Orson Welles, at age 27, followed up the insurmountable triumph of Citizen Kane with this equally ambitious but famously butchered adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. Going into my first-time viewing of The Magnificent Ambersons, I was aware of its history – the studio cut more than an hour from Welles’ preferred version and shot a new, happier ending while the director was out of the country on another project, and later destroyed the excised material – and everything I was led to believe about this film was confirmed: this is a beautifully shot movie that doesn’t work as a narrative, partly because a third of the story is missing and partly because the main character is a hopeless tool. It’s hard to piece together the gaps and pretend that The Magnificent Ambersons is something other than what we are able to watch, but there is still plenty to like about what exists, even if it’s deeply unsatisfying.
The Magnificent Ambersons pits the visionary industrialists of yesteryear against progress, as the once-important Amberson family, formerly bold forgers of the new American age and aspirational icons of high society, recede into irrelevance. Over decades, a stubborn fidelity to both pride and prejudice insulates the Ambersons from participating in the march of time, and rot from within as they cling to stale indulgences and those weird incestual sexual frustrations that seem to be an everlasting hallmark of the idle rich.
Structurally, The Magnificent Ambersons suffers from a lack of full attention afforded to either of its two main storylines. First, there is the romance, between ambitious futurist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) and beautiful Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), that just might have kept the Ambersons relevant well into the modern age had a silly faux pas not doomed them both to decades of fruitless longing. By the time their children are able to entertain the possibility of breaching the class-and-progress divide, it’s too late. George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), spoiled by his upbringing as an intolerable idle rich dandy, simply cannot keep up with the casual and lively spirit of Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter) even as he covets her. That she entertains, even for a moment, the notion of romance with such a repellent fool is hard to reconcile, unless she is smitten with the romantic ideal of the grand Amberson name and needs time to understand that the present conception, in George, is a far cry from her fantasy.
In reading about Welles’ concept of The Magnificent Ambersons as a story of how the invention of the automobile ruined America, maybe he and Lucy have that in common, a blind spot for the romance of the great capitalist family? Because, in hindsight, the text of The Magnificent Ambersons can just as easily be read as a scathing critique of sclerotic institutions like the Ambersons. No matter how rich or important they may once have been, the world chugs along, and America prefers the energetic new money of invention and change to the aristocratic attachment to legacy.
It strikes me as a missed opportunity that Welles himself, who narrates the story, did not star as George Amberson. Holt is fine in the role, as far as George is little more than an entitled and useless douchebag. Perhaps Welles was concerned that his presence was too forcefully charismatic if that was his intent, but maybe George needed to be more attractive to justify the narrative’s tragic overtones, maybe he needed to echo in some way the grandeur of the family’s past to make their dissolution through his stewardship more resonant? Welles, as he did as Charles Foster Kane, could have evoked that needed duality and the lack of that dynamism here cripples a story that feels both too densely packed and woefully unexplored.
From behind the camera, Welles’ dynamism is on full, if truncated, display. His anthropological narration amusingly treats the Ambersons like the subjects of a museum exhibit or nature documentary, while his early use of townspeople as a sort of jealous Greek chorus is cute and lively. His collaboration with cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who would later shoot The Night of the Hunter for Charles Laughton) is full of deep-focus settings draped in stunning layers of shadow and light. There’s true magic in the vision here, but, like the narrative, it rarely gets to breathe. Welles introduces some scenes with stunning painterly frames which last barely a few seconds. The narrative echo of this neutering is most deeply felt, maybe, in the startling performance from Agnes Moorehead, as spinstering Aunt Fanny, who lurks unhinged in the margins, desperate to go full Grey Gardens, but when she is allowed to unleash there’s not enough context to make emotional sense of it. Emblematic of the family’s essential infertility, she could have done well with a full 88 minutes devoted to her alone rather than the half-glimpses she is afforded.