It’s a shame that people weren’t, and still aren’t, able to see the original director’s cut of the movie, which is actually 148 minutes long. I may only assume that The Magnificent Ambersons would make a much bigger impression on the viewers, as of now it’s probably one of the most underrated of all Orson Welles’ movies. But still, the RKO Radio version is a remarkable one, and everyone should definitely see it.
It’s worth mentioning that this picture wouldn’t be so fine without the great narration, provided by the director himself, which places the movie in time and space, and give a great insight into the characters’ personalities.
The Magnificence of the Ambersons lies in their ability to make money. This very prominent family was connected with success and wealth for generations. However, the movie doesn’t intend to bask in their glory. Instead, it shows a gradual downfall of this clan, in the revolutionary times of great expansion and progress during the 19th century. The plot cleverly intertwines this sad tale of a decaying family, so to say, with a story about love that wasn’t meant to be.
Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a handsome man from middle class, has always been fond of Isabel Amerson (Dolores Costello). He wanted to marry her, but she chose a dull and tedious Wilbur Minafer instead. They had a boy named George (Tim Holt), who was ever so rude, impolite and obnoxious towards other citizen. All the people wanted to see was for the boy to finally get a well-deserved punishment, but his family background was like a shield that protected him from every bad thing.
Years later, Eugene comes back to town as a widowed, very successful endorser and maker of a possible life-changing invention: the automobile. His daughter Lucy also arrives in town and George, who’s grown to be an enormously snobbish, arrogant, and intolerable young heir, is charmed by her prettiness. After the death of Wilbur, Eugene steps in to make Isabel fall in love with him again and that doesn’t suit George in any way. Being so full of hatred and jealousy he, along with the help of a devious and eccentric aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), plans to sabotage their relationship.
I think it’s brilliant that Orson Welles was able to present a tragic story about love, and at the same time show how, in the times of industrial revolution, one rich family lost their big chance to stay on top and eventually collapsed under the weight of industrialization. George finally got what he deserved, being the grand maker of the fall of his own household. Overcome with bursting wrath and anger, he didn’t understand that his actions struck the ones that he tended to love the most. In the final scenes, he wanders around town confused, looking at the changes that the revolution brought, and realizing that everybody went forward but him, as he was too concentrated on his selfish desires.
Great performances from all the actors: Joseph Cotton as the stylish and dignified man, who was true to his first love up till the final moments; Dolores Costello shines in all her beauty and elegance; Tim Holt as the spoiled brat George, who not only made his mother miserable and sad, but also missed a chance to rebuild his family’s magnificence; Agnes Moorehead gave probably the most memorable performance of all, as the wacky aunt Fanny, so in love with perfidious affair of any sort that it ultimately made her descend into psychosis.
All in all, The Magnificent Ambersons is a vital position in the Orson Welles directorial career. It’s highly recommended, mainly for its brilliant story, fine historical allusions, beautiful sceneries, and fantastic performances.