THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS

 (Orson Welles, USA, 1942) 88 minutes

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS

Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
based on the novel by Booth Tarkington
Photography: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Robert Wise
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Tim Holt (George Amberson Minafer)
Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan)
Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer)
Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer)
Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan)
Ray Collins (Jack Amberson)

Reviews and notes

Welles does not appear in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (he narrates) but the representative character of his theme is George Minafer, archetype of a dying plutocracy - the Ambersons. Proud, rich, spoiled, reactionary, he dominates his weak mother's life, and ruins it along with the happiness of Lucy and Eugene. How he (and indeed his whole way of life) receives his "comeuppance" is the story of the film. Though it is clear that progress is what Welles is affirming, he paints a nostalgic, moving picture of life before the horseless carriage and brings to the screen a faithful recreation of Tarkington's novel. George Minafer is a decidedly disagreeable and unlikeable boy, and yet it is impossible not to pity him. And as he kneels by his mother's bed at the end and asks softly, "Mother, forgive me. God, forgive me," he is a poignant symbol of a dead society.

With AMBERSONS, Welles adopted a different style from that of Kane, more lyric and tender, with a technique as different as the subject. Purposely, he holds many of his scenes for an extended time, either with a stationary camera (as in the cake-eating scene between George and Aunt Fanny) or with a long tracking shot (George and Lucy in the carriage) so that the mood of the film is the sad, slowly developed atmosphere of the late I800's. Welles displays an exquisite understanding of the period and its style - as in the beautiful opening shot with a fuzzy quality around the edges, framed with the archaic quaintness of tintypes, and his narration evokes a deep nostalgia for a time gone forever.

Since he was not allowed to do the final cut of Ambersons ("It looks as though somebody had run a lawn-mower through the celluloid") and because a few of the scenes were neither written nor directed by him, it becomes difficult to evaluate exactly what Welles wanted the finished film to look like. It is known, for example, that he had shot a lot more footage of the growing, ever-industrializing town than is shown in the movie; clearly it was to have been used as a counterpoint to the Ambersons' decline. Welles was then nearing the end of his tenure at RKO and AMBERSONS is a mutilated work. It is the more amazing that so much of Welles' conception survived the released print.
-Peter Bogdanovich, The Cinema of Orson Welles, Museum of Modern Art, 1961.

Weblink: A comprehensive analysis

Back to screening list

Home Page | Membership