Written and Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Don Dillaway
Orson Welles’s entry into filmmaking was spectacular: Citizen Kane still is at the top of lists of the best film of all time, and, despite the efforts of William Randolph Hurst to quash it*, the film did make a small profit. Welles had signed a two-picture deal, and he went to work on his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons.
It starts in the late 19th century, where a young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) is courting Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). The Ambersons are atop the town’s social pyramid, and when Eugene does something that embarrasses Isabel, she impulsively accepts the proposal from the bland Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Eugene, heartbroken, leaves town. Wilbur and Isabel have a son, George (Tim Holt) who grows up spoiled and used to getting his own way, since he is, after all, an Amberson. But when George returns from college, he finds that Eugene, now a widower with a daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), is back in town. George takes an instant liking to Lucy, and an instant dislike to Eugene, which is exacerbated when it becomes clear that sparks are flying between him and Isabel. When George’s father dies, the long-ago romance is rekindled, and George won’t stand for it.
The movie is a classic tragedy, where George’s hubris leads to his downfall (or comeuppance, and the movie calls it). Holt manages the transition from a spoiled brat to a man to be pitied effortlessly. Cotton is the soothing presence that was his hallmark.
The revelation of the film, though, is Agnes Moorehead** as George’s Aunt Fanny. She is great in every scene she is in: intense, sad, and with eyes full of emotion. Moorhead was one of the best actresses in Hollywood, but he was rarely given roles to showcase her talent because she was not “Hollywood beautiful.” This was clearly a role that gave her a chance to show how good she could be.
Welles finished the film and then made a fatal error: he went down to South America to film another movie, letting the studio to do the final edits.
The studio hated the film. The original ending was downbeat and tested badly with audiences.*** The studio took the film, cut 40 minutes, and added a happier ending. Welles had given up his right of a final cut, and was not consulted at all; indeed, it seems they actively ignored any attempts by Welles to even make suggestions. The footage has been lost.
I can see how it hurt the film: the ending now seems pretty tacked on. Though, to be fair, as a business decision, it’s hard to fault it: a tragedy was not going to be a success given the mood of the time. Ultimately, it flopped anyway.
Even with the tampering, much of Welles’s vision remains, and the movie shows a master filmmaker in action.
*Hearst wasn’t bothered by the connection between and him and Kane as much as he was upset by the portrayal of Susan Alexander Kane. There were enough parallels to that story to make people believe that Susan was based on Hearst’s Mistress Marion Davies. Davies was a talented actress (if anything, her connection with Hearst hurt her career) while Susan was untalented. Hearst feared – quite rightly as it turned out – that the portrayal would make people think Davies had no talent, too.
**At the time I saw the film, I only knew her as Samantha’s mother Endora in Bewitched. The credits for the sitcom indicated that she was some sort of star (her credit line not only named her character, but filled up the entire screen), but I didn’t know why.
***It tested just after Pearl Harbor to an audience of a teen comedy, so no one liked the downbeat ending.