When someone speaks about the legendary director Orson Welles, he is usually identified with his most famous film Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane was a film that began as well as defined Welles film career. Citizen Kane is even considered to be the best film of all time or at least one of the best by many film lovers. I can not say that I can disagree with that statement either. Kane is a sprawling masterpiece of innovation and inspired artistry. Yet I feel there it is another Welles film that is fantastic but seems to be slowly disappearing from the face of the earth. The film is Orson Welles’ follow up to Citizen Kane and it is entitled The Magnificent Ambersons. It is a film that has much of the same brilliance as Kane does but no one seems to ever talk about it. The Magnificent Ambersons is a film of great power that appears to be vanishing from the minds of film fans, a fate that a film this strong does not deserve.
The film is a period piece that is set in a turn of the century small town, which name is never given. In this small town lives a wealthy and larger then life family named the Ambersons. The film begins as the young and passionate Eugene Morgan is trying to woo the youngest of the Ambersons daughters Isabel. Morgan tries to win her love but she marries the more financially stable Wilbur Minafer. When Isabel gets married Morgan leaves town heart broken. While Morgan is gone Isabel has one child, a boy, with Wilbur and the child is named George. George from a young age is horribly spoiled by his family and becomes an ungodly brat of a child. The entire town has a great dislike of him and most wish he would “get his comeuppance.” After twenty years or so go by Morgan returns to the small town again. Morgan now brings with him the fortune he made in his automobile business and also a beautiful, young daughter named Lucy. Morgan is now a more matured man as both a father and a widower. When the Morgans arrive Lucy and the bratty George soon fall in love with one another at a dinner party. Though George loves Lucy he does not trust her father and has a resentment of him being around the Ambersons family. Soon after the Morgan's arrival, Isabel’s husband, Wilbur, dies suddenly of an illness. After Wilbur’s death both Morgan and Isabel discover that they love each other and always have loved each other. Morgan soon asks Isabel to marry him and this is an action that makes the ill tempered George very unhappy. At all cost George tries to split up his mother and Morgan, even if it hurt his relationship with Lucy or anyone else. In his fight to split them up he finds an ally in his aunt Fanny who has always also loved Morgan. Both of the bitter Ambersons try and sabotage the romance. Along the way a series of disasters also occur to George and the rest of the Ambersons family, partly to do with his careless behavior. The films plot is at essence a story about a spoiled son finally learning lessons about life and a family that is crumbling from the foundation.
One thing that I believe is necessary for a good period piece film is a strong ensemble cast. This film is for sure one that has that trait. The actors all give something in there performances that strengthen the film on a whole. The Magnificent Ambersons cast consists mostly of Welles personal cast of actors called the Mercury Theatre Group. They were an acting troop that Orson Welles had assembled for his productions of plays he did on Broadway. When he moved from the stage into film making Welles decided to use his trusted actors in his films. In the lead role of George Ambersons, Tim Holt gives a very strong performance as a destructive brat who never grows up, until it is too late. Holt is an actor who is mostly known for being in low grade films for most of his career but in this film he shines. Holt makes George a plausible and complete character. Along the way the viewer also gets another sturdy performance from the impressive Agnes Moorehead as the jealous Aunt Fanny. It is wonderful how by with just little movements Moorehead can convey her character’s thoughts. Moorehead does not need words to show what her character is thinking. The most subtle of facial gestures and body language she uses to convey her character. Joseph Cotton also gives a complementary performance as the romantic and caring Eugene Morgan. Cotton plays the character as someone with youthful passion and the maturity of an older man. I have always thought Cotton to be one of film’s most under appreciated actors. Joseph Cotton was alsot great in films like Carol Reed’s The Third Man or Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Along with Cotton the rest of the cast is at minimum satisfactory and as a group they work together to help excel the film’s quality.
Now the story is fascinating and the cast are sound in their performances but the true genius of the film comes from the legendary Orson Welles. This is a film that in all actuality would be nothing with out Orson Welles. The man did everything in the film. Welles directed, produced, narrated the film and adapted the film’s screenplay from Booth Tarkington’s novel. On top of all that he did all these tasks brilliantly. As a director Welles was at least twenty years ahead of his time and most of his techniques were revolutionary. The variety of creative camera angles and experimental lighting alone were out of this world. Welles establishes a lush black and white look to the film and sets a distinct style. The look of the film ranges from haunting to beautiful and is very impressive to just look at and admire. One technique of Welles that I admire is that he is able to sneak messages and meaning into the film. The film is an almost harsh look at the class system and the cruelty of the wealthy. Welles uses the Ambersons as a model for all rich people who do not think of the consequences of their actions and how they will come back to haunt them. Just like his first film Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is a film that at its core is about having happiness and loosing it through poor decisions.
From the films conception it seems like it was destined to be doomed. For starters after Welles made his first film, Citizen Kane, he had a horrible reputation in Hollywood. Welles started off as the golden boy of Hollywood but Citizen Kane destroyed all that. It was a film that he had complete control over and the studio hated it. Citizen Kane also caused a huge amount of negative publicity for the studio but even more damaging, the film was a bomb at the box office. From the fall out of Kane Welles marched on and made The Magnificent Ambersons as his follow up film. It was completed with out any big incident and Welles left the country once it was completed. While Welles was out of the country the film was screened for test audiences. The results of the test audience were all around very negative. The screening of the film was held shortly after Pearl Harbor and the audience said the film was too depressing. The studio heads became spooked because they thought they would have another Orson Welles flop on their hands. So the studio rushed to re-shoot and reedit the film while Welles was out of the country. By the time Welles returned to America he had found his film shorten by about fifty minutes and it had a cheerful ending tact on to it. To add insult to injury all the footage that was taken out of the film was destroyed. Now no one will ever know the brilliance of Welles true vision. The cuts of the film are noticeable too. Some of the scenes appear to be cut short and the happy ending the studio tacked onto the film is nearly unbearable. With those minor quarks aside Welles vision still is strong enough in this film to shine through. His brilliance was hard to fully compromise.
When the film was finally released, in 1942, it was given a limited release and was promoted as a second rate film. It was dumped on any theatre that would take it and the studio was just trying to get rid of it. With at least some luck the film was able to gain some critical buzz. It also was able to gather four Academy Awards but lost all of them that year. Soon after that the film kind of drifted away. Years later when Welles work was finally being appreciated by film goers, The Magnificent Ambersons finally received some recognition. In 1982 it even was ranked number seven on The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll of the greatest films of all time. Fast forwarding to today it seems to be forgotten by most film fans. Only true film fanatics or Welles fans ever talk about these dyas. Even when it is talked about it is usually considerd just a side note to Citizen Kane.
I also fear that it may be facing a slow death at its current rate. At one time it had a good amount of respect but in resent years it has become less and less known. It has disapeared from most film lists and has mostly been forgotten by the general public. As of now it has never been avaible in America on DVD and has been out of print for the last decade or so in VHS. It is fairly hard to find a copy for viewing and might take some searching. A person searching for it may be lucky to find a VHS copy in an older video store and sometimes it is on cable. The film is also in some need for film restoration because every print of the film I have viewed has been very rough and has a scratched look to it. If action is not taken soon the film could be lost for perhaps ever. This would be a crime against all film fans as well as the artistic world in general.
When it comes down to it the film never had a fair chance. From creation it was tinkered with and it never was given a chance to catch on with film goers. It also had the unfortunate luck of having to live in the shadow of one of the greatest films of all time. The Magnificent Ambersons has always had the stigma of having to be the film Orson Welles made after Citizen Kane. It was never given a fair break to prove its own worth. The bottom line, with everything else aside, this is a great film. The film has Orson Welles’ inspired genius all over it and a strong cast to support it. Yes the film may not be the complete of Welles but it is still a monumental work to behold. Through the enourmous set backs and censorship the film still prevails. It is a film still worth the publics consideration and I hope it will find an audience again. The Magnificent Ambersons at least deserves that.