The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

2:41 PM

Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter) and George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Orson Welles’ follow-up to his debut feature, Citizen Kane (1941) takes place in a time when “women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet” and rapidly declines to hopelessness in the face of the automobile boom. The decline of the Amberson family is perhaps best exemplified the Amberson mansion itself. 

The first half of the film has the Ambersons venturing  outside its treasured walls, but this was during a time of prosperity for the family. In later years, we find that the family is more or less confined to the Amberson Mansion. When at first the townspeople praised the home, “sixteen thousand on the wood work alone”, “the finest house in town”, the walls have since become a burden. The Ambersons are suffocated by their own perpetuated ideas of self-importance, and their pride and complete faith in the Amberson name to hold them up blinds them to their oncoming downfall. In the second half of the film, strong contradictions between light and dark and use of deep focus help mazimize the gloominess of the space and capitalizes on the somber emptiness of the house.

Funnily enough, I can’t help but feel there is a distinct similarity between Orson Welles and George Minafer, played by Tim Holt. Solely on a physical plane, both men are tall and strongly built, but both have soft facial features; what could only be described as a baby face. Ironically, Welles himself once said “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since”, a state which could also apply to the character of George Minafer, having been born into affluence and comfort and gradually sees the decline in his good fortune. Granted, Welles’ downfall came harder and faster.

In one prophetic moment, just before he sweeps Lucy (Anne Baxter) into a dance at the last remembered Amberson party, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) says “There aren’t any times but new times”, spoken in response to Isabel’s (Dolores Costello) fondness for the “old times”. Nothing is permanent. The world keeps changing, and its people need to change with it. I don't think there's another line that quite sums up the faults of the once-magnificent Ambersons so absolutely. 

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Dir. Orson Welles
Starring Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead
88 mins | USA

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