Wednesday, May 23, 2012

155. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Running Time: 88 minutes
Directed By: Orson Welles
Written By: Orson Welles, from novel by Booth Tarkington
Main Cast: Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead


I recorded "The Magnificent Ambersons" off television, about six months after I started my journey through the pages of the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" text. For over two years it has been waiting for my eyes and today it got them, as "Welles Week" kicks off.

The film is based on a novel by Booth Tarkington and tells the story of the Amberson family, in all their magnificence. It starts out with narration from Welles himself, as he talks about a different time; a time when people still had time for sleigh rides, balls, assemblies, cotillions, all-day picnics in the woods and a time when a young man would still stand outside a pretty girl's window and serenade her. In fact, our story begins with a serenade, or rather, a failed one. One evening when Eugene Morgan (Cotten) had a little too much too drink, he tripped over his base fiddle, in the middle of Isabel Amberson's front yard and made a fool of himself. After the incident, Isabel (Costello) wanted nothing to do with Eugene. Instead, she took on a new suitor, Wilbur Minafer, and together, the two had a son - George (Holt). George was a very spoiled child and of course he would be, being their only child and really the only child running wild inside the Amberson mansion. When he was old enough he was sent off to school and when he was grown, he returned. During a grand ball to celebrate the return home of George, Eugene Morgan reunites with Isabel and Eugene's daughter, Lucy (Baxter) meets George. George was a spoiled child and has grown up to be the sort of man you'd like to punch if you encountered in real life. He's selfish and proud and doesn't plan to work for a living. George courts Lucy, in hopes of one day marrying her. However, when Lucy goes away, without telling George, he sees fit to interrupt the life of his mother, who has plans to marry Eugene, after the sudden passing of Wilbur. George won't hear of his mother marrying this automobile inventor and does everything in his power to stop the engagement.

Before I really get going, let me just say one thing. Do you know how people talk about Morgan Freeman being a great narrator? Well, I love Morgan Freeman as much as the next guy, but he's got nothing on Orson Welles. Welles was eloquent with his words and had a soothing, yet powerful voice. You had a tendency to listen when he spoke and as good a narrator as he was here, I really wish he had actually been in the picture. Just have a look at the opening speech of "The Magnificent Ambersons" and tell me you can't easily envision Welles rattling off these great lines:

The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the girl what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare. During the earlier years of this period, while bangs and bustles were having their way with women, there were seen men of all ages to whom a hat meant only that rigid, tall silk thing known to impudence as a stovepipe. But the long contagion of the derby had arrived. One season the crown of this hat would be a bucket; the next it would be a spoon. Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-top boots gave way to shoes and congress gaiters, and these were played through fashions that shaped them now with toes like box ends, and now with toes like the prows of racing shells. Trousers with a crease were considered plebian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf and hence was ready-made. With evening dress, a gentleman wore a tan overcoat, so short that his black coattails hung visible five inches below the overcoat. But after a season or two, he lengthened his overcoat till it touched his heels. And he passed out of his tight trousers into trousers like great bags. In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year's, and all-day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade. Of a summer night, young men would bring an orchestra under a pretty girl's window, and flute, harp, fiddle, cello, cornet, bass viol, would presently release their melodies to the dulcet stars. Against so home-spun a background, the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral. 

Welles let the words come naturally, never rushing them, nor holding them back. He was a true professional in the film industry. It is because of this that I find it hard to express my dislike for this picture. I can't really put my finger on why, but ultimately "The Magnificent Ambersons" did not appeal to this viewer. The acting, of course, was top notch. How couldn't it be with Joseph Cotten as the star and with Welles in the director's chair. Actually it was, in my opinion, Agnes Moorehead who shined here, letting all the emotion of her character pour out of her like a lemonade pitcher at a barbecue.

I think my biggest problems with this film was the story, which really didn't seem to go anywhere and which wasn't all the enticing or exciting. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a dull film, that is of it's time and set before it's time. The characters aren't all that interesting and the whole story hinges on a spoiled man who refuses to grow up and accept change, especially when it comes to his mother's marital status. Welles seems to have some sort of fascination with great people or great families falling from grace. In "Citizen Kane" we're told the story of Charles Foster Kane, a great newspaper man, who is reduced to nothing. At least "Kane" had the benefit of having Welles in the lead. I truly can't wait to continue Welles week because I can't wait to see Welles onscreen again. If you ever want to see the true definition of a great actor, just watch Welles onscreen. But I'm getting off topic, aren't I? Actually, I think I've made my points. "The Magnificent Ambersons" failed to do anything for me and if I compared movie enjoyability to wins and losses, then I'd have to chalk this one up as a big loss for me.

RATING: 4.5/10  I can't even go '5' because that would be saying that it was an average film and I don't think I'd even go that far. Next up: "The Stranger".


May 23, 2012  4:12pm


  1. The acting and cinematography in this film were great, and Welles is a superb filmmaker (as well as a fantastic narrator, as you pointed out), but the story is so depressing and slow. I would still call it an above average picture because it is so well made, but I don't fell the need to see it again.

    1. I really do love Welles, but this one was sleep inducing.


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