The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons
As theatre is an actor’s medium, film is a director’s medium, and this is certainly true for any film directed by Orson Wells. The Magnificent Ambersons is no exception.

This was Well’s second film, following the highly acclaimed Citizen Kane. Both films embraced what would become his signature style; a style that was innovative in 1942, but one that – over seven decades later – has been criticized by some as an impedance to the story. Scenes are considered too dimly lit or camera angles too dramatic resulting in distraction.

The film was released in 1942 to a world much different than the world of today, and this is possibly the reason some modern-day critics interpret the film differently than their mid-century counterparts.

In the first few minutes, Wells effectively uses images to show how progress and the passage of time alters the way life is lived. A montage of men’s fashion shows short coats changing into long coats and back again. Stovepipe hats shrink to rounded bowlers. Streetcars are slowly overtaken by the horseless carriage.

Time marches on and things change.

Without revealing the whole of the plot, it is important to note that the Ambersons were not magnificent human beings, nor were they supposed to be. They were all terribly flawed and somewhat pretentious.

Their magnificence refers to the opulent lifestyle they enjoyed due to their wealth and social status. A lifestyle that they mistakenly believed would last forever.

But all of the Ambersons shared one major flaw. They all made life-altering choices in favor of maintaining their coveted social status, and this ultimately led to their personal and financial demise. It is, in essence, a tragedy.

In one sense, The Magnificent Ambersons is a story of “haves” and “have-nots.” The gossipy townspeople are no more redemptive than the Ambersons: they just have less money and less stature. But moreover, it is about how people desperately cling to the way life has always been, rather than accept the inevitability of change brought on by time.

Wells repeatedly enforces this throughout the film, sometimes nostalgically, but mostly as a matter-of-fact.

As the streetcar and the horse-drawn carriage are forced into obsolescence by the advent of automobiles, the Ambersons are forced to come to terms that their lifestyle has also become obsolete due to their own bad choices.

The film stars many of Well’s regulars from the Mercury Theater such as Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and Joseph Cotton. Also included were some well-established performers such as Dolores Costello, Richard Bennett, Erskine Sanford, along with Tim Holt and Anne Baxter.

Whether you are a fan of Well’s style or not, consider this: his version of the story runs about an hour and a half. It has no punchlines, no dance numbers, no murders, no adultery, no aliens, no zombies, and no psychopaths, yet the story remains compelling.

The artistry of the entire film ensures an insightful if not entertaining peek into the world of the rich and famous. Perhaps this too adds to its timeless magnificence.

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