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The Magnificent Ambersons is a American drama film written and directed by Orson Welles. His second feature film, it is based on the 1918 novel of the same title by Booth Tarkington and stars Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins. Welles provides the voiceover narration.

Tarkington's novel had originally been filmed in 1925 by Vitagraph Pictures, starring Cullen Landis, Alice Calhoun, and Allan Forrest, and directed by David Smith. Welles adapted it for the radio in 1939 for the Mercury Theatre of the Air. The only actor from that production who also appeared in the film was Ray Collins.

Welles lost control of the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons to RKO, and the final version released to audiences differed significantly from his vision for the film. More than an hour of footage was cut by the studio, and a new, happier ending was shot and tacked on. Although Welles's extensive notes for how he wished the film to be cut survived, the excised scenes did not.

In 2002, a television movie was made using the Welles screenplay and his editing notes. It was directed by Alfonso Arau and starred Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Gretchen Mol, and Jennifer Tilly. This film does not, however, strictly follow Welles's screenplay. It lacks several scenes that are in the 1942 version, and also has essentially the same happy ending.

Even in its radically altered form, the 1942 film is often regarded as among the best American films ever made, a distinction it shares with Welles's first film, Citizen Kane.

In 1991, The Magnificent Ambersons was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was included in Sight and Sound's 1972 list of the top ten greatest films ever made, and again in 1982's list. The film is not currently available on DVD in the United States.


The film, set in the early 1900s, tells the story of the Ambersons, an upper-class Indianapolismarker family, focusing on Major Amberson's grandson, George. At the beginning of the film, George is home on break from college, and his mother and grandfather (Richard Bennett) hold a reception in his honor. Among the guests are the widowed Eugene Morgan, a prosperous automobile manufacturer who has just returned to town after a twenty-year absence, and his daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). George instantly takes to the beautiful and charming Lucy, but seems to scorn and dislike Eugene almost instinctively.

In a flashback, the history between George's mother, Isabel, and Eugene is revealed. Twenty years ago, Major Amberson's daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello), is unintentionally humiliated in public by her high-spirited beau - Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) - who, with a group of other men, serenades her after having had a few drinks. Eugene drunkenly falls and breaks his bass viol. In accordance with the decorum of the era and the mores of "high society," Isabel breaks off their relationship and decides to marry the bland Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway) instead. They have one child, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), whom she spoils. As George grows up, he bullies and dominates children and adults alike, and many in the town long for the day when the superior, arrogant, immature mama's boy will get his "comeuppance."

The film returns to the early 1900s, and traces the courtship of George and Lucy, as well his college days. George is called home from college with the news that his father, Wilbur Minafer, has died. After George graduates from college, he continues to court Lucy, but also continues in his dislike of Eugene, especially after learning from his uncle Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) and aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) that Eugene and Isabel had once been an item. He is especially enraged by his aunt's implication that not only did Isabel always love Eugene, even during her life with George's father, Wilbur, but that people in town are gossiping about this juicy tidbit. Eugene's automobile plant continues to prosper, and soon he builds a mansion to challenge the magnificence of the Ambersons'. In addition to being worried about his mother's reputation (though this concern may be a bit of a red herring), George is repeatedly rejected in his proposals of marriage to Lucy, which intensifies his dislike for Eugene, whose ideals--including that a young man should engage in productive work--George thinks are influencing her decision. George, in contrast, after graduating from college, steadfastly insists that "being" is better than "doing" for a gentleman of his social stature, and refuses to do anything more than live a life of leisure in his grandfather's mansion--and with his grandfather's money.

Ultimately, this conflict results in a breaking off of the relationship between George and Lucy, though they still obviously care about each other. George surprises his family, who seem to be unaware of the end of his relationship with Lucy, by insulting Eugene at a family dinner by saying that the automobile is a "useless nuisance" and never should have been invented. Eugene handles this taunt gracefully, admitting that the automobile will change both our inner and outer worlds in ways that cannot yet be fully anticipated, and that in the end, the invention may in fact be a nuisance and even a curse - a foreshadowing of the later calamity that befalls George. Eugene then takes his leave. George is reminded by his grandfather and uncle after Eugene makes his hasty departure from the table that his behavior is an odd way of currying favor with the father of the girl he loves. Of course, George is aware that it is already too late for him with Lucy. His self-defeating anger at Eugene would probably have resulted in similar behavior even if that were not the case; he seems driven by inner forces to hate and despise the man. As the story unfolds, the underlying theme of a very close (almost incestuous) relationship between George and his mother makes it clear that jealousy is also part of his motivation.

Eugene continues to court Isabel and then decides to ask for her hand in marriage. Sensing the developing intensity of their relationship, George takes control and rebuffs a planned visit from Eugene at the door of the Amberson mansion. Isabel's love for George overrides her love for Eugene, so she complies with his demands, even though she is aware of what has transpired and that George is trying to keep her from Eugene. George takes his mother on a world tour, ostensibly to get away from the "scandalous" talk in the town of her love for Eugene even prior to her husband's death, but clearly also simply to remove her from the possibility of a relationship with him. Before leaving for Europe, George attempts to get Lucy to reveal sorrow that he is leaving, perhaps forever, but she conceals her true pain with cheerful insouciance.

George and his mother travel, then live in Europe for a while, until her illness compels their return to the United States, where George still acts as gatekeeper for those who wish to see the dying Isabel. She dies in his arms. Shortly thereafter, her grief-stricken father (George's grandfather) dies, and, for reasons that are not clear in the movie though which Tarkington's novel makes clear stem from unfortunate investments in cotton mills, does not leave what remains of his estate to anyone in the family, leaving George and the other family members to fend for themselves financially. At long last, George Minafer receives his comeuppance: he now lives in the same state of penury as the "riffraff" he has always scorned. But he also begins to soften and to gain some self-awareness of how he has hurt others. He begins to learn to take responsibility as he grapples with his grief, guilt, and penury, and finally begins to show some signs of maturity and thoughts for others rather than only himself. The movie ends with a reconciliation between George, Eugene, and Lucy, after George is nearly killed (fittingly, in a car accident).

Additional underlying plot lines include the slow decline of the financial worth of Major Amberson and other family members, also related to the development of the automobile (for example, their mansion and expansive grounds decline in value as the automobile makes it possible, even desirable, to live farther from the center of town). Parallel societal changes are briefly highlighted, such as the decline of the city's center as commerce becomes more widespread and freed from the geographic limitations imposed by only having horses and buggies as means of transportation. As the Ambersons' fortunes gradually decline, those of the Morgan family, linked to the inexorable rise of 20th-century automobile culture, flourish, until the Ambersons are brought low at the end and the now wealthy and powerful Morgans become the rescuers of the family.


A CD of the soundtrack to this film was released in 1990 in the US. The pieces were totally re-recorded.

All pieces by Bernard Herrmann. Re-recorded by the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tony Bremner.

  1. "Theme and Variations/George's Homecoming" (07:18)
  2. "Snow Ride" (03:05)
  3. "The Door/Death and Youth" (00:56)
  4. "Toccata" (01:12)
  5. "Pleasure Trip" (01:06)
  6. "Prelude" (01:30)
  7. "First Nocturne" (04:08)
  8. "Garden Scene" (01:14)
  9. "Fantasia" (02:11)
  10. "Scene Pathetique" (02:19)
  11. "Waiting" (01:32)
  12. "Ostinato" (01:52)
  13. "First Letter Scene" (03:25)
  14. "Second Letter Scene/Romanza" (02:12)
  15. "Second Nocturne" (03:22)
  16. "Departure/Isabel's Death" (01:47)
  17. "First Reverie/Second Reverie" (02:40)
  18. "The Walk Home" (02:49)
  19. "Garden Music" (02:59)
  20. "Elegy" (01:23)
  21. "End Title" (02:20)


The Magnificent Ambersons was in production at RKO's Gower Street studios in Los Angeles from 28 October 1941 through 22 January 1942 on a set constructed like a real house, but in which walls could be rolled back, raised or lowered to allow the camera to appear to pass through them in a continuous take. RKO later used many of the film's sets for its low-budget films, including the series of horror films produced by Val Lewton. Location shooting for Ambersons took place at various places around the Los Angeles area, including Big Bear Lakemarker, the San Bernardino National Forestmarker and East Los Angeles. Snow scenes were shot in the Union Ice Company ice house in downtown LA. The film was made on an estimated budget of $850,000.

The original rough cut of the film was approximately 135 minutes in length. Welles felt that the film needed to be shortened and after receiving a mixed response from a March 17 preview audience in Pomona, Californiamarker, the film's editor, Robert Wise, removed several minutes from it. The film was previewed again, but the audience's response did not improve.

Because Welles had conceded his original contractual right to do the final cut in a negotiation with RKO over a film that Welles was obliged to direct but never did, RKO was able to take over the editing of the film once Welles had delivered a first cut. This resulted in RKO deleting over 40 additional minutes and re-shooting the ending in late April and early May, directed by assistant director Fred Fleck, Robert Wise, and Jack Moss, the business manager of Welles' Mercury Theater. The retakes replaced Welles' original ending with a happier one that more closely resembled Tarkington's.

Welles did not approve of the cuts, but because he was simultaneously working in Brazilmarker on another project for RKO – Nelson Rockefeller had personally asked him to make a film in Latin America as part of the wartime Good Neighbor Policy – his attempts to protect his version ultimately failed. Details of Welles' conflict over the editing are included in the 1993 documentary about the Brazilian film It's All True.

The negatives for the excised portions of The Magnificent Ambersons were later destroyed in order to free vault space. A print of the rough cut was sent to Welles in Brazil, but it has yet to be found and is generally considered to be lost along with the prints from the previews. Robert Wise maintained that the original was not better than the edited version.

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the earliest films in movie history in which nearly all the credits are spoken by an off-screen voice and not shown printed onscreen — a technique being only used before by French director and player Sacha Guitry. The only credits shown onscreen are the RKO logo, "A Mercury Production by Orson Welles", and the film's title, shown at the very beginning of the picture. At the end of the film, Orson Welles's voice announces all the main credits. Each actor in the film is shown as Welles announces their name. As he speaks each technical credit, a machine is shown performing that function - e.g. when Welles announces the name of the film editor, an editing machine appears onscreen, and when he announces "Sound recording by," a sound recording console is working onscreen. Notably missing from the list of spoken credits is "Music by Bernard Herrmann." Herrmann strongly objected to his score being recut and portions replaced by music by Roy Webb, and demanded his name be removed from the credits. The movie also included music not by Herrmann, for example an arrangement of the obscure Parisian waltz Toujours ou jamais by Emile Waldteufel.




Academy Award Nominations



Explanatory notes


External links

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