The Magnificent Ambersons is a 1942 American drama film written and directed by Orson Welles. His second feature film, it is based on the 1918 novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington and stars Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins. Welles provides the voiceover narration. Welles lost control of the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons to RKO, and the final version released to audiences differed significantly from his rough cut of the film. More than an hour of footage was cut by the studio, and a new, happier ending was shot and substituted. Although Welles's extensive notes for how he wished the film to be cut have survived, the excised scenes were lost. 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' first film, Citizen Kane. In 1991, The Magnificent Ambersons was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
I’ve never been a fan of The Magnificent Ambersons, despite its reputation as one of Orson Welles’ best works, but I’d recently heard it would become a TV miniseries, so I figured a repeat viewing was in order. My thoughts remain unchanged.
The story, involving a rich family in a small town during the late 1800s/early 1900s, doesn’t go very far. It’s a romance of sorts between an Amberson elder (Dolores Costello) and her beau (Joseph Cotten), and an Amberson junior (Tim Holt) and his beau (Anne Baxter) — who turns out to be the daughter of Cotten’s character (an automobile pioneer). Backstabbing and lunacy abound, never really amounting to much, until we finally realize what we’ve been watching is little more than a primitive form of soap opera, with overwrought betrayals that are ultimately vapid and meaningless.
This isn’t to say that Welles didn’t make a decent film here. He has. The photography, music, and most of the actors are memorable. Joseph Cotten can do no wrong, and Anne Baxter manages to step round Tim Holt’s overacting with aplomb. But really, was the story of the young Amberson’s ‘getting his comeuppance’ a worthwhile one? There’s no payoff in seeing the bratty Holt lose all his wealth, no delight in seeing Cotten attempt to reconcile with the woman he lost. In other words, no ‘Rosebud’ anywhere to be found….