, “The Third Man”), and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Isabel was in love with Morgan, but he was young and reckless, so she decided to marry Minafor. Years later, Isabel and Minafer have a son, George, whom, as a child, is spoiled and spiteful, and all the town eagerly awaits the day he will get his comeuppance. Years later, when George (Holt), returns to his home a man, he comes in contact with Eugene Morgan’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, “The Ten Commandments”), and tries to start a love affair.
Almost immediately I could tell I was going to love the way this film dealt with its themes on the transitory nature of life; greatness swells like a wave, washes over the shore extending as far as it can up the sands, and retreats into the sea, the next wave that crashes will barely see record of the one that just faded away. This film begins by detailing the lives of Isabel Amberson and her fortune as the camera flows through the town; we get little scraps of gossip as we pass from shop to shop, and many of the characters we see are some we’ll never see again. Simultaneously, a narrator (voiced by Welles himself) tells us about the passing clothing fashions that occurred during the lives of Isabel, Wilbur, and Eugene; we see certain things come into style, and then go out of style, never to return to be in style again (a great metaphor for the Amberson family). The first twenty minutes of the movie do nothing more than craft the setting and give us backstory on the characters, but the way that this film executes this backstory feels like we’re reading the start of some great literary novel, which makes sense as this film was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, written by Booth Tarkington.
When we first meet our protagonist, he’s a young precocious boy who is prideful about his family’s wealth and believes that it sets them apart from everyone else. The entire town waits for him to get his comeuppance, and we the viewers, are inclined to agree that the boy needs something to cut him down a few feet. When George returns, and he’s still prideful, one can’t help but think of him as a child still, for that’s how he behaves. His relationships grow strained, and George himself fails to see the reasoning behind it; it’s a great character study of an incredibly unlikeable character that slowly starts to grow on you.
Some of the best moments in the film happen between George and his Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead, “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte”). Moorehead was nominated for her performance and she is absolutely spellbinding throughout, but one of the greatest scenes in this film is when George confronts Fanny about rumors surrounding his mother and Eugene, and it begins to dawn on him that people in the town have always talked about the love triangle. The moment sort of shatters all of George’s preconceived notions about who he was and it puts a blemish on what he thought was a sparkling reputation. The scene is expertly directed. As the tensions elevate, George and Fanny climb stairs into an ill-lit portion of the mansion; shadows cling to the corners like maliciously bitter shades, impending on the frame with an ominous presence. In a single shot, Welles is able to go from a relatively normal looking area in the house to one that feels nightmarish and sickly.
As the film goes on, technology starts to creep into the town: we see telephone poles being put up; automobiles replace horse drawn carriages (another major metaphor in the film); and overall we see the passing of time, the passing of greatness as a new age comes screaming into existence. This slow change in the production design as the film continues makes it feel as if we’re living in this world with these characters, slowly wading into a world that we no longer recognize. It’s easy to sympathize with George as he does, finally, get his comeuppance, but the conclusion just doesn’t feel as earned as it should.
From a directing standpoint this film is absolutely astounding, which is why I chose to still give this film a 5/5 even though the ending didn’t quite work as well as I wanted. There are so many different techniques used to emphasize certain emotions, so many incredible long takes with tracking shots that utilize deep staging, so many tricks that Welles plays in order to draw the viewer further into the world. The brilliance and magnificence of the Ambersons comes not only from the dramatic story being told, but the unique way the film was crafted. This film is a treasure, and I hope, someday somehow, that an original cut of the film is miraculously recovered (if you’re living in Brazil, start looking!).
This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It lives up to its name and truly is magnificent. I actually think that I might like this more than “Citizen Kane”, though I’d have to go back to rewatch, it’s been a long time since I’ve visited with the newspaper mogul. Either way, this is a movie I’m glad I didn’t miss, and if you’re a cinephile, or even just a person with an interest in old and dramatic films, this is a movie you’ll definitely want to check out.
End Note: this really has nothing to do with the film, but another one of my reasons for wanting to see this movie was because it was referenced as a huge inspiration for “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and I can absolutely see the comparisons. Both films are five star films, in my opinion, but “Ambersons” is still a better film in the long run.
Review Written By: