The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles | 1hr 28min

It only took one year following the resounding success of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles to follow up what has oft been dubbed the greatest film of all time with a project that could have equalled it in artistic grandeur, had it not been snatched from his hands in post-production. The Magnificent Ambersons floats along like a whispered echo of a bygone era, recounting the downfall of an entire family empire brought about by one man’s obstinate resistance to progress, fitting neatly into the string of Shakespeare-inspired tragedies that defined his early film career. Perhaps this might feel more like an epic family saga had RKO Pictures not hacked away at it without his permission, and even more disappointing is the tacked on happy ending forced by the studio. Considered as a whole though, these flaws are but minor taints on Welles’ beautifully elegiac narrative, and no amount of cutting can erase the visual bravura on display.

Where Charles Foster Kane’s manor Xanadu acts a tremendous inflation of man’s ego to ludicrous proportions, the Amberson Mansion has the look of a Gothic tomb, rich with period décor and shadows crowding out every single frame. Or at least, that is what George Minafer transforms it into after selfishly taking control of his family’s future. Our first introduction to it comes after a prologue built heavily on montages and a sombre voiceover from Welles himself, running through the history of the Ambersons who prospered as the wealthiest family in their late 19th century Midwestern town. These people are socialites and aristocrats around whom a grand mythology is built, with the narration and dialogue of gossipy neighbours forming a sort of conversation together in a storybook call-and-response manner. A vignette effect often hangs over the exteriors of the mansion here, relegating this period of great fortune to an antiquated era, but it is only when we catch up to the present that Welles finally blows open its doors and tracks his camera forwards into its bright, ornate halls, where parties gather to bask in the opulence of its gorgeous architecture.

A vignette effect applied over this prologue bringing us into the late 19th century, unfolding like a photo album beneath a sombre voiceover.

From a visual perspective, there is little that separates The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane. The detailed décor that clutters visual compositions and frames characters within classic Wellesian low angles brings a majestic weight to the family’s historical and cultural presence, and most spectacular of all its set pieces is that mighty octagonal staircase that looms over the main hall. From the ground floor, Welles will occasionally tilt his camera up to catch sight of characters standing atop it like an imposing tower, but from the inside it feels more like a strangely twisted labyrinth, trapping the Ambersons across different levels and between bannisters.

Superb staging within the Amberson Mansion and especially around the staircase, offering the perfect opportunity for Welles to shoot these imposingly staged high and low angles. They are encased within its boundaries which wind through the layers of the frame.

At the centre of this family is George, son of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson, and heir to the estate. The irony that he does not even carry the surname of the legacy he is trying to uphold is hard to ignore, as he instead takes the name of his dull, unextraordinary father who passed away after losing a great amount of money. When a lover from Isabel’s past, automobile manufacturer Eugene Morgan, re-enters their lives, the biggest blow yet is landed to the family’s legacy – not from Eugene, who may be able to secure the family’s financial future, but from George himself, who detests everything this upwardly mobile entrepreneur stands for.

The layers to George’s hatred are multi-faceted. He states that his mother remarrying would be an insult to the memory of his father, though we know that he never exactly held Wilbur in great esteem either. On a more psychological level, there are Oedipal undertones to George’s objectives, wishing to be the sole man in his mother’s life to prove his own value. In terms of social attitudes towards the shifting technologies of the world, his beliefs are purely regressive and clouded by emotion, as he prefers the nostalgia of the past to whatever future Eugene is involved in bringing about. From atop a horse-drawn carriage, he laughs at his mother’s suitor trying to get his automobile out of a thick patch of snow, though when he finds himself tossed from his sleigh it is the “horseless carriage” which comes to the rescue – an unintended slight which George doesn’t forget.

It isn’t just the mansion which makes for wonderful compositions, but this snowy landscape sets the perfect scene for George and Eugene’s first major disagreement.

Eugene though does not possess the same arrogance as George, even going out his way to avoid arguments over matters of ideology. He does not reject the idea that automobiles will be nuisances to society, but he does take a more nuanced perspective, recognising that their presence will inevitably change the world in subtle ways. It will not be a utopia, but it will be an environment one must participate in to survive, and therein lies the primary difference between these two men fighting for Isabel’s heart. After Eugene is locked out of the Amberson Mansion and barred from seeing his ailing lover on her death bed, it descends into sombre darkness, each beautiful piece of furniture covered with white cloths to obscure the pride of a family that can no longer hold claim to its great reputation. Major Amberson, George’s grandfather, soon passes, and Aunt Fanny sinks into hysteria, leaving the family a mere shadow of what it once was.

Stark expressionism emerging as this tragedy unfolds. The Magnificent Ambersons may very well be Citizen Kane’s equal in visual prowess.

As George wanders the streets of the town that now looks entirely foreign to that which he grew up in, the whispering voiceover returns, luring the man towards his eventual comeuppance that, in Welles’ original vision for the film, might have brought about his death. It is certainly fitting that it is an automobile which brings about the downfall he has been defiantly heading towards for a long time, but it is saddening that what follows is a contrived, abbreviated conclusion that lets George survive and make amends with Eugene offscreen. To put this in perspective though, this is but one flaw in a film that it is otherwise virtually perfect, and there isn’t much of an argument to be had that it completely undercuts the success of the rest of its success – the crisp, deep focus cinematography, the expressionistic lighting, or even the quiet ruminations over progress and those who are left behind. The Magnificent Ambersons would be the first of many films Welles would struggle against studios over to maintain artistic control, but it speaks to the power of his directorial voice that it remains such a compelling elegy to historical eras, lost and forgotten.

Crisp, deep focus cinematography and remarkable blocking. The weak ending can’t erase the rest of Welles’ monumental cinematic achievement.

The Magnificent Ambersons is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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