A year after the release of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles sealed his mythic status as a Hollywood wunderkind with his accomplished second feature.
[Arguably] even better than Citizen Kane... exquisitely beautiful film-making.
When young Eugene Morgan (Welles’ ensemble player, Joseph Cotten) disgraces himself in a clumsy attempt to serenade the lovely Isabelle Amberson (Dolores Costello), Major Amberson’s daughter throws over her 'best beau’ and instead marries Wilbur Minifer, a suitor faintly praised as 'no Apollo, but a steady young businessman'. Almost two decades later, a widowed Isabelle and Eugene are reunited at a grand ball held to welcome home her son, George (Tim Holt), a wilful young man of indeterminate virtue or talent who immediately takes a pointed dislike to his mother’s still-smitten former sweetheart.
Orson Welles’ rich baritone punctuates his second feature film, completed in 1942, following his auspicious debut with Citizen Kane the previous year. As the film’s narrator, Welles’ magisterial, wry inflections act as a sly commentary on the ambitions and foibles of the self-styled ‘magnificent’ Ambersons; prominent citizens of an American Midwest town on the cusp of modernity.
Adapted from the 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, film critic Molly Haskell astutely discerned in Tarkington’s novel and Welles’ sympathetic adaptation, “the glorious ambiguity of character” that typified Welles’ general attitude to the invariably flawed characters in his films: “No one in Welles’ [world] is all good or all bad... the villains are complex... the heroes riddled with doubts or fatal weaknesses. His attraction to the variety of human nature, and the way character determines fate, has never been more evident than in this ensemble”.
In a supporting cast that also features a young Anne Baxter (All About Eve), Agnes Moorehead’s bravura performance as Fanny Minifer deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. The film also garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Black and White Art Direction.
Released in a considerably shorter version than the expansive 131 minute version Welles envisaged, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael proclaimed that “even in its truncated form [the film] is amazing and memorable”.
The Magnificent Ambersons screens in a 35mm print to commemorate the film's 80th anniversary in 2022.
Roberta Ciabarra; Curator, Film
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