Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942): Orson Welles’ Elegiac Tale of Social Progress in Small Town

Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is linked to Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) thematically, showing the darker side of small-town, but also in the casting, using the same actor, Joseph Cotten, in the leading role.

However, in Welles’s film, Eugene Morgan represents social progress and change, whereas in the Hitchcock film, Uncle Charlie embodies values of the old aristocratic order.

Adapting Booth Tarkington’s novel, Welles stresses the somber aspects in the decline and decay of a great American dynasty in the Midwest. He made the first major Hollywood movie about the theme of industrial progress, while treating it with both subtlety and sadness (bordering on despair).

The narrative spans a whole generation, beginning in 1873, with turning points in 1890, 1894, and 1904.  Like the 1940 film Our Town, most of the narrative is set at a crucial time of change, at the turn of the century.

As Shadow of a Doubt hinted, the town’s rich people are elegant, members of a privileged minority: “In those days, all the women who wore silk and velvet knew all the other women who wore silk and velvet.” Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) built his dynasty in Midland. “The Ambersons Mansion!” states an old citizen, “The pride of the town! Sixty thousand dollars for the woodwork alone” The town’s inequality was always visible: “Against so homespun a background, the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.” “Everybody in town can tell when the Ambersons are out driving after dark, just by the jingle,” says an old man. The beauty of the three-story house surpassed that of the White House. When the Ambersons gave parties, elegant people arrive in their carriages, and crowds of the “uninvited” stood in the snow to watch. The Ambersons also have connection to real political power. “Uncle Jack is in Congress,” says George, “because the family likes to have someone there.”

In adapting the book to the screen, Welles decided to eliminate the character of Fred Kinney, Lucy’s boyfriend. Instead of the rivalry between him and George over Lucy, the focus is on the rivalry between Eugene and George over Isabel’s attention. 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, who has always been 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 film convey–and laments–the declining pride of the old order and the ascent of the industrious bourgeoisie, a theme explored in many books and films. 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.

Welles claims that at least 40 minutes were truncated from what he intended to be an American film with a wide epic scope.  Still, Magnificent Ambersons’s cinematic language is so powerful and innovative that it’s a masterpiece even in its mutilated form. However, the resolution, a reconciliation between Lucy and George, imposed by the studio, negates everything that preceded it.

Fortunately, this resolution doesn’t really mitigate the narrative’s elegiac tone. There is a good deal of irony in the ending: George is injured in a car accident, the very car he objected to, and the accident occurs while he returns from work, the very essence of which was deplorable to him.

Magnificent Ambersons was released in August l942, one year after the release of William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, based on Lillian Hellman’s stage play. Comparisons between the two films were inevitable, and, surprisingly, some critics favored the Wyler film. For example, one critic wrote that Little Foxes celebrates similar theme, but had more cumulative power than Magnificent Ambersons, though he admitted that Wyler’s film lacked the tremendous talents that Welles demonstrated in his. Interestingly, the nasty viciousness of the characters in the Hellman original work managed to remain intact in the film version.