January 22, 2009

The Magnificent Ambersons


Director: Orson Welles

88 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Indianapolis, the early part of the twentieth century. The Ambersons are a wealthy, upper class family. The eldest daughter Isabel is being courted by an eccentric inventor, Eugene Morgan. When he drunkenly serenades her, she breaks off the relationship and soon marries the dull but conventional Wilbur Minafer. They have a son, George, who is a spoilt and petulant young brat, detested by the local community who long for the boy to get his comeuppance.

Many years later George returns from college and a ball is held in his honour. Eugene has recently returned to the town with his daughter Lucy to establish an automobile factory. George immediately falls for Lucy, whilst Eugene tries to rekindle his relationship with Isabel. George discovers from his aunt and uncle that Eugene was once in love with his mother. This sends him into a jealous rage. Wilbur soon dies; after which Eugene and Isabel make plans to marry. Isabel falls ill and George takes her on a long holiday to prevent her marrying Eugene. When they return her illness is terminal. The family wealth is gradually being squandered as they are unable to keep up with the rate of economic progress. George finally receives his comeuppance.


‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ has one of the most notorious histories amongst any Hollywood films. It has acquired a reputation for all the wrong reasons; not for the quality of the film but the post-production issues that significantly altered Welles’ vision of the film. Maybe he should have seen it coming. It was unprecedented for a 25 year old director to be given full artistic control of his debut film, as Welles was afforded on ‘Citizen Kane’, yet the film was not without difficulties, including legal action and only a moderate box office performance. This experience no doubt made RKO nervous about Welles’ follow up and so it proved when ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ tested poorly and was subsequently edited and released when Welles was out of the country. This was the start of the end for Welles in Hollywood.

The film itself however is almost every part as impressive as ‘Citizen Kane’, which let’s not forget didn’t receive quite the adulation it now enjoys. Both films rip up the rulebook of conventional film making. The experimentalism which was at the heart of ‘Citizen Kane’ is just as prominent in ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. The most notable example of this is the cinematography. For his first film Welles used Gregg Toland who contributed an extensive use of deep focus, unheard of in American cinema at the time. For ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, Welles used Stanley Cortez, later noted for his work in film noir. Cortez’s most interesting contributions here are low angle shots of gossips in the local store wishing for the young George’s comeuppance, which is then followed by intense close ups shot also from a low angle.  The ballroom sequence is another example of how Welles and Cortez were at the peak of their craft. Utilising deep focus and high angle techniques, George and Lucy are speaking on the stairs but an elaborate display of dancing is vividly behind them in the same shot. There can be no doubt either than Visconti had this scene in mind when making ‘The Leopard’. Visconti’s own ballroom scene is one of the greatest in the history of cinema but Welles’ influence is apparent.

Much like ‘Citizen Kane’ dealt with the rise and fall of a wealthy press baron, ‘…Ambersons’ concerns itself with the rise and fall of a wealthy family. Kane was undone by his sexual affairs and political ambitions, the Ambersons undone by the seething jealousy of the spoilt son George. However Welles acknowledges that this family was almost certainly doomed towards decline anyway. The Ambersons made their wealth and acquired their status in an America that no longer exists by the second half of the film. Welles’ narrator acknowledges that the town, a microcosm of America is growing and changing rapidly. The family is not keeping up and is already on its way to its downfall but it’s George who sends it into oblivion. The industrial age is in full swing and families like the Ambersons aren’t prepared for it. The irony is of course that Eugene is prepared for this new age. An eccentric joke when the Ambersons prospered, he’s now a roaring success and had George’s jealousy not prevented his marriage to Isabel, then the family might have survived. The greatest irony of all is that George becomes an invalid, both legs broken, in an automobile accident – almost the strongest symbol of the new economic forces outstripping the old. Welles captures the snobbery of the Amberson family perfectly; not so much within the family patriarch of Isabel, but inside George and his bitter aunt. In the hands of such people, the Ambersons were inevitably doomed.

Welles certainly gave the impression of an artist who wished to be involved in every aspect of his films. Although the input of the likes of Toland and Herman J. Mankiewicz are considered crucial to the success of ‘Citizen Kane’, the film is widely perceived almost as a one man show. For ‘…Ambersons’ Welles remained off-screen but his presence is still there, narrating the unique credits sequence (as opposed to credits being printed onscreen). ‘…Ambersons’ represented the beginning of the end for Welles in Hollywood. Studios became reluctant to hire him as a director (though he acted prolifically enough), and when he directed Hollywood films (‘The Lady From Shanghai’, ‘Touch of Evil’) they were heavily edited without Welles’ approval. It’s likely that the 131/148 min edits of the film offer more insight and perspective; one wonders what was removed, surely more than just mere padding. Nevertheless, the shortened edit we have is still an incredibly impressive film, just as significant as anything in the Welles’ canon.


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