Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942)

Orson Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, is an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel of the same name. The second industrial revolution and the advent of the automobile function as the catalyst that brings a well-to-do family from the pinnacle of status and wealth down to ruin.

The woes of the silk shoe generation are perfectly characterized through George Amberson Minifer, played by Tim Holt. Entitled and unmotivated, George floats through life while looking down on everyone around him. As an unskilled and ill-equipped member of society he slowly slips through the ranks of society.

Welles’ creative and technical prowess shines through in just about every sequence. The way he blocks his scenes, his unique camera angles, and tracking shots are just a few ways his style amplified the film. Although The Magnificent Ambersons is not as famous as his previous, and first film, Citizen Kane, it is certainly comparable in terms of execution. Certainly a must watch if you can bare the black and white aesthetic of old movies.

It seems as though every generation is guilty of proclaiming the next generation as being entitled and lazy. It’s hard to avoid hearing this regularly said about millennials… Although the truth of the matter is that every generation is comprised of a full spectrum of personalities and characters. Some accomplish more than others and some struggle more than others. We rarely know the complexity and makeup of each others’ life stories and thus fail to see how they compare to our own. This disconnect makes it easier to compare our personal hardships and triumphs to others and other generations without factoring in their struggles.

With that said, an entitled brat getting their “comeuppance” is a desire most want satisfied. This is the primary arc in The Magnificent Ambersons. As we see the Amberson family progress through three decades, we see how the actions and circumstances of the past dictate the trajectory and regrets of the future. While George is a thick headed douche with a relatively straightforward and unwavering arc, he still conveys the pitfalls of entitled stubbornness to a T.

Each character had a distinct arc and synergy with one another. I am sure this can be attributed more to Tarkington than Welles, given I have not read it, but nonetheless it is well executed by the script and cast.

On the more technical side, it is interesting to see how distinct Welles’ style is when compared to some contemporary films. Welles’ use of depth and movement creates a more dynamic visual experience. This is interesting considering that before film he was primarily in theater and radio. Perhaps it was his experience in theater bleeding through his films. His creative blocking techniques, unique shot sequences and angles, and full use of background to foreground could be derived from his work in theater.

Welles is able to use the camera in a way that makes his films dynamic and multi-dimensional. Many films from before Welles, his contemporaries, even modern day films, can be feel stiff and linear. Whereas, Magnificent Ambersons features creative use of space, more vertical movements with the camera, tracking through walls, even his storytelling style follows non-linear structure (more so Citizen Kane than Magnificent Ambersons). These factors bring a more dynamic and complex depth to the story.

It would be interesting to see his original cut of the film and see how it differs from the rather dramatic veer towards the end.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Orson Welles

Cinematography: Bernard Herrmann

Written by: Booth Tarkington (Novel) & Orson Welles

Edited by: Robert Wise

Starring: Dolores Costello , Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter

Runtime: 1h 28m

Genre: Drama, Romance

Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures

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