Depicting the outset and transformation of our world, Orson Welles’ 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons, which deals with the all too relevant theme of progress and its effects on society, interweaves the personal with the political to tell a love story devoid of happy ending.
With all the jealousy, guilt trips, betrayal, scheming and a big and round Oedipus complex, Orson Welles’ second film is pure Greek tragedy: timeless and profound. And yet The Magnificent Ambersons is such a modern piece of storytelling. It deals with an issue that, although 200 years old, is still unsolved. How do we reconcile technological innovation and progress with the natural human need for slow and guided adaptation? The world changes and if we are to survive, we must change too, but peace of mind is essential for our sanity.
At the turn of the 20th century, in the city of Indianapolis, young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) wants to marry beautiful Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), who although apparently in love with Eugene, in a pique, marries Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Their only child, George, grows up as a spoilt and arrogant brat, with an unlimited sense of entitlement. When 20-odd years later, Eugene, now older, wiser and richer, approaches the recently widowed Isabel, her young adult son George Amberson Minafer intervenes. With a little help from his aunt Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead), George sabotages the romance. After Isabel falls ill and dies without a chance of seeing Eugene, Major Amberson dies too, leaving no inheritance to either George or Fanny.
Of all the greatest films, The Magnificent Ambersons is arguably one of the most underrated of movies. I don’t mean that the film is thought to be anything less than great, but simply that it is seen as a poor substitute for some imaginary ideal. This picture comes from the man who created what has essentially been called the ultimate masterpiece. Then, as the story goes, Welles was in Brazil when RKO Studio cut and recut, glued and destroyed the original work of a genial director. Reviewers always talk about the film with a sad air, as if mourning the loss of art, when in fact they lament what never existed, or rather, what never existed for most people as a finished piece of art.
..‘Get a Horse, Get a Horse… That Darn Horse!’
While many speculate on the filmmaker’s original vision, to me The Magnificent Ambersons is the real deal. It is what it is left behind and it is as great as it gets. We don’t need to deal in abstracts to recognise the greatness of the picture. In fact, I believe that had Welles had the final word on the finished film it could have been a worse picture. This is not to doubt the director’s ability to achieve what he had envisioned, but simply to suggest that a lot of excellency in art comes from chance. The random actions that were taken to build a great film also influence its greatness. Movies are made not only of genius and hard work, but also of luck and circumstances.
It is true that the melodramatic happy ending seems out of sync with the overall bitter message that comes from the rest of the film, but it works anyway. The great irony of the whole RKO intervention, cutting more than a third of the original film, as intended by Welles, is that the elliptical aspect of the movie becomes more accentuated. One of the things that makes The Magnificent Ambersons an impressive film is the gaps in the story that force viewers to fill in with their own interpretations. Thus, the film was cut by the studio and this fact is mourned by many, but in this case less is definitely more – the missing scenes that might explain parts of the plot are not missed at all.
For a movie like this, which not only engages in a critique of modernity with its story of implacable change that is difficult to deal with, but also has a nostalgic look and feeling with techniques purposely taken from older films, The Magnificent Ambersons feels fresh and modern. This masterpiece does wonders with its ‘limited’ 88 minutes, packing a profound and poignant story with epic proportions. The film is as perfect as Citizen Kane (1941, Welles), if not better. Of the two great tragedies, even if both deal with wealthy and aloof people, who live in realities that are far from what most people experience, the later film seems closer to us.
This great tale of love deferred and boiling jealousy, in an era of suppressed passions and masked civility, becomes a fascinating metaphor for America itself. As we might feel ambiguous about those genteel times, unsure if to appreciate the politeness all around or to loath the stuffiness of the people, we should also be ambivalent about the American century and the might of a nation. In the last few decades, the United States lost some of its power, its prestige, even its glamour, but in so many ways it is now a country closer to the rest of the world. Like the Ambersons, America feels less like Goliath but it is definitely not David.
With every single performance unforgettable, plus the superb photography, script, editing and direction, this follow-up masterpiece for the greatest film of all time is indeed magnificent.