Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942): Orson Welles Second Film–and Second Masterpiece

Orson Wells’ autheurist effort (as writer, director, and narrator), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is linked to Shadow of a Doubt thematically, showing the dark side of small-town, but also in casting, using the same actor, Joseph Cotten, in the leading role.

The film is highly innovative in its use of cinematic codes. It is framed by Welles’ offscreen voice-over narration, placing the story in a broader perspective. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in l873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city.” (Note the word darken to describe the evolution of town into a city). The tone is nostalgic, but decidedly unsentimental, emphasizing the inevitability of change precipitated by technological innovation.

Despite her great love for Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) married Wilbur Minafer, an act of downward mobility for her. She rebuffed Eugene, to whom she was engaged, when he made a fool of himself (being tipsy) in front of her house. She obviously made a mistake, as a town’s matron says: “Just because a man, any woman would like a thousand times better, was a little wild one night at a serenade.” The wedding, however, was in grand Amberson-style, with “raw oysters floating in scooped-out blocks of ice and a band from out of town.” But the town’s people, used as a chorus in a Greek tragedy, predict that Isabel and Wilbur will have “the worst spoiled lot of children the town will ever see.” They turn out to be right, with one exception: they had one child, George, but he was “spoiled enough or a whole carload.”

As a boy, George (Tim Holt) is arrogant, domineering, and rude, a brat pretending to own the whole town. He drives his dog-cart at criminal speed, forcing pedestrians to retreat from crossing. In the original script, there was a scene in which George demands new elections at the club so that he can become its president. George refers to Reverend Smith as a “riffraff,” one “the Ambersons wouldn’t have anything to do with him.” If the Reverend “wanted to see any of us, he’d have to go ’round to the side door.” The residents dislike George ever since he was a boy, hoping “to live to see the day, when that boy would get his come-uppance!” “Something was bound to take him down, some day,” says the narrator, “and they only wanted to be there.” The rest of the film describes that something.

The narrative begins when Eugene Morgan returns to town as a widower after absence of twenty years. An outsider who was once an insider, his return affects the town, signaling a new era. Eugene is an industrious middle-class man who achieves success through talent and hard work–with no reliance on connections or aristocratic blood. The movie parallels his ascent, as a prosperous businessman, with the decline of the aristocratic Ambersons. An inventor, he is in the process of working on a new “horseless carriage.” George feels sorry for him and predicts failure: “People aren’t going to spend their lives lying on their backs in the road and letting grease drip in their faces.”

George offends Lucy (Anne Baxter), Eugene’s daughter, at their first meeting, referring to him (not knowing he is her father) as “some old widower.” George is against going to college, describing it as “lots of useless guff.” He is contemptuous of any line or profession. “Just look at ’em,” he tells Lucy scornfully, “lawyers, bankers, politicians! What do they get out of life, I’d like to know. What do they ever know about real things Where do they ever get” His ambition is to be a yachtsman. George wonders why “all those ducks” were invited by his mother to their party for she needs not to “worry much about offending anybody in town.” “It must be wonderful,” says Lucy, “to be so important as that!” “Anybody that really is anybody ought to be able to do about as they like in their own town,” he replies with self-assurance. When Lucy expresses her concern about George’s arrogance to her father, he tells her “three things” to explain “all that’s good and bad about him: He’s Isabel’s only child. He’s an Amberson. He is a boy.”

Eugene has no concern for his father’s investments; he wants to make sure he won’t invest into Morgan’s automobile. “The automobile concern is all Eugene’s,” his mother corrects him, “your father’s rolling mills.” And offended, Aunt Fanny says: “Eugene Morgan’s perfectly able to finance his own inventions these days.” George is discontent with the way his grandfather manages his houses. “He ought to keep things up better,” he says, “He lets people take too many liberties: they do anything they want to.” George’s philosophy is based on privileged birth and spoiled upbringing, but he expects civility among those at the top: “There’s a few people that birth and position put them on top, and they ought to treat each other entirely as equals.”

A politician, Uncle Jack is more realistic and pragmatic than his nephew. “What puts the lines on faces” he asks Eugene. “Age puts some, and trouble puts some, and work puts some,” replies Eugene, “but the deepest wrinkles are carried by lack of faith.” Welles seems to suggest that the Ambersons, still oriented toward their glamorous past, have lost their faith in the future. By contrast, upwardly mobile Eugene is a man of the future.

Magnificent Ambersons offers a turbulent family portrait, with a most complex relationship between mother and son. Isabel is the devoted mother, worshipping her son, thinking, as uncle Jack says “he’s a little tin god on wheels.” As for Geroge, he is mother-fixated, with strong Oedipal feelings. Destructive and vengeful, he does everything in his power to abort her rekindled romance with Eugene, though he knows it is based on true love.

Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) is the film’s most tragic character, a spinster still in love with Eugene, and always in the shadow of Isabel’s riches, beauty and grace. Utterly humorless and ultrasensitive, she seems to be on the verge of hysteria all the time. “It all began,” George explains, “when we found out father’s business was washed up and he didn’t leave anything.” “Fanny hasn’t got much in her life,” says uncle Jack, “Just being an aunt isn’t really the great career it may sometimes seems to be.” An old maid, her entire behavior is motivated by contradictory feelings of love and envy and frustrated emotions for Eugene.

The tone of the movie is elegiac: Despite the historical necessity of progress and the inevitability of change, there is a price to be paid. Welles is ambivalent toward the notion of progress. In a crucial scene, when George describes cars as “useless nonsense,” it’s Eugene, the propagator of change, who says: “I’m not sure Georgie is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization.” Ambivalent toward the progress made by cars, Eugene is aware they may not “add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls.” But they are an irreversible fact, and as such are going “to alter war and to alter peace.” Eugene sees change as ubiquitous, permeating every aspect of life: “Men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles.” But through Eugene, Welles shows the incompatibility between the positive aspects of the old aristocratic order and the modern industrial age.

Mastering the language of cinema in Citizen Kane, Welles devotes more attention to characterization in Magnificent Ambersons; the protagonists are individual creations rather than types, as they were in Citizen Kane. It is a deeper, more personal, work than Citizen Kane, even though it lacks the latter’s narrative pull. Episodic by nature of the material, it’s brilliant cinema. Welles’s use of the iris to end scenes serves as an effective distancing device, which is also suitable in conveying the film’s nostalgic mood. His punctuating narration provides commentary on the action as it goes along, never allowing the viewers to completely identify with the characters or the story. As Bodwell and Thompson have noted, the juxtaposition of diegetic and nondiegetic sound is also innovative, marking the transition from his (offscreen) narration to the town’s people commenting on the action, and from their words to the characters themselves.

Visually, “Magnificent Ambersons” is a treat due to Stanley Cortez’s brilliant cinematography, which som scholars consider to be the refinement of a particular style, marked by bold mastery of light and shadow, crisp imagery, and remarkable depth of field.

It is a tribute to Welles’ genius that the movie has maintained those qualities despite the fact that it was mutilated by the studio during the editing process and that many of the text’s best scenes have not survived, as is clearl by the extremely short running time.

How the Movie Was Made?

George Schaefer hoped to make money with this film, since he lost a bundle on Citizen KaneMagnificent Ambersons had been adapted for The Campbell Playhouse by Welles for radio. Welles’s new contract revoked his right to control the final cut.  Since Gregg Toland was not available, the equally brilliant Stanley Cortez was hired as cinematographer.

The Magnificent Ambersons was in production from October 28, 1941 to January 22, 1942.  During that time, Welles was also producing a weekly half-hour radio series on CBS, The Orson Welles Show, which ran from September 15, 1941 to February 2, 1942.