Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Orson Welles

The Magnificent Ambersons

[This was a program note for the October 12, 1971, showing of The Magnificent Ambersons in the University of Washington Lectures & Concert Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It begins with continued commentary on Citizen Kane, shown the week before—an essay located here.]

One of Charles Foster Kane’s least sympathetic moments occurs in the 1929 scene wherein, in a single long, deep take, he listens to the conditions under which Walter P. Thatcher’s bank will take over his newspaper holdings, signs the agreement, and settles back to indulge in a little reverie.  We have commented how Kane, though economically “bust” and inclined to regard this new arrangement as a reversion to the days when he received an “allowance,” still enjoys a certain ascendancy over Thatcher simply in being able to move through the conspicuous space of the scene while Thatcher sits cramped and breathless in the foreground.  They are both much older than the day Thatcher came to take Charlie Kane out of the snows of yesteryear; and if Thatcher was “always too old” to be called anything but Mister, Kane is catching up.  Kane extends tentative congratulations to himself: “You know, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” The remark is directed at Bernstein on the other side of the frame, but it is Thatcher who responds: “Don’t you think you are?” Kane smiles and jovially concedes: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.” Thatcher goes on in all sincerity: “What would you like to have been?” And Kane’s eyes turn to steel as he slams the book of life on Thatcher: “Everything you hate!” It is a complex moment because Kane is implying, after all, that he has turned into something like Thatcher himself (as Thatcher’s portrait on the wall of the memorial library will shortly thereafter be replaced, in the same area of the screen, by Kane’s portrait on the wall of Bernstein’s office), and so this insult functions much like the slammed “w e a k” elsewhere in Citizen Kane.  But on the most direct level Kane, whatever his motives and lifetime of justification, is betraying a conversational trust with someone who offered a rare moment of openness—someone, furthermore, who already has two legs in the grave.

For a young man who was 25 when he began Citizen Kane and had completed The Magnificent Ambersons within another year or so, Orson Welles certainly is obsessed with time, age, and death.  Pauline Kael has remarked that the actors in Kane convey a strong sense of artifice: we know they have completed their turns within the given shots; there is no illusion of the characters’ lives going on offscreen.  Although her intention is merely to reinforce her point that Kane is a playful, “shallow masterpiece,” she puts her finger on a key reason for its depth: lives do reach completion in the film.  When Thompson closes Thatcher’s journal; when the camera pulls away from Bernstein saying—of old age—”It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of,” and from Susie saying “Come around and tell me the story of your life sometime”; when Jed Leland is led away into the shadows of death (or worse, the old-age “heaven” suggested by the camera’s rise at the beginning of the sequence)—we have a tremendous sense of lives summarized, distilled, nothing left to be said that could possibly matter.  Even within the episodes, people die symbolically: Susie not only “dies” onstage but so does the character she plays in the opera, and Susie will attempt suicide; the Chicago Inquirer staff speculates whether the reunion of Kane and Leland mightn’t be dangerous, and Bernstein goes in to find Jed slumped on his typewriter.  And things die: the skylight looks broken at Susie’s nightclub the second time and the sign isn’t lit; we see the alternate Inquirer headlines lifted off the press and a second later FRAUD AT POLLS! lies tromped and forgotten in the gutter.  And Rosebud, identified poetically if not realistically with the quintessence of Charles Foster Kane, “ages” in a single terrible moment—as the whole film may be considered a single terrible moment—consumed in the furnaces of Xanadu.  It is consistent to see the column of smoke rising to heaven, the snow-white ashes of Rosebud carried off into the blackness of the unborn film, as the last instance of the movie’s taking leave of a now-extinguished character.  Yet I have suggested that Kane or at the very least his alter ego narrates the movie.  That the annihilated Rosebud/Kane ascends to heaven and that the camera/Kane descends back outside the fence are not incompatible, no more than the fact that the movie fascinates us with the myriad suggestions of a life and concludes with a bald statement that no real knowledge of—NO TRESPASSING on—such a life is possible.  This visual benediction conveys a kind of self-regret and self-awareness not unrelated to the verbal stab at Thatcher in 1929.  Welles’s instinct seems to be that media itself is inherently sentimental (even Thatcher can become the “grand old man of Wall Street” once unobjectionably dead).  It is a notion to keep in mind as we approach Welles’ second feature film.

* * * * * * * *

“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873.” At these words of voice-over narrator Orson Welles the utter darkness of the film’s opening gradually falls away before the glow of the opening shot in the picture, a memory-image of a vanished age evoked to fleeting, sentimental rebirth by the author’s voice.  We know that the image is special: our vantage of both the house and the streetcar is a straight angle, emphasizing the shot’s similarity to a nostalgic painting; and the soft frame round this and so many subsequent shots in the film stresses an ironic but fond distancing, like vignetting on an old album shot.  Welles accompanies Booth Tarkington’s words (nearly all the dialogue and commentary comes directly from the book) with a succession of lovingly satirical visual comments on the fashions and customs of the day displayed by the personas of the drama to follow (save George, of course—though Higham in his eagerness to fault Welles for his role-doubling and in-jokes mistakes Wilbur for George in the boating shot).  The method is clear yet wonderfully subtle: the history of the era is the story of these people, and vice-versa—something we accept without question in this film, with none of the sense of squeezing customary in many historical or period pieces.  Welles not only unifies these levels but adroitly compresses both time and dramatic event, just as he did through the newsreel near the beginning of Kane.

If the newsreel of Kane wrote finis to Kane’s life before it could begin onscreen, so that we could only ache for Kane’s tremendous verve and sense of potentiality, knowing that the future had already vanished, this opening of Ambersons does nothing of the kind.  True, we never doubt for a moment that this world is irrevocably gone, but the many singular lives populating it remain open-ended as the film gets underway.  The specifics of these lives are revealed to us moment by moment, not as interior reflections of things already foregone, completed, lost.  Kane is eulogy, Ambersons elegy.

But an ironic and complex elegy.  Narrator Welles speaks of “that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade,” and the words suit the exquisite images of the Amberson mansion being transformed by the succession of seasons and of sunshine, twilight, and velvety black night.  But as the tiny figures of the youthful Eugene and his cohorts scamper across the bottom of the screen, Welles goes on to talk of the instruments “releasing their melodies to the dulcet stars,” whereupon the tipsy Eugene caves in the bass viol with a crunch.  Next we see him walking along Amberson Extension in daylight with a large bunch of flowers.  As he reaches the Amberson gate, he doffs his hat directly at us; but “us” also turns out to be the chorus of townsfolk who henceforth punctuate this opening summarizing sequence (and one or two in­stances later on), sometimes directly answering Welles’ own voiceover commentary.  Like Thompson and his colleagues in Kane, these narrative agents are enclosed by the film just like the characters they comment on; indeed, the dramatic characters in the picture, though surely stylized, are basically realistic whereas these sideline figures are as grossly surreal as the symbolically names personas of an Expressionist play.  The narrative frames of the film become more complex still as we recognize (whether straightway or retrospectively) Fanny Minafer among the gossips.  Jack Amberson’s appearance in the barbershop (in a scene that literally and figuratively mirrors the distaff, dress-fitting scene that follows) to defend Wilbur Minafer as Isabel’s suitor is merely consistent with the homely virtues the realistic “Honorable Jack” Amberson comes to represent.  Fanny’s presence among the busybodies is dreadfully consistent too, as we shall learn; but since she comes to exercise an almost directorial control in many of her later sequences, especially her scenes with George, she harbors a great potential for distortion on several levels of community and film.

* * * * * * * *

The first continuous dramatic action of the film—the last of the great Amberson balls—takes place in what, for anyone who has just seen (or had just made) Citizen Kane, must stand as the season of memory.  But the ice that was so hard and cold a value in the earlier film develops a new resonance here.  An older Eugene Morgan and his daughter Lucy take us into the mansion through doors glazed with it.  The ice suggests pastness rightly enough, and a kind of crystallization, containment in form; but when it is immediately echoed visually in the Ambersons’ crystal chandelier and aurally in the tinkling of those crystals in the draught from the door, the effect is of exquisite transformation, an oddly graceful ostentatiousness through which a peculiarly American lifestyle is achieved, one that accommodates itself to the stylistic splendor of the season.  The chill exterior only serves to enhance the warm, friendly interior.  The mansion may in fact represent a flagrantly impure and in itself un-beautiful architecture, yet as it so lyrically partakes of time of day, season of the year, endures snow and thunderstorm, and provides the frame and background of so many complex interpersonal encounters, it comes to seem a living camera obscura refracting a wealth of experience.

The ball becomes the occasion of the first long, fluid takes that mark a development from the discrete, discontinuous scene-moments of Welles’s first film.  Here is no place for the exhibitionistic shock-cut technique of Thatcher’s decade-leaping “Merry Christmas, Charles … and a Happy New Year!”  Where in Kane Welles seemed out to get the jump on the audience, here he respects the pace of his characters’ existences and virtually lives out whole segments of time with them.  Not that there weren’t lengthy takes in Kane—an especially evocative one transpired in Bernstein’s office, with muffled thunder and the ceaseless nattering of the ticker-tape underscoring the business manager’s reminiscences (he is reflected in a black tabletop through much of the shot).  But, as we have noted, there was no true flux in that film.  Here personalities converge, converse but don’t always communicate, pass moments of decision that will determine the course of their futures and yet still they have to finish crossing the room of the present, deal with the amenities, save face while behind the façade a heart may be breaking.  Study the mise-en-scène of performers around the punchbowl: the doddery Major teases Isabel about her rejection of Eugene; Wilbur chirps his contentment with the way things have worked out; Isabel blushes; Fanny catches with studied casualness at Eugene’s hand and cheerily stresses that “The important thing is that Wilbur not only got her but kept her”; and Eugene, circling the assembly, looks lovingly at his daughter who has just wandered into the shot and half-heard her name.

During the ball Welles is at some pains to suggest visually: “Let time shape, and there an end.” The long take that begins on the punchbowl conversation contains many shifts of dramatic focus from the oldest generations to the youngest, and especially from Eugene and Isabel to George and Lucy, the children of their separate marriages.  After the landlocked George declares his intention of becoming a yachtsman and dances away into the distance with an astonished Lucy, the older lovers come to the fore again; and Welles executes an unbearably lovely dissolve to the two of them still dancing, much later, on a dark and otherwise deserted floor.  He cuts to a closer angle, and George and Lucy run down from an upper story to sit on the stairs—those busy busy stairs—and watch.  The dancing finished, the guests take their leave; and again Gene and Isabel exchange a hushed “good night” over the more willful but no less auspicious arrangement of George and Lucy to see each other the next day.  “Old times?!” Gene laughs with Jack.  “When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead!  There aren’t any times but new times!”  Yet the mise-en-scène wishfully belies this—for a time.

The next day’s winter sports begin with an image of luminosity typically Wellesian in its im­mediately perceptible beauty and simultaneous intricacy of concept and execution: reflected in a snowbound stream from which steam rises to enhance the illusoriness, George’s sleigh drives by, the sound of its bells incorporated into Bernard Herrmann’s music as if the detail had already resolved into memory.  The lyric juxtaposition of two epochs—the new momentarily stalled, the old enjoying the last moment of its ascendancy—produces the all but final moments of tranquility in the film.  As the anachronistic, Griffithian device of the iris-shot closes down in benediction of an era, the motif of time is replaced by those of decay and death, and the auspiciousness of the interpersonal mise-en-scène at the ball gives way to the fatal machinations of character against character.

The turning-point, which might have marked a final positive turn in the fortunes of Eugene and Isabel, is the funeral of Wilbur Minafer.  The iris-out on the Morgan Invincible in the snow is succeeded by and echoed in the black wreath on the mansion door (and also by an arbitrarily placed curved shadow in the upper right of the screen).  Again Gene and Lucy take us into the house. We see the reception in a single fluid take, the camera observing over Wilbur’s coffin, the mourners filing by, circling, and bending back toward and past us.  Eugene takes Isabel’s arm; they go out of the frame.  And Fanny Minafer, whose now-dead brother got Isabel and kept her, leaving the widowed Eugene unattached and—who knows?—­available, walks into closeup.  Welles cuts to a new shot at this time, as he cut to a final stunning closeup after the single-take sundering of Charlie Kane from his family; and in Fanny’s ambiguously tear-stained face as in Charlie’s outer-directed glare, we read the shape of things to come.

* * * * * * * *

George Amberson Minafer’s recurring bit of noblesse oblige at the ball is his assurance to every guest: “Remember you very well indeed.”  Although at the time he has cause to remember almost none of them, the remainder of The Magnificent Ambersons is dedicated to teaching George to remember, and to regret.

Our first sustained image of Welles’s Currier and Ives world is the horsecar that draws up before the Amberson mansion.  It does not recur, but “the Major’s grandson” is first seen careening through the streets of the town in his own pony cart; and when he returns from college—without having received his comeuppance—he is photographed in those same streets like some heroic charioteer.  He habitually makes the horse a verbal index to his view of life: “That’s a horse on me,” “That’s just one of the crowd’s bits of horsing”; and I think it is not accidental (certainly the actor’s reading intensifies the line) that George’s alternative for “a horse on me” is: “Well, I will be shot.  I will.  I certainly will be shot”—or that they shoot horses with broken legs and George ends up (visually, at least) an accident statistic in the newspaper: “G.A. Minafer both legs broken,” never to show up on screen again.

George has taken a drubbing from commentators on Ambersons, as though he were a villain instead of the most significant among the characters who function as protagonists.  For if Welles regrets the passing of the Ambersons and their age, he must also regret George—particularly George.  It requires no great insight to recognize him as a close relative of Charles Foster Kane, enjoying the tyranny of youth Kane could only reconstruct in retrospect (note that he towers over the family circle in the childhood scene in the garden).  And just as Kane’s yellow press frequently served up the truth, so does George with knowing irony (“Most girls of 16 are pretty bad dancers”) and with comical artlessness (of his ailing father: “He isn’t any different than the way he’s looked all his life, as I can see”); neither does he lie to his mother when she asks whether Eugene has tried to see her.  George, in his “grand, gloomy, and peculiar way,” is the most conspicuous individual in the film.  Eugene Morgan may be a model of adapting and enduring with grace, and certainly his twofold loss of the woman he loves is moving; but historically Eugene stands, however sincerely and self-searchingly, in the vanguard of the forces of Progress rolling over his friends the Ambersons—and over George, literally.

As for George’s culpability in ruining the lives of Eugene and Isabel, that too is no simple matter.  Within this particular scenario, and as Welles has directed the film, George’s resentment of Morgan initially stems from Eugene’s teasing him, being a “queer-looking duck,” and seeming (to George) a promoter out to woo some Amberson money—until Fanny sets at him.  Protagonists aside, there can be no question who delivers the performance in the film: Agnes Moorehead’s Fanny Minafer shifts emotional gears, verbal inflections, and levels of rationality so electrifyingly that we can readily believe George’s “You make me dizzy!” and well appreciate how, when he finds a most outrageous suspicion in his head, he can’t account for how it got there and so accepts it as the product of his own intuition.  Time and again Fanny lays her version of reality on George, and he repeats it as though it were a verbal blueprint to be learned by rote; she functions as an on-stage director eliciting from her young and inexperienced co-star (George, not Tim Holt) a performance he may have had in him all the while but might never have delivered without her histrionic midwifery.  They have much in common in their theatricality, which is both inadvertent and deliberate (their voices crack and they imitate each other).  At the luncheon scene Welles pulls a devastating coup: From the foot of the table we can see everyone but Fanny, who suddenly leans out from behind George—seems to lean out of George—and goads him about Lucy’s not revealing that she was going away; the embarrassment George suffers will be taken out on Gene a moment later when he pronounces automobiles “a useless nuisance that had no business to be invented.”  There is no realistic reason, given the human geography of the table, for her to lean out (no one sits between her and George): it is an effect for our benefit, just as in a previous scene she was shut out of Eugene’s attention by Isabel and so turned her dark gaze almost on the camera.  We become aware of Fanny’s maneuvering as George never does; near the end of the film George sacrifices himself because he feels she can’t live without her boardinghouse “and the harmless kind of gossip that goes on in such places.”

Then too, there is Isabel.  The child Georgie literally overshadows her as she asks his promise not to use bad language any more, and he is said to dominate her without having to resort to force.  Yet Isabel clings to George.  Her fussing over him after the sleigh accident not only is made a joke by her companions but seems almost to embarrass the camera itself, which keeps other figures and objects between itself and her obsessive maternity; she brushes at George while he points out that she’s standing in the snow herself, and much much later, on the verge of death, she will worry whether he caught a cold on the way home while the feeling leaves her own fingers.  Lovestruck Eugene should not be taken at his word—and the music underscores this—that hers has been a “selfless and perfect motherhood.”

The coincidence of snow and maternal concern recalls Agnes Moorehead’s Mary Kane warning her Charles to fix his muffler before turning to sign Thatcher’s documents.  In that scene in Kane is to be found greater ambiguity, I think, than the overridingly Oedipal readings of “Rosebud” have acknowledged.  Jim Kane’s first words are: “You people seem to forget I’m the boy’s father,” and indeed some critics write that Kane had no father.  It is to him that Charlie first turns when the three adults come outside; he gets about two steps before Mary’s “Charles!” brings him round with an obedient “Yes, Mummy?” To be sure, Mr. Kane changes his tune about signing the boy over to the bank when he hears of the $50,000 a year, and he will take a swing at him after the attack on Thatcher; but Charlie seems to loathe Thatcher at least as much because he isn’t his own father, no matter how many “My boys” he uses, as because he represents the father who gave him up.

The identity George defends is not the one represented by his own surname.  Both Lucy and Mrs. Johnston address him as “Mr.  Amberson—I mean, Mr. Minafer,” and he is appalled by Isabel’s confession of accepting Eugene’s love because “You’re my mother! You’re an Amberson!” He is resented by the townspeople as a “princely terror,” and there is no kingdom of the Minafers; those who are not there to witness his comeuppance have “forgotten about it, and about him,” and so he becomes merely “G.A. Minafer” to the Indianapolis Inquirer.  There was a shot cut from the film in which, according to Charles Higham, “George in mirror puts picture of his dead father on a mantelpiece.” That picture looks over Isabel’s shoulder as she sits, veiled as in mourning, as she will be veiled in the shadow of death, while she waits for word from Eugene.  But how George looked when he placed the picture—filially devoted or Oedipally triumphant—Higham’s sources evidently did not indicate.

* * * * * * * *

Although Booth Tarkington and not Orson Welles provided it, the name ‘Amberson’ might serve as this film’s “Rosebud.” The name is so perfectly apt, containing the very color of time yet simultaneously suggesting preservation from time (though only of relics).  The essence of the Ambersons and of Ambersons is mortality.  In the first of several sequences in which the harsh, sporadically interrupted fall of light seems to have the power to rot flesh, Major Amberson and Jack discuss George and his inclination to melancholy.  The Major refers to his own failing fortunes and asks, “What does he think I’m made of?” and Jack replies, “Gold.” The Amberson wealth is a near color-rhyme for their name, and Jack will later philosophize: “Life and money both are like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks: you don’t know where they’ve gone or what the devil you did with either of them.” Life and gold both seem related to the frequently harsh light of that sun which glares into the Major’s coach and into the carriage bringing the dying Isabel home from the station and onto Fanny as she sits by the cold boiler in the half-empty mansion, the sun on which the Major muses after the death of Isabel and just before his own: “It must be in the sun.  There want anything here but the sun in the first place.  The earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth; so whatever we are….” Firelight flickers on his face as he mumbles these incoherent yet so suggestive lines; and though the light has shown the Major frequently to disadvantage, we feel the finality when it fades away, leaving him to the darkness from which the film too came.

There are many such symbolic deaths in Ambersons: Eugene begs Isabel, “Don’t strike my life down twice, dear”; George tries to impress Lucy with the likelihood that they will never see each other again, and Isabel worries that she might not see her father once more; she is progressively swallowed up by shadows; George is “forgotten” and last seen (aside from his form on a stretcher) as a shape of unfathomable blackness by Isabel’s bed, an organic sector of private pain like Charlie Kane.  The town dies as it grows: “it befouled itself and darkened its sky.” And indeed Welles originally ended his film with a shot of Eugene looking back at Fanny in the doorway of the mansion, now itself a boardinghouse, while the skyline of an industrial city loomed over it.

* * * * * * * *

The Magnificent Ambersons does not stand as Orson Welles left it when he rushed off to South America to begin work on an epic documentary there.  He prepared a rough cut and left his editor Robert Wise with instructions on how to proceed, periodically checking in by phone or wire to follow the progress.  RKO previewed the film at a running time of about two-and-a-quarter hours, a little longer than Kane (which does survive as Welles made it).  The previews were unsuccessful, to say the least; they were also insane, the film being “sneaked” to audiences who came to the theater to see a radically dissimilar main feature.  With Welles away and a new administration coming to power at RKO, Wise and Welles’ coworkers were forced to make do somehow.  Scenes were dropped, curtailed, moved.  Some were reshot (George’s scene with Isabel over Eugene’s letter is said to have been toned down at the studio’s express orders).  The ending, starting with Eugene and Lucy in his study, is Wise’s own.

It is certainly not my intention to defend the tampering with Welles’s film.  Welles himself is understandably disenchanted and says that the present conclusion is “just ridiculous.” There is no telling what the real Orson Welles Magnificent Ambersons felt like; the excised footage appears to have been lost during RKO’s checkered history (the company was sold in 1954 and has gone through several hands).  But there is enough of a film there to attest that it was a masterpiece; and I think Wise’s revisions deserve to be praised more than derogated.

Wise, who became a director in his own right in 1944 and is now a “major director” in terms of Hollywood prestige, seems to have been at great pains to preserve motifs established in Welles-directed scenes and to imitate Welles mannerisms as faithfully as possible.  For instance, the brief shot of Lucy and Jack arriving at the Morgan house and starting in was executed by him; the peculiar combination of camera movement and optical effect in traveling in slightly on the housefront is imitative of several shots in Kane (Thompson entering the Thatcher Library reading room, Susie walking out of Xanadu, Kane’s multiple-reflection shot).  The shot of Eugene writing his letter to Isabel, then glancing into the camera for a moment before beginning to read, is his.  The third shot from the end—Lucy announcing, “I’m going to him” and striding off at a bizarre angle—carries out Lucy’s theatricality (cf. her smiling farewell from George and her Molahaha performance with Eugene’s complicity).  And the final shot is a complex attempt to unify several stylistic threads running through the film: the traveling shot; Fanny’s indulgent show of approval as Eugene tells of the reconciliation with George that she needn’t fear, now that Isabel is dead (Fanny has been able to tell the truth about herself fairly often and to show genuine emotion even for those whose lives she has helped wreck—her tears for Isabel on the staircase are undoubtedly in large measure genuine); the fact that she and Eugene both look straight ahead throughout most of the shot (cf. Jack rebuking George after the luncheon scene, George and Jack in the bathroom); the stress on private sectors of awareness within the shot, Fanny realizing that Isabel has won for all time while good dear simple Eugene, who would not hurt “poor old Fanny” for the world, rubs it in; and the last barren shot of antiseptic corridor, so violent in contrast to the dark, overripe interiors of the mansion, seems faithful to the Welles who in these two films sees white garbed nurses more as angels of death than angels of mercy.  Many people find the scene a sentimental sell-out of the film, the normally perspicacious Joseph McBride going so far as to suggest Wise wants us to believe Fanny is the “own true love” Gene refers to; much as I believe in the inviolability of the true director’s original design and execution, I cannot agree that the changes Wise had to make ruined the film.

* * * * * * * *

The last word on and in The Magnificent Ambersons is had by Orson Welles.  As Wise’s hospital corridor fades out, Welles’ voice speaks in the darkness: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Magnificent Ambersons has been adapted from the novel by Booth Tarkington”—we see the book.  “It was photographed by Stanley Cortez”—a movie camera; “Mark-Lee Kirk designed the sets”—sketches, “Al Fields dressed them”—a chair….  And so on through to the cast: “Eugene—Joseph Cotten,” and there is Cotten in costume, lovingly lighted in cameo against a solid black background; “Isabel—Dolores Costello,” and on through the principal players.  A microphone hangs in space, an ironically bombastic image: “I wrote the script and directed it.  My name is Orson Welles.  This is a Mercury Production.” And the boom swings up and away into a beam of light.  Chuckles in the audience: Welles’s ego reclaims the film.

But the gesture is much more than that.  We have watched an entire film that chronicles the fading of the magnificence of the Ambersons and their way of life—and even Eugene, who helps end that way of life, is a prime example of its gentility and grace.  We have seen these people pass on, some of them dying during the course of the film, others—like George—suffering a stylistic negation.  Yet here they are, all of them, as in a living album, while the men of the present who made this film celebrating their quaint pastness are nowhere to be seen: only their machines are there, machines not unrelated to the inventions that toppled the Amberson dynasty.  Yet through these machines this celebration has been made possible.  Even the accomplished ensemble playing of the Mercury Company must be summed up in that rather machine-like word ‘precision’.  But it is the faceless offscreen machinery of the film that is most to the point here.  In retrospect, back to that first calling-out-of-darkness, The Magnificent Ambersons has been founded on the most basic irony of the cinema.  It is not at all far-fetched to suggest that the protagonist of the film is Orson Welles himself.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.  RKO Radio, 1942.  Adapted for the screen, produced, directed, and narrated by Orson Welles.  From the novel by Booth Tarkington.  Cinematography: Stanley Cortez.  Art direction: Mark-Lee Kirk.  Editing: Robert Wise.  Music: Bernard Herrmann.  88 minutes.
Revised sequences directed by Robert Wise and by a committee of Wise, Joseph Cotten, and Jack Moss (all uncredited).  Additional cinematography: Harry J. Wild, Russell Metty (both uncredited).  Music revision: Roy Webb (uncredited).
The Players:  George Amberson Minafer: Tim Holt;  Eugene Morgan: Joseph Cotten;  Fanny Minafer: Agnes Moorehead;  Isabel Amberson Minafer: Dolores Costello;  Jack Amberson: Ray Collins;  Lucy Morgan: Anne Baxter;  Major Amberson: Richard Bennett;  Wilbur Minafer: Don Dillaway;  Roger Bronson: Erskine Sanford.

Copyright © 1971 by Richard T. Jameson