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  • People may initially be thrown by the title MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Some may consider it a stuffy period piece before seeing it if they know only of the novel. Don't make this mistake if you have not witnessed this cinematic milestone. The title, of course, is caustic and refers to the 19th century family sarcastically. Who else but the great Orson Welles could follow up a masterwork like CITIZEN KANE with such a cynical and important drama. The "magnificence of the Ambersons" is neither grand, nor respectable. It is tragic and doomed, epitomized by young "Georgie" (played by Tim Holt), whose main ambition in life is to be a yachtsmen. He is buried under the lore of his family name and he is headed towards his well-deserved "comeuppance".

    The film itself, like many of Welles' great pictures, was absolutely butchered by the studio (RKO Pictures) and destroyed the credibility of the young auteur. In many ways, the mess surrounding the film's release, the tragedy and loss of the Ambersons, and the theme of modern technology "taking over" all come together to leave all parties disappointed. Disapproving moviegoers miscalculated the message, led the studio to make the cuts behind Welles' back, and placed a lot of artists in some bad situations. (For an excellent account of this truly remarkable story behind the film, read Joseph McBride's bio "Orson Welles") 50 minutes of film were burned, however, the 88 minutes left for us to see contain some incredible, even revolutionary moments.

    Joseph Cotten plays his consummate "2nd place" character, a man unable to have his real true love. (See THE THIRD MAN, NIAGARA) He is in love with an "Amberson" (probably the only righteous family member played by Dolores Costello) but loses out to a more "respectable" man. The essential themes of industrialism and change that will ruin the Amberson family stem from Cotten's position as an inventor. He has created the horseless carriage, or automobile, however primitive, which is continuously trashed by the hateful "Georgie". Cotten's invention is part of the growth and change that many families of the late 19th century may have ignored, only to have their lives passed over and fortunes lost. Plot elements aside, this central theme is the powerful backbone that leads to the inevitable destruction of the narrow-minded Tim Holt.

    The latter aspects come across on screen so memorably because of Orson Welles' continued experimentation with film. Incredible b & w photography, at first a hazy glow depicting the early prime years of the Ambersons, then a stark, dark force portraying shame and sadness, is amazing to see. Overlapping dialogue is used even better here than in KANE and Welles' narration is so omniscient and on the mark, relaying the town's thoughts on this once grand family. Long tracking shots throughout the constantly changing town go unnoticed unless seen a couple of times. When you realize the passage of time through these devices, you will be in awe.

    Again, there is tragedy in both the film itself and its shoddy release and treatment in 1942. If only Welles stayed in America at the time and protected THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS from the long arm of the near-sighted studio system, he may have had #'s 1 and 2 on the AFI's list of 100 Greatest American films.
  • I think I'd give just about anything to see a restored version of this film, like "Touch of Evil."

    Its reputation is quite justified, however, and the top critics of today have generally agreed that it's one of Welles' best efforts as director. Some have even said that, scene for scene, it's a better film than "Citizen Kane."

    The opening montage, set to Welles' narration, is as good as anything of its kind that's been done before or after -- brilliantly, and I hate to use that word because it's so often overused, it achieves two things: 1) it sets up the dramatic side of the story, with Eugene's fawning for and losing the affections of Isabel, and 2) putting us in a specific, historical time and place. The story of George Minafer's downfall parallels the changing times of America during that time, as well as American aristocracy.

    Then there's Agnes Moorehead, who does the most amazing work as Fanny Minafer, George's aunt. She's a pressure cooker to begin with, but when the Ambersons hit rock-bottom she lets go, in a torrential, hysterical performance that's still getting praise today.

    "The Magnificent Ambersons" also carries an equally dramatic story of Hollywood's assault on artistic expression; almost everyone knows that RKO seized the film and cut it to pieces while Welles was out doing his documentary "It's All True." Today there's other ways for great directors (Kubrick, Altman) to dodge the system, but film stock and equipment in those days could only be procured from big studios, and for the remainder of Welles' career his genius would only be seen fleetingly (his adaptations of Shakespeare, Kafka's "The Trial"). It's a story as tragic as George Minafer's.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    As most reviewers have stated, Welles' film suffered at the hands of studio interference and it is to the film's credit that, despite such butchery, it still remains a marvellous piece of entertainment.

    The emotional story revolves around family relationships, about love denied, unrequited or made to suffer. It is also a social portrait of the failure of one family to come to terms with progress (symbolised by the motor car in the film).

    Tim Holt is excellent as George Minafer and I think we are meant to view him ambivalently: he is both a loveable ne'er do well as well as a spoiled egotist who puts his emotions/feelings before everyone else's. Agnes Moorehead deservedly won praise for her portrait of the plain Aunt Fanny. Her final disintegration (blackly comic when George thinks she's scalding herself at a hot boiler only to be told that there's no water due to their reduced circumstances) mirrors the descent of the Ambersons into obscurity and genteel poverty. The only memory of their faded glory is in the names they give to the new roads leading to the suburbs.

    As with ‘Citizen Kane', wealth does not always protect people from unhappiness. And it's interesting to note how the Amberson's huge mansion, once the social centre of town with its balls & serenades, becomes an empty derelict monument to a by-gone age.

    In a sense, the whole film is ambivalent. You can't stop progress as Eugene (Joseph Cotton) states in the dramatic scene where he & George clash over motor cars, but Gene is also aware that things might not necessarily change for the better. Life will become faster etc. After George receives his comeuppance, I quite liked the symbolic irony of him falling victim to a car accident.

    Finally, it would be nice if production companies could have the courage of their convictions and actually left capable, intelligent directors to make films without interfering with their vision. Prod companies are still obsessed with preview viewings and initial reactions to films. Yes, sometimes a film might need altering, and most studios want a decent return on their investment but it would be good if they could keep faith even if a film receives an initially hostile reaction. Many great works of art have been initially misunderstood; and great films, like great art, stand the test of time.
  • The fate of this almost magnificent film must rank as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the cinema. viewing it in its present state is like looking at the Venus Di Milo, or at a beautiful Greek vase that has been shattered. One can only admire the fragments...and what gorgeous fragments they are: Major Ambersons heartbreaking meditation by the fireplace,the quarrel between Eugene Morgan and Georgie about the Automobile, Isabel's death, Agnes Moorehead's magnificent performance, the splendor of the Amberson mansion, and the ballroom scene. Perhaps someday, some powerful computer might be able to reconstruct the missing footage from stills and from Welles script...perhaps. Until that almost impossible moment, one can only envy the handful of men and women who were able to see it whole, and to understand what they were seeing.
  • In a Mid Western town at the turn of the century, an ostentatious family lives in an ostentatious house and arrogantly considers itself superior to all the other folks. Isabelle Amberson is the doyenne of the family, and is courted by Eugene Morgan, a bright young engineer. Isabelle rejects Eugene because of an imagined slight, and marries the worthy if unspectacular Wilbur Minafer. This sets in train a tragedy of unrequited love as Eugene continues over the years to yearn for Isabelle, while Isabelle's plain sister Fanny carries a secret flame for Eugene. Isabelle's imperious son George grows up and, thwarted in his own love for Lucy Morgan, develops an intense antipathy towards Eugene, the ever-present guest at the Ambersons' dinner table.

    Welles' affection for the Booth Tarkington novel which inspired this masterpiece is easy to understand. It is set in the snowbound countryside of the northern Mid West, the very place where Welles was born and raised, and the Ambersons are just the kind of upper middle class family from which Welles sprang. More than this, George Minafer IS Welles. Spoiled and deferred to as a child, George grows up knowing no bounds to his whimsy. The monster that he becomes is oddly attractive, partly because of his utter self-belief. Welles himself was such a man. He must surely have contemplated casting himself as George: Tim Holt, who actually appears in the role, resembles Welles uncannily, with his pudgy good looks and resonant baritone speaking voice. Welles had an inordinate fondness for strawberry shortcake, and so does George.

    The sombre, brooding atmosphere of the film is reinforced by its symbolic scheme. It is a film of departures and sunderings, with characters forever disappearing on long vacations, dying or merely vanishing behind closing doors, as when Fanny scurries away, devastated by the courtship joke.

    As with "Citizen Kane" in the previous year, the film's stylistic approach is to show groups of interlocutors as ensembles, without the camera moving in on the individual speaker. Some of the faces remain in shadow or are otherwise obscured. The viewer works out from the context whose words he is hearing. In "Kane", the device helped to show the many-faceted nature of a human life. Here, it underscores the centrality of the family. Each of the Ambersons is subordinate to the family itself, and the family is the continuum, the amber in which these characters are trapped. Another of the "Kane" themes is developed here - that wealth and status cannot protect anyone against unhappiness. Welles' fascination with mirror images, indulged here in the brief bathroom scene, was to emerge again in "The Lady From Shanghai".

    George Minafer and his "grand, gloomy and peculiar way" is at the heart of this film. He clashes unpleasantly with Eugene for two important reasons - George, the classic 'mommy's boy', sees Isabelle's lover as a rival, and Eugene is despicable because he is 'in trade' - and therefore far too vulgar a man to be lounging around the Amberson drawing-room. George's excuse for the confrontation is his ostensible desire to protect his mother from scandal, but this convinces nobody. In the climactic scene where George refuses Eugene admission to the house, we see George first through etched glass, emphasising his emotional aloofness, and his essentially defensive posture. Mrs. Johnson addresses George as "Mr. Amberson", then corrects herself and gives him his actual title, "Mr. Minafer". The error is significant, because George is the archetypal Amberson - sneering, haughty and strangely dissatisfied with life. In the scene where George and Lucy sever their connection, George protests indignantly that the emotional stress is going to make him faint. He doesn't collapse, but Lucy does. This is typical of George - he is quick to make his own selfish position clear, but does not in fact share the emotional vulnerability of the rest of humanity. His arrogance seals him off. Lucy's discourse on indian names throws up 'Ven Do Nah', the legendary hero whose name means 'Rides Down Everything'. It is, of course, a veiled allusion to George. Perhaps 'They Couldn't Help It' is a reference to the decline of the Ambersons.

    After the death of Wilbur, and a seemly period of mourning, Eugene tries again to court Isabelle. In this saga of lost love, Eugene's suffering is the most acute. When he writes to Isabelle after the rift with George, he pleads with her most touchingly not to "strike my life down twice". Eugene's forbearance and dignity are ever-present. Joseph Cotten plays him as a man who endures his misery with stoicism. His speech at the dinner table on the dubious benefits of the automobile is powerful, generous - and a classic Welles creation.

    It is Lucy's fate to repeat her father's tragedy, growing old in the absence of love. Ann Baxter is charming as Lucy, and the ageing process is convincingly depicted. Her forced levity in the scene where George breaks with her is very moving.

    Welles' record is unique: two years, two films, two masterpieces.
  • The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in Indianapolis. Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) and Isabel Amberson are in love but she marries the dull Wilbur Minafer instead. Their only child George grows up a spoiled arrogant brat. Everybody in town is looking forward to his comeuppance. George falls for Lucy Morgan who is the daughter of Eugene Morgan. Eugene is in the new automobile business which George ridicules and belittles at every chance. George ridicules everybody and their professions while having an aimless outlook himself. After Wilbur's death, Isabel and Eugene rekindle their romance and enrages the petty temper of little George. While the Morgans gain greater and greater success through their automobile, the fortunes of the Ambersons decline.

    George is such an annoying petty character that it's hard to base the movie around him. He's really the villain in Eugene and Isabel's lives. Orson Welles is a magnificent filmmaker and everything looks terrific. It's just hard to care about this character. Like the rest of the town, I'm just waiting for his comeuppance and I don't like that feeling. I'd rather have his redemption where he learns generosity. At least, he gets to responsibility but that part is short and the movie rushes to its ending.
  • If one could have a single wish regarding movie history, surely it would be the rediscovery of the nearly one hour cut out of what seem to be all existing prints of this! Even with the tampering, it is a gorgeous movie. To me, it is superior to "Citizen Kane." Wells himself was partially at fault for its being butchered: Had he stayed in the United States and not pursued a new, eventually unfulfilled dream, he surely could have fought RKO.

    The narration by Welles at the beginning is like the dream storytelling of any child or young person. The words so beautiful, the tones so calm and mellifluous! And the final credits, in which he reads the crew and then the cast, are astonishingly moving.

    In between is a touching story that is acted and filmed with rare integrity. Dolores Costello is a haunting presence. Agnes Moorhead, as the Neurotic aunt, gives a performance rarely equaled in movie history.

    Stanley Cortez was cinematographer for three great movies (and many other fine ones): "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Night of the Hunter," and "The Naked Kiss." Each relies strongly on its look and Cortez created three very different, memorable canvases.

    One fan hope against hope that the lost footage turns up in someone's basement, unlikely as that is. Even so, once seen this movie is never forgotten.
  • This is a wonderful film, one of great pathos and sensitivity. Orson Welles was drawn to Tarkington's novel because Tarkington had been a friend of Welles' father and Welles identified strongly with the story, seeing something of his own family's history there.

    Whether it is better than Kane is a fun question for film clubs to debate (I did once but I don't now), but it is interesting to note that while Orson Welles was particularly bitter that RKO re-shot his ending to make it more appealing to audiences, if you read the novel you will see that it is the novel's ending that RKO tacked on. Welles' ending was of his own invention and would have given the film a completely different tone.

    So it is ironic that Welles always seemed to claim that RKO had destroyed the integrity of the novel's story when they only preserved it, if rather poorly in execution.
  • If you think Citizen Kane is wonderful, then, if you haven't already seen it, find a copy of "Ambersons" as soon as you can. To me, "Ambersons" surpasses "Kane" in complexity and perhaps richness of characters. The story of the long-term results of love deferred, unrequited love, and long-suffering love, are even more interesting with Welles' direction using overlaid dialogue and odd camera angles. My favorite part is when old Major Amberson speaks to the camera and it becomes apparent he's lost his mind. Chilling. The Ambersons captures a time more than a century ago in America when passions were suppressed and civility masked a boiling interior. This film was edited severely, I've read. This is another mystery, because the remaining footage is superb. We can only wonder what the original "Ambersons" might have been.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    One of the greatest films ever made, period, end of story. Other reviewers have explained the odd "contract" issues that Welles had which compelled him to take on projects he might otherwise have not. Who cares? Seriously. From the first frame to the last, this is the some the best entertainment Hollywood ever delivered. It is a story about where we (collectively) come from. It is a story about unrequited love. It is a story about what happens when the future meets the past. It is a story about what happens when we spoil our children instead of raising them. And, best of all, it puts in context the expression "whippersnapper" -- which I grew up listening to, but could never place. I explained in other reviews that Welles came from radio, it was his first love, and so did Cotten. The two did amazing work together. (One of the secrets of a Welles film was that you could watch it with the picture off and sound only, and it would STILL tell the story). Wow. What a film.
  • One wonders what movie would have resulted if Orson Welles would have been able to get his own cut, as opposed to what RKO Radio decided to show to the world. In spite of what one sees on the screen, even a chopped up film by the studio and directed by Orson Welles is better than no Orson Welles, at all!

    Booth Tarkington wrote a novel that reflected America's entrance in the industrial age. Mr. Tarkington being a good friend of Mr. Welles' father, must have been an early influence in young Orson. We can see that in a way, both men were interested in the changes America went through in the XIX century.

    "The Magnificent Ambersons" presents the saga of a prominent family in their spiral downfall. At the same time, Eugene Morgan, a revolutionary inventor is laughed at because of the contraption that will change the face of the country: the automobile. While the Ambersons lose their fortune, Eugene Morgan makes his own. In the end, it is sad to see how Morgan with all his money couldn't have Isabel, the love of his life, or his daughter, for that matter, couldn't make the snobbish Georgie care enough for her.

    What Orson Welles can't be fault on is the impeccable performances he got out of most of the Mercury Group. Joseph Cotten, as always, projects an elegant figure as Eugene. The gorgeous Dolores Costello is seen in all her beauty. The young Anne Baxter was perfect as Lucy. Ray Collins and Richard Bennett also do an outstanding job, as well as young Tim Holt. The best of all is Agnes Moorehead, who makes Fanny a creation. Ms. Moorehead is in fact a luminous presence in all her scenes in the movie.

    Robert Wise, who went to become a film director, is credited with the original editing, although two others were not credited, who could have been instrumental in what RKO did to the picture, Mark Robson and Jack Moss. The original costumes by Edward Stevenson are incredible.

    One could only hope that somewhere, hidden in a vault, a director's copy will be found as Orson Welles directed it and then, hopefully, we shall see the marvelous movie Orson Welles intended to make.
  • This is the tale of a well-known and respected American family - "The Magnificent Ambersons" and their rise and fall. The movie is not bad at all, there are some superlative performances from stars and character players alike. However, it is a sad fact that this, Orson Wells second masterpiece, suffered from the scissors in the cutting room. Being an RKO/Mercury Theatre production, executives reduced the picture from a much-required 135 minutes to a satisfactory, but a speedy 88 minutes, therefore, not giving satisfactory time for the viewer to understand the masterpiece fully.

    Now, for my review of the players. Joseph Cotten gives an irregular performance as the romantic lead, silent star Dolores Costello is very much underused, as is then very young Anne Baxter, who would could onto bigger stardom in the next decade. Stealing the acting honors throughout the production are Tim Holt with his superb portrayal of the spoiled brat heir-to-the-throne, so to speak and Agnes Moorehead as his Auntie, who put their plan into action to sabotage a relationship between the widowed Isbabelle Amberson and charmer Eugene Morgan.

    Overall, lives up to it's expectations of success, but suffers due to limited screen time and a very confusing plot for audiences of our generation.

  • It's almost common knowledge in the realm of the film world about the history of the Magnificent Ambersons, which leaves a minor problem when trying to criticize it. Orson Welles made the film's final running length at around two hours and fifteen minutes. While he was out of the country filming 'It's All True!' (another doomed film in the Welles cannon), RKO pictures, the studio that had granted Welles total freedom for Citizen Kane and a few future projects, cut out fifty minutes (mostly of the last fifty), put a happy ending, and released it on a double-bill with a B movie. Although it's attributable in retrospect to the War starting up (after all, who wants a -downer- period piece) and to the difficulty the studio had with Welles' reputation, the fact that the 90 minute version that now exists is the only version available is a tragedy in and of itself. Unless if someone follows the wild rumor that a print was dumped by the studios into the ocean and pulls it up, this is all we can get.

    Still, incomplete Welles is more satisfying than no Welles, or most other studio product of the period. Welles takes Booth Tarkington's novel (inspired in part by Welles himself as a child- George being Welles' name) and makes it into a sumptuous, striking, and altogether unique drama of the changing of the times, and how people cope with changes or go with them. The story is one of those involving the minds and hearts of the upper class. Joseph Cotten (as usual charming &/or cool, dramatic) is Eugene, the man who wanted Isabel Amberson's hand in marriage. She married another man, and their child George was early on a hard-head case (these scenes are some of the best of the film, with deliberate staging of close-ups, medium shots, and basically setting up the technical style of the Wellesian cinema). As he grows up, he's still a little hard-headed (played in one of the top, intense performances in any Welles film by Tim Holt), as he is against the changing of the times, in particular of Eugene's re-founded courtship of the mother following his father's death. There is also the character of his Aunt Fanny, in another perfect performance from Agnes Moorhead (the mother from Citizen Kane).

    Alongside this examination of a family's downfall amid the changing of personal relations, and of George's own complex emotional problems, and of George's coming-of-age, there's also the examination of the transition from the horse and buggy to automobiles, to the heavier boost of the industrial age. Welles as a narrator is somber, observant of it all, and mostly leaves the film to his actors. There's some real thought put into the issues, and not just through the realistic (though of course theatrical) dialog, but more specifically through the style. 'Kane' introduced audiences to Welles knack at long-takes, deep focus, unusual and expressionistic close-ups, heightening the drama that unfolds. 'Ambersons' is no exception, and there are some very memorable scenes where the camera just stays on people, and then when it moves it makes the mis en scene more concentrated, direct. The use of light is also equally impressive at times- like in interior shots of a staircase when George and Fanny are in an argument, it's all encompassing, and not distracting enough from the story. The best consistency of any Welles film, even when it has some flaws, is the control that can be seen through much of it (there's also a very spooky shot that stays with me towards the end, as the camera pans across the town's buildings, Welles' mournful narration over it).

    But then we come to the ending, where things come to a screeching halt. I'm not against happy endings, they can be almost mandatory in certain formulas in films. However, it sort of takes an excellent film dealing with strong, novelistic issues to a bad place when things are resolved in the way this film does- George gets in an accident, he loses the use of his legs. But then a scene comes (and one can tell the immediate change in the style from Welles to the studio's) where loose ends get made, and without anything leaving curious for the viewer. I'm still not sure if anything else within the film was cut-out too, or if even I might have been fooled at another time by something not of Welles in the picture. It's depressing to be sure, but at least there is enough left to analyze and contemplate in the Welles' oeuvre- in some ways it goes more ambitious than 'Kane', at least in its period realm, the questions it raises. The lessons the history behind the scenes gives for future filmmakers and studios should be remembered, even as mediocrity (like RKO tried its best to make this film as) continues today in Hollywood.
  • gmatusk16 March 2005
    Another reviewer used the fuller quote "...Loose Quicksilver in a Nest of Cracks..." as the heading of his review, and I agree with most of what the other 10-star reviews say, so I'll be brief and not repetitious. First of all, I'd like to point out that the quote mentions "quicksilver," which of course is Mercury. The Mercury Players are the stars of this film and "Citizen Kane" --- coincidence?

    There are at least 2 books that deal with the relative merits of film adaptations of novels -- which is better, the novel or the film? Both of these books that I read seem to think that the film of "Magnificent Ambersons" is better than Tarkington's novel. I read the novel -- it is not written in a wordy old-fashioned style typical of novels of its day (1918) -- it's a "good read" by today's standards -- even a "great read" -- I'd say that the novel and the film are co-equals in terms of artistic excellence. Factory soot and general air pollution is a prominent theme in the novel, as in 2 other novels by Booth Tarkington (he collected the 3 novels together in one volume under the collective title "Growth"). Tarkington was also concerned about what we today call urban sprawl.

    In both the film and novel, the name of Georgie's horse is mentioned several times -- "Pendennis" -- the title character of a 1850 novel by William Makepeace Thackery (who also wrote "Vanity Fair") -- "Pendennis" is a novel about snobbery (and surely Georgie is also a snob). For what it's worth, in my opinion, Tim Holt's portrayal of Georgie is just fine. And isn't it ironic that Tim Holt, son of cowboy actor Jack Holt, returned to the family business of B-Westerns (along with his sister Jennifer) after he turned in good performances in 2 of the greatest films ever made (his other major role was in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" -- he also had a minor role in "Stagecoach")?

    Read the novel if you want a full explanation of how the Amberson family lost its fortune. Also, the film mentions that Aunt Fanny lost her money by investing in a "headlight company" -- the novel makes clear that this company is NOT connected with Eugene's automobile company.

    Finally, as another reviewer pointed out, the non-Wellesian tacked-on studio ending for the film, though abrupt, is fairly faithful to the novel. I, too, wish I could see the 53 or 55 or 58 minutes of Welles's footage discarded by the studio, but I am not prepared to heap abuse or ridicule on the studio ending.

    When A&E cable network commissioned a remake of Welles's film, it's too bad the expanded 150-minute running time was not better used to clarify the plot. The same thing happened when TV produced a miniseries remake of "The Long Hot Summer," loosely based on Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy (especially, the first novel, "The Hamlet") -- instead of restoring some of what's in the novels, the TV writers were asked to confine themselves to expanding the original screenplay. Another lost opportunity.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This is by far one of the best films ever made. Or at least, it could have been. This drama adapted by Welles, from Booth Tarkington's novel about a troubled family at the turn of the 20th century, contains great characters, set-decoration and cinematography. By watching it I'm both stunned and sad at the same time thinking about what this movie could have been, if it hadn't been taken out of Welles' hands. Re-cutting and re-shooting this film is probably the greatest mistake a studio has ever done. The remaining pieces ( 88min. out of approx 145min.) still has a great punch to them. Welles' clever camera-setups and powerful direction, matches his previous film, Kane, in every way. The conflict within the family are explored by great dialog and acting by it's cast. Don't miss this one. ps. sorry, my English is not that good......
  • This is a very good film, but certainly NOT as great as some of the hype would indicate. One IMDb reviewer went so far as to say it was "better than Kane (CITIZEN KANE)"! In fact, over the years a sort of "mystical" adoration of this film has arisen that is completely ridiculous and way out of proportion. In fact, Orson Welles HIMSELF said that the film we all know as THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was terribly edited and he disowned his film--so WHY all the hype?! Let's first review the history of the film. The ORIGINAL Orson Welles version of the film no longer exists--or at least no one has found it. When the original and significantly longer version of the film was previewed, the audiences found it depressing and too long--and possibly this was due to WWII just starting and people wanted a happy an uplifting film. So, when Welles wasn't looking, RKO reedited the film severely and gave it an upbeat ending!! So, if the film is only a bastardized version of the original, it just doesn't make sense to declare it a masterpiece as so many have done. In fact, when I watched it for the third time, I noticed many places where the film seemed to skip about and MANY times there was narration instead of action--as if they'd delete major scenes and then just describe what you missed in a few sentences! This is NOT great film making! So what do we have left? Well, the acting is exceptional throughout and there is often the trademark excellent Orson Welles black and white shadowy cinematography. The total package is pleasant enough, but way too sketchy and disjoint. Good, but certainly NOT great. If only someone would find the original film hiding somewhere in a vault!
  • Warning: Spoilers
    On the most superficial level it is simply a story of living a life of regret caused by one woman's (Delores Costello as Isabel Amberson) inability to forgive a breach of etiquette by the guy she really loved (Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan) - one night he serenaded her while drunk and made a comical spectacle of himself. Out of spite she marries milquetoast Wilbur Minafer whom she does not love, and as predicted by one of the town gossips, raises an insufferable spoiled rotten child - George Minafer. The reason he is spoiled? Because Isabel can't love Wilbur, so she pours her love into her only child.

    On a deeper level it is about the changing times from the 19th to the 20th century and how that affects a small town in middle America. The Ambersons go from being a very prominent family to being displaced by the changing times and changing culture.

    The Amberson family serves as a metaphor for old money and old society, the closest thing America has to "royalty." Major Amberson, the patriarch of the Amberson clan, made the family fortune as a land developer and apparently as the founding father of the town. Eugene Morgan represents "new money," his family is from "the working class", his power and wealth comes not from "old" family connections but through financial dealings and modern manufacturing e.g. the automobile. Eugene looks toward the future, sees the changes in society and seizes the opportunities presented. The Ambersons are just happy to keep things as they are, they don't want to look at all of these "new-fangled" changes in society because if they did, THEY'D have to change. Because Georgie Amberson Minafer, the spoiled and arrogant grandson, absolutely refuses to accept any change whatsoever, he descends from the Midwestern aristocracy to the working class. He also takes away his mother's second chance at happiness at midlife when the widowed Eugene and the widow Isabel want to marry. Isabel could have acted against her grown son's demands, but, again, she was unable to change. She had let Georgie have his way his whole life and now she would let him swallow her life too. I'm not quite sure why someone as young as Georgie is so rigid and conventional. It may be because change requires work and thought - two qualities that young Georgie definitely shys away from. His arrogance and his sense of entitlement are why so many of the townspeople and so many viewers cannot wait for him to get his "comeuppance". Unfortunately for all of us, by the time he does, it only registers perhaps on him.

    "Something had happened. A thing which, years ago, had been the most eager hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him. "

    Well, if you watch the film, which gives you a voyeur's view of a story, you really see none of this comeuppance, none of George's transformation, which is talked about in the final scene that has Eugene and Aunt Fanny talking about it, but no George! Well there is a reason for this. Orson Welles was in South America when RKO was editing this film. They cut 40 minutes of what Welles had shot and tacked on the George-less ending. Why? They claimed it was because test audiences were "repulsed" by Aunt Fanny! The great Agnes Morehead is playing Fanny as your typical maiden aunt character, frustrated because the man she always loved never even noticed her, but she plays the part with great humanity, so that has to be a bogus excuse. I'll always believe it was because Welles challenged the status quo of the business elite in Citizen Kane, and was doing it once again in this film a year later, even though it was adapted from a novel. Perhaps with a war just starting and the production code nipping at their heels RKO just didn't want to seem anti-establishment and by extension anti-American.

    I'd still recommend it. It is well acted, well directed and has some great individual scenes even in its skewered state. At the very least it is a well told great romantic tragedy for all of the main characters.
  • In many way this is a more brillant film than Kane. Kane was technically advanced, but somewhat distant. This is a much more intimate story. The romance between Eugene and Isabele is one of the most wonderful tales of unrequinted love ever put on film. I especially love the opening sequence which introduces us to the life -styles and habits of the Ambersons. I like the way Wells dwells on their array of evening wear, summer wear etc... He creates a great sense of calmness in a timeless era.

    Agnes Moorehead is incredible in the role of Fanny. She has to scream for attension every time, like her character in the film. Tim Holt is great as a young Orson Wells (who was still young at the time). This spoilt brat was I'm sure very similar to Wells, or so he'd have us believe.

    Obivously we all know what happened to the final cut. It was, and probably still is the greatest crime in cinema history. Its like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. At the end of this version when Eugene and Fanny are walking off into the sunset, and Eugene looks down at Fanny and says that he was "true to his own dear love" (meaning Fanny), its so absurd. Its the worst tacked-on ending I've ever seen. Eugene was never in love with Fanny, it was always Isabele, but Fanny loved Eugene. Hollywood made a joke of it. The Amberson family had finally got their comeuppance only for hollywood to decide it was too grim, and put on an ending that looked like ot came from another movie.

    Initally it was such a piece of genius from Wells to film a story about the downfall of a family rather than their or rise to power, to tell the story in reverse.

    Its so sad that we can never see the real version. I really feel that we are missing out on what could have been the greatest film ever made.
  • With an excellent cast, interesting characters and setting, and a thought-provoking story, dramatic cinema does not get much better than "The Magnificent Ambersons". No one will ever know what it would have been like if Orson Welles' original version had been allowed to stand as it was, but what is left is still extremely good despite the missing portions.

    The story of the leading residents in a turn-of-the-century town combines some interesting themes. The snobbishness of the Ambersons, and its effects on their lives and others' lives, is illustrated alongside the ways that increasing industrialization is changing everyone's lives. The period setting is also quite interesting in its own right, and very nicely done. The characters are all convincing and well-defined, and are matched nicely with fine performers who bring them to life convincingly. Welles regulars Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead are especially good.

    The only real disappointment in the movie is that, due to all the cuts made against Welles' wishes, there are times when it is obvious that a scene or information is missing, since characters at times refer to events that are not quite familiar to the audience. It is fortunate that the acting and writing are good enough to help us fill in the blanks to some degree, but it is really too bad that we can never see the whole picture.

    As it stands, this is a fine film filled with good scenes and memorable characters, and a movie that will be much appreciated by fans of classic cinema.
  • I wanted to love it as a classic, but for me, 'The Magnificent Ambersons' fell well short of that. There are certainly positive aspects: Director Orson Welles was an artist and there are several beautiful shots, camera angles, and tracking sequences that are nice to see. Joseph Cotten is full of grace as an automobile inventor who loves an Amberson widow, but has to contend with her hothead son (Tim Holt), who is as spoiled as they come. The scene where he calmly and rationally responds to an attack on cars is good. It's ironic that Holt's character loves Cotten's daughter in turn, and Anne Baxter plays that part well, including a scene where she feigns indifference to his leaving town and toys with him, even though it's killing her inside. Lastly, Agnes Moorehead turns in probably the best performance in the film as the boy's frustrated aunt.

    On the other hand, the main character - the spoiled, entitled son – is so unlikeable that it makes watching often unpleasant. The film feels emotionally sterile, and there is little believability in the connections between characters. There is a dark bleakness that pervades the film, in part because of the story of this family's fall from grace while the world changes around them, but also in part because of Welles' heavy-handed treatment. The plot is arguably not very plausible in several places, and is certainly tedious in the second half of the film. The studio's taking control and editing the final cut – butchering it, it sounds like – is a travesty, that sort of thing always is, but even at 88 minutes, the film seems to drag on too long, and in what seems like a smug, theatrical way. I'm not convinced that if I was subjected to 60 more minutes, Welles' original cut, that I wouldn't have fallen asleep, based on the 88 that I did see. It was OK to see once, but I would never recommend it, or watch it again.
  • This is a brilliant movie, not for people with low attention spans which means a lot of modern audiences won't get it, or won't bother to try. It's a pretty deep and convoluted and dramatic story about a lot of characters and their relationships. Would love to see the long version of this one, the long lost Orson Welles director's cut.
  • In this part of his career, Welles was interested in a few things. Thankfully we don't need the completed project to at least see what they were. And the understanding of them is probably more important than experiencing a coherent survey, as this was.

    He's interested in surrounding a narrative, in giving it to us from all sides. He does this in narrative styles. In "Kane" he had narrators inside and outside the story, newsreels, newspapers, mysterious unfoldings, anticipated long events, and anticipated short ones.

    He does it in the eye as well, having the camera surround and probe. And he plays these two off of each other, creating one sort of rhythm in the eye, another in the shifts of narrative, yet more in the physical movements on screen and finally in the emotional tides. Each of these is innovative, but together they become metacharacters in a sort of cinematic jazz. Oddly, the metaphor doesn't include the score itself for Welles, the one thing that has become a common skill today.

    Now if we had the whole project, we'd get all the variations and pace in his jazz composition. As it is now, all we get are phrases, some broken a bit.

    Just settle on one that you suppose hasn't been tampered with, say the sleigh/car encounter in the snow and revel in that for a few viewings, one after the other. It is absolutely amazing what interplay these elements have. And in this case we really do have some music: the players singing.

    I suggest you play it again and again until you get it. Believe me, it will change your life when you can see this mind dance.

    I would rather have the pieces because they have such a perfect logic and dance, you can imagine the rest. It baffles me that some people think Welles just innovated in camera angles and lighting. No, he created a whole higher level of drama.

    Van Gogh painted a starry sky. It is, in effect two paintings in one. We have the beauty of the sky. And we have the beauty of the dabs and strokes of paint on the canvas, a sort of metapainting. The two dance around each other in a way that is magical. Welles did the same here and in "Kane." Afterward, he busted other walls.

    Oh, and within the story, he uses automobiles as a metaphor to muse on the effect of this new metadrama compared to his home in the simpler theater. He wonders if we will be better off once what he does catches on.

    Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Before he had even produced a feature-length film (having only two amateur shorts to his name, 'The Hearts of Age' and 'Too Much Johnson,' in addition to a hugely-successful radio programme), Orson Welles bargained a two-film contract with RKO Pictures. The first film to be made under this agreement, 'Citizen Kane,' was a controversial cinematic masterpiece, and is often held as the greatest of all time. The second film was 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' which was reportedly butchered by the studio (something that would become a saddeningly frequent occurrence in Welles' career) and was received poorly by both critics and audiences. Though the director's original vision has long been lost, with time, critics have discovered a streak of genius shining through 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' and the film's stature continues to grow.

    Orson Welles wrote the screenplay himself, based on Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pullitzer Prize-winning novel, which traces the descent of a respected American family into poverty and obscurity. The film was seemingly quite a personal project for Welles, and his decision to produce a period-piece could perhaps be described as a bit unusual. The role of George Amberson-Minafer – the arrogant, conceited young man from a proud and wealthy family – seems positively perfect for Welles' smug boyish charisma, but, for this film, he appears only as the narrator, casting B-movie Western actor Tim Holt in the aforementioned role (this was one of only two "serious" acting performances from Holt, who also starred in John Huston's magnificent 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948),' opposite Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart). Regular Welles-collaborator Joseph Cotten is excellent as Eugene Morgan, an admirable but unpredictable entrepreneur who has never really recovered from being rejected in love by George's mother, Isabel (Dolores Costello). Meanwhile, the selfish and rude George falls in love with Eugene's daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter).

    There is much to be admired about 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' but I don't think it worked quite fully as a film, perhaps due in no small part to the intervention of the studio. We'll start off with the many excellent things about the production. Stanley Cortez cinematography is absolutely phenomenal, perhaps even improving upon the achievements of 'Citizen Kane.' Of particular note is the lively party sequence during the opening half of the film, employing the use of smooth, deeply-focused tracking shots, gliding gracefully among the dancing party members and catching snippets of conversation from several groups of people. The film has a dark, very bleak outlook on life, making excellent use of lighting and shadows to set the depressing mood. Tim Holt portrays the blundering stupidity and arrogance of his character exceedingly well, his unflinching stance on numerous issues – most notably in the worth of the "horseless carriage," the automobile, and in the lingering romance between his mother and Eugene – ultimately contribute to the downfall of his family and its legacy.

    I've never particularly been a fan of period-pieces, and so perhaps this is why the narrative of 'The Magnificent Amberson,' despite being a great technical achievement, failed to entirely draw me into its world. The greatest evil, however, is the extremely disjointed structure of the film's second half, as well as an absolutely unforgivable, overly-optimistic, tacked-on ending. After Welles' original 148-minute cut (as well as a later 131 minute preview) performed poorly with test audiences, editor Robert Wise removed about one-third of the original footage (Welles himself was absent and unreachable somewhere in Brazil) and a few new scenes – including that ending – were filmed, directed by Wise and Fred Fleck. If I could have re-edited the film myself, I would have concluded 'The Magnificent Ambersons' with what is now the penultimate scene, as George Minafer sits beside his bed and stares helplessly downwards, the somber voice of the director informing us that "George Amberson-Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him." It would have been among the bleakest and most brilliant endings in film history; however, I've heard that Welles' original version didn't end with this scene, either. Is this the masterpiece that got away, or is it a masterpiece, anyway? You decide.
  • gavin694227 August 2015
    The spoiled young heir to the decaying Amberson fortune comes between his widowed mother and the man she has always loved.

    More than 40 minutes of Welles's original footage was deleted, with portions reshot. Welles later said, "They destroyed 'Ambersons,' and 'it' destroyed me." Like the film itself, Bernard Herrmann's score for The Magnificent Ambersons was heavily edited by RKO. When more than half of his score was removed from the soundtrack, Herrmann bitterly severed his ties with the film and promised legal action if his name were not removed from the credits.

    In 1991, "The Magnificent Ambersons" was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was included in Sight and Sound's 1972 list of the top ten greatest films ever made, and again in the 1982 list. It's not that great.
  • I need to see this again. I only saw it once and was disappointed. Perhaps another look would help. In a nutshell, I loved the camera-work but was totally bored with the story.

    It's no surprise I liked the cinematography since Orson Welles directed. Actually, he not only directed but produced, wrote the script and narrated it! He had his usual assortment of closeups and different camera angles, which I always enjoy.

    This story, an unpleasant tale of a selfish young man and his deteriorating family, drags more and more as the story unfolds. The nice people in the story, played by Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter, are pleasant but on the bland side. Tim Holt's character is effectively annoying and Agnes Moorhead's is just plain annoying. I doubt how many people today would watch something like this unless they had insomnia problems.
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