The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorhead. Directed by Orson Welles. B&W, 88 minutes.
In late-19th century Indiana, there is no family so revered as the Ambersons. Socially and financially they are at the top of their game, until changes in society foretell changes in their fortune.
Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) is being courted by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) until he makes a drunken fool of himself—and by extension, her family—one night while attempting to serenade the young woman. Although she still loves him, she marries Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), a man for whom she feels only mild affection.
The two have one son, George (Tim Holt), who is spoiled, petulant and without ambition. George has no problem living off of his grandfather Ambersons’ wealth, and foresees a future of doing the same.
Just as George is reaching adulthood, Eugene Morgan comes back into the lives of the Ambersons’. Now a widower and the father of Lucy (Anne Baxter), it is clear there is still a spark between Eugene and Isabel. When Wilbur Minafer dies, Eugene takes up where he left off with Isabel some 20 years before, much to the chagrin of George. For his part, the young man has begun seeing Lucy Morgan.
But the entangled romances of the four are only the surface of the story. Eugene is on the cutting edge of the future, while the Ambersons are facing decline from the same innovations that line his fortune.
The Magnificent Ambersons is based on the 1917 Booth Tarkington novel of the same name. When writing the screenplay, Orson Welles stayed true to the book in many ways, but altered the ending. That change was not well received when the movie was tested with audiences. Welles made some edits, but they weren’t enough to improve audience reaction.
Ultimately, the studio re-shot the ending. The “new” finale was actually true to the novel, but less so to the tone Welles set with his screenplay and directing. Today, while the notes for Welles’ original ending still exist, all known footage of those scenes has been destroyed.
Despite the changes, the movie was well-received by critics and audiences alike, and today is considered by many to be one of the top films of the era. The film critic for The New York Times wrote: “With only two pictures to his credit, last year’s extraordinary “Citizen Kane” and now Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Orson Welles has demonstrated beyond doubt that the screen is his medium. He has an eloquent, if at times grandiose, flair for the dramatic which only the camera can fully capture and he has a truly wondrous knack for making his actors, even the passing bit player, behave like genuine human beings.”
The film received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Agnes Moorhead, who played Fanny Minafer, the long suffering sister of Wilbur.
A beautiful yet tragic film of the perils of progress, The Magnificent Ambersons justifies all of its accolades with fine performances, multi-layered meaning in each scene and beautiful set decoration, setting the mood for the era.