The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The follow up piece to "Citizen Kane" was sure to be scrutinized heavily, even though Orson Welles' debut didn't see the reception it does today. He had certainly made a splash into the cinema world and had caught the eye of many. In several ways his sophomore film is very similar and also quite different than "Citizen Kane".
What I appreciate about "The Magnificent Ambersons" is that it allows you to engage with the characters. There is no longer a man holding himself away from the camera. Here Welles has the people practically throwing themselves at the lens. It is first and foremost a technical feat because Stanley Cortez's photography is sensational. He thrusts the camera from one room to the next, ascends astonishing heights, quite literally, and sometimes lets the camera sit and stare. He is in the spotlight here and only then comes the story itself.
There is a feeling of Thorton Wilder when you watch "The Magnificent Ambersons." It's impossible not to think of the stage manager from Our Town when our narrator talks back and forth with the townspeople. In a place where the world works at a slower pace, as was done in "those days", there is a wealthy family named the Ambersons. They live on their own street in the biggest mansion in town and their name is on the tip of everyone's tongue. The gossip surrounding this family could have had its own television show.
In their youth there was a boy named Eugene (Joseph Cotten) who was in love with Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). He was going steady with her until one night he decided to serenade her and accidentally fell down because he was drunk. The damage done to his instrument—take that however you wish—apparently really upsets Isabel because she gives him the cold shoulder...and she continues doing this for years. She marries another man, perhaps out of spite; but the town all conjecture that their children will be demons. Well, they weren't that wrong. Isabel and her husband Wilbur have one child and they named him George. This child is a holy terror.
Maybe he'll get better when he gets older...then again, maybe not.
After he he returns home from college, George (Tim Holt) is just as pompous as he always his. He's used to getting his way and anyone contradicting him is just wrong...because! He's an Amberson, dammit!
This is what the film does so well. It shows ignorance, it shows frustration, and it shows hypocrisy.
Just because he's born into wealth does not make George a good person and the film makes great pains to show this. It also says that some born into wealth aren't evil either...it's just the person.
Eugene, who is now a widower, and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) returns to the village right as George is returning from college and they attend the ball thrown in his honor. Lucy finds him entertaining but exceedingly arrogant. He'd be good for some stolen kisses and nothing else...which is precisely what she uses him for.
As the story continues, the Oedipal relationship between George and Isabel grows. She is prone to obey her son's whims and he thinks that he's maintaining her good name by denying her any real happiness she might have had.
Aside from the glorious lighting and camera work, the most prominent star of the film is Agnes Moorehead as George's aunt, Fanny. She embodies grief, insanity, and romance from one scene to the next. Her character changes so rapidly is leaves us breathless trying to catch up.
"The Magnificent Ambersons" is a very well-done drama and in my opinion much better than Welles' debut piece. There is still a little immaturity here, but the progression of the story and the tonal shift is quite staggering and the movie demands to be seen.
Posted by Micah Jones