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.
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