The young, handsome, but somewhat wild Eugene Morgan wants to marry Isabel Amberson, daughter of a rich upper-class family, but she instead marries dull and steady Wilbur Minafer. Their only child, George, grows up a spoiled brat. Years later, Eugene comes back, now a mature widower and a successful automobile maker. After Wilbur dies, Eugene again asks Isabel to marry him, and she is receptive. But George resents the attentions paid to his mother, and he and his whacko aunt Fanny manage to sabotage the romance. A series of disasters befall the Ambersons and George, and he gets his come-uppance in the end.
Joseph Cotten ... Eugene Morgan
Dolores Costello ... Isabel Minafer
Anne Baxter ... Lucy Morgan
Tim Holt ... George Minafer
Agnes Moorehead ... Fanny Minafer
Ray Collins ... Jack Minafer
Erskine Sanford ... Roger Bronson
Richard Bennett ... Maj. Amberson
Orson Welles ... Narrator (voice)
Fred Fleck (additional sequences) (uncredited)
Robert Wise (additional sequences) (uncredited)
People may initially be thrown by the title MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Some may consider it a stuffy period piece before seeing it if they know only of the novel. Don't make this mistake if you have not witnessed this cinematic milestone. The title, of course, is caustic and refers to the 19th century family sarcastically. Who else but the great Orson Welles could follow up a masterwork like CITIZEN KANE with such a cynical and important drama. The "magnificence of the Ambersons" is neither grand, nor respectable. It is tragic and doomed, epitomized by young "Georgie" (played by Tim Holt), whose main ambition in life is to be a yachtsmen. He is buried under the lore of his family name and he is headed towards his well-deserved "comeuppance".
The film itself, like many of Welles' great pictures, was absolutely butchered by the studio (RKO Pictures) and destroyed the credibility of the young auteur. In many ways, the mess surrounding the film's release, the tragedy and loss of the Ambersons, and the theme of modern technology "taking over" all come together to leave all parties disappointed. Disapproving moviegoers miscalculated the message, led the studio to make the cuts behind Welles' back, and placed a lot of artists in some bad situations. (For an excellent account of this truly remarkable story behind the film, read Joseph McBride's bio "Orson Welles" 50 minutes of film were burned, however, the 88 minutes left for us to see contain some incredible, even revolutionary moments.
Joseph Cotten plays his consummate "2nd place" character, a man unable to have his real true love. (See THE THIRD MAN, NIAGARA) He is in love with an "Amberson" (probably the only righteous family member played by Dolores Costello) but loses out to a more "respectable" man. The essential themes of industrialism and change that will ruin the Amberson family stem from Cotten's position as an inventor. He has created the horseless carriage, or automobile, however primitive, which is continuously trashed by the hateful "Georgie". Cotten's invention is part of the growth and change that many families of the late 19th century may have ignored, only to have their lives passed over and fortunes lost. Plot elements aside, this central theme is the powerful backbone that leads to the inevitable destruction of the narrow-minded Tim Holt.
The latter aspects come across on screen so memorably because of Orson Welles' continued experimentation with film. Incredible b & w photography, at first a hazy glow depicting the early prime years of the Ambersons, then a stark, dark force portraying shame and sadness, is amazing to see. Overlapping dialogue is used even better here than in KANE and Welles' narration is so omniscient and on the mark, relaying the town's thoughts on this once grand family. Long tracking shots throughout the constantly changing town go unnoticed unless seen a couple of times. When you realize the passage of time through these devices, you will be in awe.
Again, there is tragedy in both the film itself and its shoddy release and treatment in 1942. If only Welles stayed in America at the time and protected THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS from the long arm of the near-sighted studio system, he may have had #'s 1 and 2 on the AFI's list of 100 Greatest American films.
If one could have a single wish regarding movie history, surely it would be the rediscovery of the nearly one hour cut out of what seem to be all existing prints of this! Even with the tampering, it is a gorgeous movie. To me, it is superior to "Citizen Kane." Wells himself was partially at fault for its being butchered: Had he stayed in the United States and not pursued a new, eventually unfulfilled dream, he surely could have fought RKO.
The narration by Welles at the beginning is like the dream storytelling of any child or young person. The words so beautiful, the tones so calm and mellifluous! And the final credits, in which he reads the crew and then the cast, are astonishingly moving.
In between is a touching story that is acted and filmed with rare integrity. Dolores Costello is a haunting presence. Agnes Moorhead, as the Neurotic aunt, gives a performance rarely equaled in movie history.
Stanley Cortez was cinematographer for three great movies (and many other fine ones): "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Night of the Hunter," and "The Naked Kiss." Each relies strongly on its look and Cortez created three very different, memorable canvases.
One fan hope against hope that the lost footage turns up in someone's basement, unlikely as that is. Even so, once seen this movie is never forgotten.
As most reviewers have stated, Welles' film suffered at the hands of studio interference and it is to the film's credit that, despite such butchery, it still remains a marvellous piece of entertainment.
The emotional story revolves around family relationships, about love denied, unrequited or made to suffer. It is also a social portrait of the failure of one family to come to terms with progress (symbolised by the motor car in the film).
Tim Holt is excellent as George Minafer and I think we are meant to view him ambivalently: he is both a loveable ne'er do well as well as a spoiled egotist who puts his emotions/feelings before everyone else's. Agnes Moorehead deservedly won praise for her portrait of the plain Aunt Fanny. Her final disintegration (blackly comic when George thinks she's scalding herself at a hot boiler only to be told that there's no water due to their reduced circumstances) mirrors the descent of the Ambersons into obscurity and genteel poverty. The only memory of their faded glory is in the names they give to the new roads leading to the suburbs.
As with ‘Citizen Kane', wealth does not always protect people from unhappiness. And it's interesting to note how the Amberson's huge mansion, once the social centre of town with its balls & serenades, becomes an empty derelict monument to a by-gone age.
In a sense, the whole film is ambivalent. You can't stop progress as Eugene (Joseph Cotton) states in the dramatic scene where he & George clash over motor cars, but Gene is also aware that things might not necessarily change for the better. Life will become faster etc. After George receives his comeuppance, I quite liked the symbolic irony of him falling victim to a car accident.
Finally, it would be nice if production companies could have the courage of their convictions and actually left capable, intelligent directors to make films without interfering with their vision. Prod companies are still obsessed with preview viewings and initial reactions to films. Yes, sometimes a film might need altering, and most studios want a decent return on their investment but it would be good if they could keep faith even if a film receives an initially hostile reaction. Many great works of art have been initially misunderstood; and great films, like great art, stand the test of time.
In the newspaper reporting the auto accident that injured George Amberson Minafer, the left hand column is "Stage Views" featuring the picture and byline of "Jed Leland", the theater critic in Citizen Kane (1941), also directed by Orson Welles. Leland was played by Joseph Cotten, who plays Eugene Morgan in this movie.
RKO chopped 50 minutes of the film and added a happy ending while Orson Welles was out of the country. The footage was subsequently destroyed; the only record of the removed scenes is the cutting continuity transcript.
The scenes with the automobile ride with the snow were filmed in an abandoned icehouse instead of the RKO stage reserved for such shots. However, it took much longer than anticipated because the equipment kept having problems that were brought on by the cold (film jamming because of frozen condensation, lenses fogging up, etc.). Because of this everyone involved, except for Orson Welles, contracted a terrible head cold.
On its original release, the film was shown as a second feature on a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942).
Tim Holt and Anne Baxter walk past a movie theater advertising a film starring Jack Holt, Tim's father.
The preview of the movie occurred a short time after Pearl Harbor. Because of this, most of the audience review cards stated that they didn't want to see a depressing movie, and that it should have more laughs and a happy ending. With Orson Welles out of the country, the production team had to make the cuts and changes without his input.
Orson Welles suspected that author Booth Tarkington based the lead character George on Welles himself for a variety of reasons: Tarkington was a friend of the Welles family, Welles had a reputation for being a spoiled, difficult child and Welles's full name was George Orson Welles, so he was called George or Georgie while growing up.
The earliest Morgan Automobile shown in the film is actually an 1892 Philion Road Carriage, one of the oldest existing American built cars and the only one produced. It can still be seen at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.
After a disastrous preview, it was clear to the suits at RKO that the film was too long, too dense and too sombre. Welles, however, had decamped to Brazil where he was in the midst of working on a film called "It's All True" (which was never completed). Welles had been shipped out there under the auspices of Nelson Rockefeller, one of the chief shareholders in RKO, to make a film boosting US-South American wartime relations. With him out of the way, however, the onus of re-cutting and trimming the film fell on editor Robert Wise.
The 50 minutes that Robert Wise cut out of the original film were destroyed, ostensibly to free up vault space at RKO. There was conjecture though that this was to prevent Welles attempting to make any changes to what was left of his film.
Ironically, RKO's reshot ending for the film - a much more uplifting affair than the one that Welles had intended - is much closer to the ending in the novel.
A print of Welles' rough cut was allegedly sent to the director on location in Brazil. It has yet to be found.
The first major film to have nearly all its credits narrated rather than appear on screen.
Producer Bryan Foy was one of many who felt that the film was too long. Upon hearing that 40 minutes had to be excised, Foy is alleged to have said: "Just throw all the footage up in the air and grab everything but 40 minutes."
From a budget of $1 million, the film lost over $600,000 - a huge amount of money for a small studio like RKO.
To persuade RKO head George Schaefer to approve this film as a follow-up to Citizen Kane (1941), Welles played him the Mercury Theater of the Air radio version. It is claimed that Schaefer fell asleep during this. Nevertheless, he greenlighted the film for $1 million, an unheard-of move for a studio whose policy was not to make films that cost more than $750,000.
The set for the Ambersons mansion was one of the most elaborate and expensive sets ever built at the time.
While Welles would direct "Ambersons" during the day, at the same time each night he would act his part of a Turkish policeman in Norman Foster's film Journey Into Fear (1943).
In the absence of Welles, the re-editing of the film was left in the hands of two men: Robert Wise, the physical editor, and Jack Moss, the RKO studio representative. A phone was put into Moss's office that fed directly to Welles's hotel room in Rio. According to future director Cy Endfield, who was working with Moss at the time, often when the phone rang, suspecting it was Welles with his latest batch of comments and suggestions for the re-edit, Moss would simply not answer the call. Similarly, when Moss received lengthy telegrams from Welles with more suggestions and thoughts, he would throw them away.
Welles demanded that the inside of the Ambersons mansion be built as if it was a real house, with continuous rooms of four walls and ceilings. This enabled his camera to roam around the house freely and shoot from any angle.
The consensus of opinion according to nearly everyone who saw the original conclusion - which included a tour of the decaying Amberson mansion - was that it was much more powerful than the tacked-on "happy" ending.
Welles later described the 88 minute version as if "it had been edited by a lawnmower".
Composer Bernard Herrmann had his name removed from the credits in protest at the way RKO messed about with his work.
Aunt Fanny did not feature in Welles' radio adaptation.
Twenty years later, Welles was still planning an epilogue starring the older Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead and Tim Holt.
After attending the first preview, RKO president George Schaefer wrote to Welles: "Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Promona preview".
Robert Wise's first directing experience, although uncredited.
Attempts to send Robert Wise to Brazil so that he could work alongside Welles were prevented due to wartime travel restrictions.
Robert Wise was one of the many vocal detractors of the critically derided 2002 Alfonso Arau mini-series remake.
One of former silent star Dolores Costello's last roles. She was forced to retire from the film business as her face had become badly scarred by early film make-up which was highly caustic.
Agnes Moorehead's signature scene - which secured her an Academy Award nomination - in which she bemoaned the turn of the Ambersons fortunes and her inability to provide for George, was actually cobbled together from original footage and hastily reshot scenes. The latter had no input from Welles.
Ray Collins was the only member of the cast to have featured in Welles' radio version in 1939.
The main poster for the Ambersons was designed by Norman Rockwell.
Sets were re-used by Val Lewton in Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) to help save production costs resulting from a ridiculously small budget.
The re-cutting of this film caused a deep rift in Orson Welles' friendships with Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten. Cotton later wrote several letters of apology to Welles, and the two later reconciled. Welles and Wise, however, remained on acrimonious terms for the rest of their lives.
According to Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles said many times that this film could've been "much better than Citizen Kane (1941)." Also, while Welles always refused to watch any of his films, he was in a hotel room in the 70s with many friends and ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was on TV, and he was talked into watching the rest of it. It is said that he was teary throughout, and confessed that although the ending didn't work, he still liked the film.