Classic Movie Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)


Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Release Date: July 10, 1942
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures | Mercury Productions
Summary/Review:

If your debut film is hailed as a masterpiece what do you do for a follow-up?  If you’re Orson Welles you adapt a Booth Tarkington novel to present a period drama about a wealthy family in Indiana during the Gilded Age.   This would also see the start of Welles’ off-screen conflicts that interfered with his vision for the project.  In this case, RKO Radio Pictures heavily edited down his film and added a new ending.  Most reviews I’ve read tend to focus on the challenge of following up Citizen Kane and the loss of Welles’ version of this film, so I’m just going to stick to what I watched.

The Ambersons are the richest family in town and daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is courted by Eugene (Joseph Cotten).  When he makes a social faux pas, she chooses to marry another man.  They have one child, George (played as an adult by Tim Holt who impressed me in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a spoiled brat who has the townspeople wishing for his comeuppance.  The main part of the film starts when George is college-aged and Eugene, now a widower, returns to town after a 20-year absence with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, later to star in All About Eve).  George and Lucy begin a romance but George can’t help but be hostile to her father who has become wealthy manufacturing automobiles.  Efforts to appeal to George’s good side by his unmarried aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorhead), who also loves Eugene, or his uncle Jack (Ray Collins), fall on deaf ears.  When George’s father dies and Eugene attempts to court Isabel, George blocks every chance for his mother’s happiness, eventually leading to the family’s downfall.

It’s really hard to convey how loathsome and sociopathic George is as a character.  I know there are unpleasant people in real life and movies have to reflect that but there’s really nothing to care about in this movie when it’s just George making himself and everyone around him miserable all the time.  Still, there were some things I like about this movement.  The opening sequence where the townspeople appear to be interacting with Welles’ narration is cleverly done, and gave me the idea that the whole film would have a satirical feel to it rather than the melodrama we got. The scene where they try to start the “horseless carriage” in the snow is beautifully shot. As someone who dislikes cars, I also like the anti-automobile message of the movie, with even Eugene stating how damaging they can be. And the scene where George tells Lucy he’s leaving forever and she acts giddy about it is great (only marred a bit when we learn she was actually covering up that she was broken-hearted about it).

I don’t know what Welles’ version of this film would’ve been like, but this movie as it is was mostly a miss for me.

Rating: **1/2

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