Oscar Vault Monday – The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942 (dir. Orson Welles)

It took A LOT of searching to find this movie. It is not available on DVD in the United States (click here if you want to try to do something about that). While probably not as well-known as Citizen Kane, I think this film is just as much a masterpiece Welles’ more famous film, though probably less universally approachable. I’m going to talk a little later about some of the production (and the headaches it caused). The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it went home empty-handed: Best B&W Art Direction, Best B&W Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress Agnes Moorehead and Best Picture. The other nominees for Best Picture that year were 49th Parallel, Kings Row, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy and winner Mrs. Miniver.

Apparently after the film was first completed it was not well received by a preview audience, so film editor Robert Wise shortened the film by about 8 minutes. After this cut they previewed the film again and it was still not well received. At this point Welles was in Brazil, and because Welles had given up his final cut rights due to some negotiations with RKO for another film (one that he never made), the studio then had the film cut by another 40 minutes. The cut negatives were then apparently destroyed a few years later to make room in RKO’s vault. Film editor Robert Wise insisted for years that the original cut was no better than the version that made it to theaters, though Welles was not happy with it. A rough cut of the film, made prior to the cuts, was sent to Welles, who was in Brazil at the time, but has yet to be found. Part of me likes to think this original cut is hiding somewhere in Brazil, waiting to be discovered and we will someday get to see the film as Welles had originally intended it to be seen.

This was Joseph Cotten’s second film with Welles, and third altogether, and from what I’ve seen it is definitely one of his finest performances. I’ve recently had a new-found love affair with Joseph Cotten in films. Prior to last November I think the only film I’d ever seen with him was Citizen Kane (and how great was he in that?) I’ve now seen several and I’ve decided he has got to be one of the greatest actors who are largely forgotten now. His character in this film reminds a little bit of Jay Gatsby. His character, Eugene Morgan, loses his lady love and then comes back 20 years later, successful and now a father. The chemistry he has with Dolores Costello, who plays his one-time fiance Isabel, is so electric.

Which brings us to Costello, who plays Isabel Amberson, the daughter of one of the richest and most distinguished men in town. Early in the film, she choses a husband from another great family, over the slightly off-center Eugene. When he comes back into her life so many years later, you can see the regret in her face. But you can also see hope that comes with a reunion with “the one that got away.”

Maybe my favorite performance in the film comes from Tim Holt, who plays Costello’s son George Amberson Minafer. The main focus of the film is the spoiled heir, who as a child terrorized his neighbors and as an adult has a complete disregard for anyone who isn’t part of his great Amberson lineage and doesn’t “intend to go into any business or profession.” When George was still a child, one of his neighbors says they can’t wait til he gets his comeuppance, and it is this idea on which the entire film is built. It also set up for one of the greatest, most profound burns in cinematic history. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but boy does this film have a great ending.

Anges Moorehead is at the top of her game in this film. Like Cotten, this was her second film with Welles (having previously played Kane’s mother in Citizen Kane), and the result was her first of four Academy Award nominations. Moorehead plays Tim Holt’s spinster Aunt, Fanny Minafer. For her performance, not only did Moorehead receive an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver), she also received the Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

This film also contains one of Anne Baxter’s earliest film performances as Lucy Morgan, the daughter of Cotten’s Eugene, who is being (poorly) courted by Holt’s George. Four years later Baxter would go on to win Best Actress for her performance in 1946’s The Razor’s Edge (and was nominated again for 1950’s All About Eve). Baxter’s Lucy is kind of a modern girl and she is so unimpressed by George’s wealth and obnoxious self-worth. It’s a delight to see her in such a playful role.

Lastly, I just wanted to talk about how much I loved the end credits of this film. How often do you say, “boy these end credits are FABULOUS!” Not often. But these are really great. Again, I don’t want to spoil it too much because if you do get to see the film, I’d like y’all to get to have a first impression as great as it was for me.

Like I said earlier, this film is not available on DVD, but you can head over to its page on TCM and vote to try to have it released on DVD.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on January 31, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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