Sunday, January 27, 2013
The Magnificent Ambersons
Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons is the story about a family who face declining fortunes due to changing times as they also deal with social issues that are happening. Written for the screen, directed, and narrated by Orson Welles. The film explores the dynamics of a family who struggles with new changes as they try to maintain their way of life. Starring Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Dolores Costello, and Ray Collins. The Magnificent Ambersons is a captivating drama from Orson Welles.
The film is essentially the story about a family from the early 20th Century who were the darlings of a small town in Indiana only to be affected by changing times when the arrival of the automobile arrive as the fortunes of this unique family start to dwindle. Notably as it revolves around this young man in George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) who returns from college to find out that an old family friend in Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) has also returned after a 20-year absence to present the Ambersons his new invention in the automobile. While George would have feelings for Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), he learns that Eugene and his mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) have had feelings for each other that upsets George and his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). When George does whatever to stop this from happening yet it would lead to the downfall of the family whose fortunes and reputation were already dwindling.
Orson Welles’ screenplay explores the dynamics of the family as he narrates the film every now and then to give a few moments of exposition to establish who these people are. Notably George Amberson Minafer who arrives as a very spoiled son who the locals hope would get his comeuppance. When George becomes a young adult, he is still a young man with a lot of pride who is instilled about what the Amberson family should be. Yet, he would tease his aunt Fanny while often hanging around with his uncle Jack (Ray Collins) while still being devoted to his family. The arrival of Eugene Morgan would only complicate mattes as George thinks Eugene Morgan is ruining things with this new invention. Yet, the invention would become a major success as it would contribute to changing times.
Though Morgan’s intentions are noble as he wants the Ambersons to be part of his success, George and Fanny each are unsure that Morgan is doing the right thing. Notably as George learns through Jack and Fanny about his mother’s relationship with Eugene and that they were still in love with each other when Isabel married George’s father (Donal Dillaway). Now that George’s father is gone, Isabel and Eugene can renew their love affair yet it hurts George very much as he’s also infatuated with Eugene’s daughter Lucy. It would be his pride for himself and his family that would cause the downfall as he tries to shun Eugene away from his mother only for things to go wrong that led to their downfall.
Welles’ direction is definitely stylish in the way he presents small town Indiana in the 20th Century where the center of this small town is this estate that represents the Ambersons. Through his narration, Welles establishes what kind of family the Ambersons are where even though they are revered by the locals. There is also a bit of discontent in the way young George would have this belief that he owns the town. By the time he returns from college, he’s still that kid of sorts who feels like he is the man of the town as he and his mother are the hosts of this annual lavish party they would have. It’s in this party where Welles would set the stage for everything that would mark the beginning of the end for the Ambersons.
While a lot of the shots are quite straightforward, the mood that Welles puts into the shots add to the dramatic stakes. Notably in some of the exteriors where it features some tracking shots where Welles would follow the camera around the characters as they’re walking in this small town. Still, the direction does have its sense of style in the way Welles would position the actors in some key dramatic moments that occur. Notably in the third act where the downfall of the family finally comes into play through as Welles maintains that air of style that occurs. Yet, it would be followed by an ending that isn’t what Welles had intended as it would be helmed by his assistant director Fred Fleck and editor Robert Wise. Even though the final results are just an idea of a much bigger story Welles wanted to create, the final film version is still an engaging piece about drama and pride.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez does excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to create moods for some of the film‘s interior scenes while the exteriors are more straightforward. Editor Robert Wise does wonderful work with the editing by taking on some straightforward cuts as well as stylized uses of dissolves and wipes. Production designer Albert S. D’Agostino and set decorator Darrell Silvera do amazing work with the sets from the looks of the car and towns to the lavishness that is the Amberson estate.
Costume designer Edward Stevenson does fantastic work with the costumes that the women wear to create their personalities from the lavishness of Isabel, the more prim look of Fanny, and the more youthful style of Lucy. Sound recorders Bailey Fesler and James G. Stewart do terrific work with the sound to capture the atmosphere of the film‘s party scenes as well as the tense moments in the film such as George‘s dismissal about Eugene‘s idea about the automobile. The film’s music by Bernard Herrmann is superb for its soaring orchestral score to play up some of the melodrama that happens in the film.
The film’s cast is quite stellar for the ensemble that is created as it features notable small roles from Bobby Cooper as the young George, J. Louis Johnson as the Ambersons’ butler Sam, Richard Bennett as the Amberson patriarch Major Amberson, Erskine Sanford as a law clerk who tries to help George in the third act, and Donald Dillaway as George’s ailing father Wilbur. Ray Collins is superb as George’s uncle Jack who tries to figure out what is best for the family while dealing with the chaos that is happening around them. Agnes Moorehead is great as George’s melodramatic aunt Fanny who pines for Eugene Morgan as she tries to help George sway Eugene from Isabel. Anne Baxter is wonderful as Eugene’s daughter Lucy who has feelings for George as she tries to deal with his immaturity. Dolores Costello is radiant as Isabel who deals with the loss of her husband as well as Eugene’s presence in the hopes to find someone to be with only for things to get complicated.
Joseph Cotten is great as Eugene Morgan as a man who wants to show the world his invention as he intrigues the Ambersons while gaining the ire of George over Isabel. Finally, there’s Tim Holt in a marvelous performance as George Amberson Minafer as a young man who is threatened by Morgan’s new rules and ideas as he tries to hold on to his old ways only to succumb to his own selfish pride and immaturity.
The Magnificent Ambersons is an incredible film from Orson Welles. Featuring an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter, Dolores Costello, and Ray Collins. It’s a film that explores the world of changing times and people trying to hold on to the old ways. Notably as it also reveals the sense of fear just as the world is about to change in the eyes of a young man. In the end, The Magnificent Ambersons is a remarkable film from Orson Welles.
Orson Welles Films: Citizen Kane - The Stranger (1946 film) - The Lady from Shanghai - Macbeth (1948 film) - Othello (1952 film) - Mr. Arkadin - Touch of Evil - The Trial (1962 film) - Chimes at Midnight - The Immortal Story - F for Fake - Filming Othello – The Other Side of the Wind
Related: Orson Welles: The One-Man Band - The Eyes of Orson Welles - They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead - The Auteurs #69: Orson Welles: Part 1 - Part 2
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