The Magnificent Ambersons at 80: Orson Welles’ Mighty But Cursed Drama | Orson Welles

Meet Orson Welles. Director of Citizen Kane. Star of Citizen Kane. Writer, producer and hero behind, Citizen Kane. Twenty six years old and full of ideas and energy. Had I worked for the studio that employed him in 1942, I would have done my best to keep him on the side. RKO Radio Pictures don’t.

The Magnificent Ambersons, released 80 years ago today, is known to be the film that Orson Welles directed after Citizen Kane. It is also considered one of the great travesties in film history. Adapted from Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel, it traces the waning success and eventual misery of the upper-class Amberson family in the Midwest during an extended turn-of-the-century period. After showing only twice in its original Welles cut and being horribly received by the preview audience, RKO took control of the image, wildly cropping, reshooting and editing. (And adding a standard Hollywood happy ending, of course.) Traveling and out of touch in Brazil, Welles was hopelessly working on an unfinished anthology film. It didn’t matter, RKO argued: the audience knew best.

The history of the film is a history of compromises in this direction. Artistic directors fight the people with the money. Such tension is almost inevitable in a medium as commercial as cinema. But perhaps never before or since has it led to such a dramatically controversial outcome. So what about The Magnificent Ambersons? This is when the contrarian, “edgy” critic calls it better than Citizen Kane. And that moment when the hand-wringing, painfully conformist critic (me) replies, “No, it’s not.”

But The Magnificent Ambersons does something Kane doesn’t and something very few American films have attempted. It confronts one of the pivotal events in the emergence of modern America: the ultimate demise of European nobility and its socio-economic replacement by an industrial and typically American “big” bourgeoisie.

There are many American films that criticize the brutal consequences of capitalism and many that look back to a bucolic, imaginary, pre-industrial America. But The Magnificent Ambersons confronts the historical moment that broke these two visions apart. It is a film about phases of class struggle as engines of historical change. Had Marx survived, he would have agreed.

Middle-class Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) spent his youth courting Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), only to lose her to a more boring but “higher-born” rival. With the lost possibility of assimilation between the two classes, only the prospect of competition and displacement remains. While Morgan’s business is booming and his daughter (Anne Baxter) is precociously serious and ambitious, the Amberson family sees their finances unravel and their tenuous future is left to Isabel’s stubborn and naïve son George (Tim Holt).

With main characters portraying in different ways a fading rustic past and a harsher, more pragmatic future, Ambersons foreshadows another well-directed classic: Chimes at Midnight. In his 1965 amalgamation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II, Welles charts the death throes of an imaginary Merrie England that was soon to be superseded by the cleaner, more regimented world of the late Middle Ages. The main difference from Amberson’s? Merrie England is represented by the working class, cooped up in an Eastcheap tavern but ostensibly influencing the traditional elites by preserving a sort of folk wisdom. They appear in Shakespeare as contradictory and diverse – real and self-determining. In Amberson’s they feature but are presented with unqualified admiration and are given little power.

Orson Welles sketches the design for the ballroom set.
Orson Welles sketches the design for the ballroom set. Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

If The Magnificent Ambersons can be read as a Marxist narrative, then its framing of the proletariat is straight out of Soviet cinema. During the first half of the film, we take intermittent breaks from the main plot to examine the minds of the locals. They speak bluntly and wisely, and the camera frames their faces tightly, always looking up at the sky. We could be watching over-dubbed clips from a Sergei Eisenstein film.

Welles supported powerful unions and was strongly left-leaning, and the Ambersons’ timeline felt a strong undercurrent of socialist sentiment. In the age of “mass production,” “the people” were now referred to by paranoid elites as “the masses,” implying revolutionary potential, as historian Jill Lepore has noted. And maybe a communist revolution is just around the corner in The Magnificent Ambersons’ Indianapolis. The film certainly shows a future of the proletariat. But their focus ultimately remains on the bourgeois past.

This is increasingly the case as the film progresses and the story progresses. As modernity surrounds the Amberson mansion, Welles brings the film’s focus ever closer to the grand old house. We soon find ourselves trapped there, buried in an architectural anachronism. The last third of the film largely keeps the action in this setting as it subjects the Amberson family to a final round of humiliation. Despite the attached “happy ending,” it all feels funeral. The atmosphere, if not the plot, was retained as Orson would have wanted.

Welles was a man of the time. The Magnificent Ambersons sees a director idly awaiting a revolutionary future while assured of the brilliance of the past. If you look at Welles’ own career, you can understand why. The halcyon days of creative control and productive enjoyment – the days that spawned Citizen Kane – seemed long gone. Chasing down the past like a real Jay Gatsby, Orson Welles must have felt like the world’s oldest 26-year-old.

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