Orson Welles’ 1942 Romance Drama “The Magnificent Ambersons” is one of Welles’ great achievements as a director. He also wrote the screenplay, but did not act in it. His second feature film, it is based on the 1918 novel of the same title by Booth Tarkington who won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. Welles lost control of the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons to RKO, and the final version released to audiences differed significantly from his vision for the film. More than an hour of footage was cut by the studio, and a new, happier ending was shot and tacked on.
The film has always received positive reviews from critics. Even in its radically altered form, the 1942 film is often regarded as among the best American films ever made, a distinction it shares with Welles's first film, “Citizen Kane.” It and “Citizen Kane” were his only films to be nominated for Best Picture.
The young, handsome, but somewhat wild Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton, a life long friend of Welles from the Mercury Theater days) wants to marry Isabel Amberson (Delores Costello), daughter of a rich upper-class family, but she instead marries dull and steady Wilbur Minafer. Their only child, George (Tim Holt), grows up a spoiled brat. Years later, Eugene comes back, now a mature widower and a successful automobile maker. After Wilbur dies, Eugene again asks Isabel to marry him, and she is receptive. But George resents the attentions paid to his mother, and he and his whacko aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead a life long friend of Welles from the Mercury Theater days), manage to sabotage the romance. A series of disasters befall the Ambersons and George, and gets his come-uppance in the end.
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This film's screenplay was written by Welles in only nine days. He had first adapted the story for a CBS-radio broadcast (Campbell's Playhouse) with his Mercury Theatre in the fall of 1939, featuring Walter Huston as Eugene Morgan and Welles himself as George Minafer. He used his regulars from Mercury Theatre within this production: Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins (the only actor in the film who also appeared in the radio version).
Although the beautiful, near-masterpiece film is rich in cinematic technique (overlapping dialogue, deep focus cinematography and magnificent lighting, fluid dolly and truck shots, innovative crane shots, iris in-out openings and closing of scenes, long takes, etc.) and layered with complexity and subtle meaning, in its initial preview screening, it was a disastrous flop for its emotionally-downbeat mood, and because of its focal point: a spoiled brat (played by B-Western actor Tim Holt) of the town's richest family and later, as a conceited young man.
Ambersons' public previews (in ...