Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Familien Amberson
There is a lot of controversy around ”The Magnificent Ambersons”. The case in a nutshell is that Orson Welles lost control over the film and the end product is quite different from what he intended. According to the extra material on the DVD I saw it was a combination of Orson Welles being off to Brazil to do a new film on orders from the studio before  ”The Magnificent Ambersons” was finished and the studio panicking when two test screenings indicated that the film would tank at the box office.

Whatever the reason the film is what it is and I can only comment on the dish before me and not what the chef intended.

Giving a director free hands is chancy at best, especially when the director has an ego to match his skills. You may get a master piece or you may get a disaster and ”The Magnificent Ambersons” is a bit of both.

The storyline is pretty unique even if it is based on an actual novel and not Welles own work. As far as I read the plot this is about a horrible young man who gets what he deserves. Not so unusual you might say, but try make him the lead, the character we would normally root for. What a strange feeling that is, trying to root for a person you are meant to dislike and who really get his comeuppance. Quite schizophrenic really. George Amberson (Tim Holt as adult, Bobby Cooper as a child) is obnoxious in every way. We see where it comes from, rich family, a weak father, a doting mother and the child is spoiled rotten. He honestly believes he is better than just about anybody else because it is his birthright and his life mission is basically to be a professional playboy, whose job is to be rich and arrogant. Already there we are totally losing it for him even though to his defense he is not entirely to blame for his delusion. Certainly the class he grows up in actively supports this attitude. George crime is that he takes this to the extreme.

The bubble George lives him effectively protects him from all the annoying pressures of life and reality. When it does not conform to his wishes he is offended and denies it and so when he falls he falls deep.

Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) is the entirely opposite character. Honest and industrious he lives in the real world and he knows what he is and what he is not. When he courts Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) he is refused because of a whim so typical of the Amberson clan and instead Isabel marries the anonymous Wilbur Minafer, whom we hardly see. When Wilbur dies Isabel and Eugene resumes their courtship with the added bonus that Eugene has a lovely daughter that George sets his eyes on. Considering the hardships the Amberson clan has fallen into with poor business dispositions it would sound like the super solution with a double marriage to the now successful industrialist Morgan family, but this is not how George sees it. In his deluded world the Morgans are upstarts, producing the horrible nuisance, the automobile and courting his mother makes Eugene cause the worst of crimes: People will talk of indecency!!! That this talk is mostly in George own mind and is instilled by his vengeful aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) does not get through to him before it is too late (well, likely not ever) and so he sabotages their relationship. He loses Lucy (Anne Baxter) who sees him for what he is and his mother dies before she can get united with Eugene. Without the support of the Morgan family Fanny and George are broke and he must submit to actual work, oh horror.

Besides being a story about a guy who gets what is coming his way it is also an Oedipus story about a son who sees a rival in her mother’s lover. At least this is where the movie seems to be going. To me that theme is just subordinate the trashing of this arrogant bastard and so I sit back and enjoy that the bubble burst around him after having cursed him loudly for all the insidious things he is doing to people who actually care for him.

The filming is very elegant with nice touches. We get the from-below shots we know so well from Citizen Kane that makes people look larger than life and get passages with the camera moving around with the characters while the microphone catches conversations in passing. It is really like being there and very convincing.

The opening is also very interesting with the life of the wealthy class described through a tour of the vain and ultimately shallow menswear fashion of the past century. What an excellent way to demonstrate the shallowness of their lifestyle.

So, where is the disaster then?

In two ways:

1.       Ultimately a film about disliking the lead just does not really work. There is no real satisfaction to his comeuppance, it is just sad. For him and all the people who suffered because of him. Frankly I think Orson Welles just disliked this sort of people and this was his blow to them. Good for him, it does not really work for most of the rest of us.

2.       The weird ending. We are lead to believe that George actually comes around, makes a life for himself and through an accident he gets reattached to the Morgan family and particularly Lucy. Where on Earth did that come from? It sabotages the entire meaning of the film. The answer of course is that this was the studio’s attempt to solve the problem above. Unfortunately it did more harm than good.

So where do I stand in the end? A bit bewildered. I like a lot of the elements in the film. I love that Orson Welles tried something new. I just never connected to the story or the characters. Not a top mark in my book.



  1. I agree with you on this film. The people who say this is better than Citizen Kane must be rating the rumored version of the film that Welles wanted and not the actual version that exists.

    I didn't buy the attempt at redeeming the main character because he had been so unlikable for so long.

    I saw this only a few days ago and I gave it 2.5 stars - meaning "It's okay", but not good enough for me to recommend to others.

    1. Indeed. Just because this is Orson Welles does not mean it is fantastic.
      George come-around in the end is just so unlikely and worse, it works against the story the film is trying to tell. Just makes me confused as a viewer.

  2. Right on review and I agree that we can't give Welles credit for what didn't make it to the screen.

    I don't remember a lot about this film which says something. I do remember I was never so glad to see a character get his comeuppance (love that word) as George Miniver. I also thought the performance by Agnes Morehead was outstanding. But I totally agree there was a big something missing.

    1. Indeed. For me it was definitely a film with ups and downs. I recognize its qualities but it is missing the mark for me on crucial points. George really had it coming.

  3. I like this film more than you do. I won't say it's better than Citizen Kane--it's not. It's also not better than Touch of Evil, which I think is Welles's best. But I do appreciate this film for what it does--and without the crappy three-minute feel good at the end. Part of this is my love for Joseph Cotten. Part of this is that I love the final scene between George and Lucy, because Lucy destroys him.

    And...Welles has a great narrator voice.

    1. The film has its moments of genius and this is definitely one of them. I just do not know if I like a movie where I keep mumbling "what an idiot!" about the lead. It is disturbing.
      Welles did have one of the best narrator voices of all time. Sometime I must get hold of his War of the worlds radio show.