#287 The Magnificent Ambersons
(1942, Orson Welles)
“The magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.”
Although history sometimes like to suggest otherwise, Orson Welles did more than just convince America that Earth was being invaded by Martians and direct the Greatest Movie Ever Made™ (also known as Citizen Kane). He also sometimes directed other movies, movies that he personally didn’t star in at that. And this is one of them – The Magnificent Ambersons.
It should come as no surprise that The Magnificent Ambersons is a movie about a wealthy family called the Ambersons, and that many people consider them to be rather magnificent. Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a young man who has his eyes on building strange contraptions known as “automobiles”, certainly thinks so, as he attempts to woo the family’s daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello). She rejects him, and marries a wealthy but passionless man, and bears a child, George (Tim Holt).
Twenty years later, George returns from college, and the Amberson family throw him a huge reception. Eugene returns to the town for the first time in years, and is now surprisingly successful with his “automobiles” (who knew they’d take off?). George takes an instant dislike to Eugene but finds himself rather smitten with his daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). Shenanigans ensue.
For whatever reason, Orson Welles decided to trim down the running time of The Magnificent Ambersons in contrast to his more well-known opus Kane, but this doesn’t really help Ambersons too much. For a start, the movie rushes to bring us up to speed with everything, and can leave the viewer somewhat disoriented as a result. Is it a story about a young “automobile engineer” trying to win over a socialite’s daughter? No, apparently it’s a life story of the rich family. Wait, no, now it’s about the son.
This leaves the film without a straightforward central plot point. It’s about all the above things, but it also often feels like it’s about none of them. I’m not sure what Welles’ decision to shorten the movie was based on, but it could have benefitted from letting some of its plot points sink in a little.
As another unfortunate side effect of this problem, there are instances of bizarre mood whiplash, such as the scene of everyone laughing and happy as they tootle through the countryside in one of Eugene’s cars which then slam cuts to an unrelated funeral.
It’s also not clear who our protagonist is. One would assume it was Eugene, looking into the Amberson family from outside, but he flits in and out of the movie so much that the focus ends up being put on George, who is difficult to accept as a protagonist for two reasons. First, he’s introduced quite late into the movie’s introduction run and introduced in a way that makes him feel secondary, and secondly, he’s an unlikeable little shit of a human being.
Thing is, while it’s certainly the point that he’s meant to be an insufferable jackass due to his spoiled upbringing, making this guy the protagonist and making him utterly unlikeable makes it hard to follow the action. We can’t root for him because he’s a stubborn idiot who irrationally hates a genuinely sympathetic character. A later scene where Lucy shows complete heartless indifference to George leaving is a cause for celebration, not sympathy, and that’s not really what should happen here.
Of course, this being an Orson Welles movie means that there is excellent attention to detail in the set design and the cinematography, and so every part of this film feels expertly put together. There isn’t a single thing technically wrong with this movie.
But sadly, that’s about the only thing that I can really say is magnificent about The Magnificent Ambersons. The word I would use is simply “okay”, since it was relatively interesting to watch but feel too far short of being something worth watching again.
Starring Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead & Ray Collins
Written by Booth Tarkington (novel) and Orson Welles
Produced by Orson Welles
Music by Bernard Hermann
Cinematography by Stanley Cortez
Edited by Robert Wise
Favourite Scene: Lucy breaking up with George, absolutely.
Scene That Bugged Me: Old Grandpa Amberson at one point starts reciting poetry to the camera for some reason.
Watch it if: You’re a fan of Orson Welles
Avoid it if: You wonder what’s so magnificent