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Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons

by Dave Gourdoux

Tim Holt and Agnes Moorehead on the famous stairway of the Amberson mansion.
As a classic movie buff, one of the questions I often get is, "Why is Citizen Kane considered the greatest movie ever made?  It doesn't seem that special to me."

My answer always begins with: I have no idea what the greatest film ever made was. I have no idea how you'd even judge something like that. There are so many things that go into making a movie, so many more than any other art form, that to pick a best movie of any given year seems to be an exercise in subjective nonsense, let alone the greatest of all time.

That being said, there are a number of things I can point to to help explain why Citizen Kane is held in such high regard:

  • Technical achievements: the film's director, Orson Welles, played with the camera like nobody before and few afterwards. There were shots from foot level, from inside a hand held snow globe, sweeping panoramic views, and expressionistic angles, tilting and distorting reality as Kane lost his grip. The editing and the cinematography are exceptional as well.
  • It's unmistakably the vision of a brilliant artist. At the time it was made (1941), film wasn't broadly accepted as a legitimate art form. Many intellectuals of the day looked at it as vulgar entertainment targeted at the unsophisticated masses, and few directors were recognized as true artists. Citizen Kane was unmistakably the extraordinary realization of the vision of an undisputed genius, who had already been recognized for his landmark stage and radio work.
  • The way the story was told, the many stories within stories, the shifting points of view, and the way all of the camera angles and the editing and the pacing matched the respective stages of Kane's life.
  • The psychology of Kane and the brilliant plot mechanism of "Rosebud."
  • The iconoclasm of going after William Randolph Hearst, the publishing tycoon whose life the film was based on.
  • In 1941, the year the film was released, there was only about 30 years of film history to draw on. Kane was nothing like anything that went before, and has had a profound influence on many films that came after. The techniques Welles pioneered have been imitated countless times, lessening the impact they have on the modern viewer.

As great as Citizen Kane was, Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, is every bit its equal, and would arguably be held in higher regard than even Citizen Kane, had Welles not lost control of its making and release. Adapted by Welles from a 1925 novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons is about the decline of an aristocratic mid-west family at the dawn of the 20th century, and about how the unstoppable advancement of time, technology and progress obliterates everything in its path.

As the film opens, the Ambersons are the richest family in Indianapolis, and live lavish lives of wealth and propriety. Isabel Amberson Minafer is recently widowed, as is the inventor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten). Isabel and Eugene were once the loves of each others lives, even though Isabel refused Morgan and married another. The film begins with Eugene rekindling the old romance, much to the chagrin and dismay of Isabel's grown son, George (Tim Holt).

Most of Welles' films had a monster at its center--Kane in Citizen Kane and the character Hank Quinlan (played by Welles) in Touch of Evil being two notable examples. In The Magnificent Ambersons, George is the monster, universally reviled as arrogant and conceited by the townspeople, all of whom look forward to the day he receives his comeuppance.

George expresses nothing but contempt for Eugene and the automobiles he is inventing, seeing them as a complete waste of time and a threat to his comfortable life of privilege. When he learns from his spinster Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) of Isabel and Eugene's past romance, he becomes outraged, and does everything he can to sabotage their budding new romance.

The plot is further complicated by the fact that Fanny is also in love with Eugene, and becomes George's accomplice in breaking up Eugene and Isabel's romance. George also falls in love with Eugene's daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter).

All of these loves and passions are destroyed by George's stubborn devotion to his class and his refusal to allow his mother to "demean" herself with the vulgar new money of Eugene. George's relationship with his mother has Oedipal overtones. As she becomes ill and eventually dies, she is the personification of the fading aristocracy George so desperately clings to, while Eugene becomes a symbol of everything George despises.

As Eugene, Cotten gives another of his consistently solid performances. Holt's George is a great performance by a limited actor. Holt was primarily a star of westerns, best known to modern audiences as Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston's prospecting partner in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  In The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles uses Holt's lack of range as an asset, using it to articulate George's shallowness and emotional depravity.

It's Moorehead, as the unstable and hysterical Fanny, who delivers the most memorable performance. Tortured and agonized by loneliness and grief, it's one of the great performances in the history of film, and those who only know her as the character Endora from the 1960s television sitcom Bewitched will be astonished by her range.

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. The black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez and Welles' use of soft focus are distinctive and poetic. Welles also makes great use of the central set of the Amberson mansion, with its huge staircase becoming the films geographic center, with many key scenes taking place there. There's also a stunning sequence early in the film when Eugene takes Isabel and the family for a ride in the snow in one of his early automobiles. The film's opening sequence, showing the exterior of the mansion and the street activity passing by while Welles narrates, is genius. Visually, you get the sense that the whole movie takes place within a snow globe similar to the one Charles Foster Kane drops while dying in the Rosebud scene in Citizen Kane.

Welles lost control of the film and more than 40 minutes were cut by the studio, and a terrible substitute happy ending was shot and tacked on in replacement of Welles' original ending. One can only imagine how great Welles's full version would be. The Magnificent Ambersons, even in its truncated form, is still an undeniable masterpiece, and confirmation of the genius and artistry of Orson Welles.