The Magnificent Ambersons

Released:  1942

Cast:  Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Stanley Cortez), Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White (Albert S. D’Agostino, A. Roland Fields, Darrell Silvera)

SUMMARY:  At the end of the 20th century, the Ambersons are the wealthiest, most privileged family in Indianapolis.  The family is headed by Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), whose daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is the object of affection of many young men in town.  She is in love with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), but when he upsets her, she marries Wilbur Minafer out of spite.  The two only have one child, George, who as predicted by the townspeople, is completely spoiled.  Nearly 20 years later, George (Tim Holt) returns home from college, and his parents and grandfather throw a party for him.  For the first time, George meets Eugene Morgan, who is now a widow, and his adult daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter).  Eugene had left town after Isabel left him, and embarked on a very successful career in the new automobile industry.  He has made himself a large fortune, and has just now returned to Indianapolis with Lucy.  George is unaware of the history between his mother and Eugene, but quickly dislikes him anyway.  However, he does take a liking to the beautiful Lucy.  A short time later, Wilbur Minafer dies, having spent a lot of the Amberson money but not increased it.  At the same time, Eugene’s fortune has continued to increase, and he has just finished a house that is as big as the Amberson manor.  In the weeks after Wilbur’s death, Isabel turns to Eugene for comfort, and the two families begin to spend a lot of time together.  George’s opinion of Eugene does not improve, and at dinner one evening he is blatantly rude to the man.  Later, he finally learns of Eugene and Isabel’s past relationship:  his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), his father’s sister, also hints that Isabel always loved Eugene, and not Wilbur.

Eugene and Isabel continue to see each other, and eventually George can see that the relationship is approaching marriage. He is determined to stop this, and the next time Eugene comes to the house George refuses to let him in.  Eugene sends Isabel a letter, telling her that she will have to choose between him and her son; after initially leaning toward Eugene, she is unable to desert her son, and breaks things off with Eugene.  Shortly after, Isabel and George go on a world tour.  Before leaving, George talks to Lucy, who has broken off their own relationship.  After some months abroad, Isabel gets very sick, and George brings her home to die.  Eugene tries to visit her, but George again refuses to let him in.  Isabel dies a short time later, and her father, Major Amberson, follows just a little while after that.  His fortune is virtually gone, leaving George with nothing.  He and Fanny try to stick together, but Fanny has wasted most of her own money in bad investments.  After a fight with George about money, she seems to lose her grip on reality.  George has intended to work in a law firm, but will not make enough money there to support himself and Fanny.  Instead, he takes a dangerous job working with chemicals, which pays better.  Some time later, George is hit by a car and breaks both of his legs.  Eugene and Lucy read about the accident in the paper, and Lucy immediately decides to visit him; after some hesitation, Eugene goes as well.  At the hospital, Eugene tells Fanny that George has apologized and asked for his forgiveness.

MY TAKE:  Well, this movie surprised me.  At the start, I thought it was going to be a comedy about how the Amberson family — mainly George — got what was coming to him.  I knew that the basic plot was that George tried to stop Eugene from marrying his mother, but I thought that it was going to be a humorous attempt.  I was wrong.  It’s a much more serious movie, and George’s actions have big consequences.  Think about it:  if he had not prevented Eugene from marrying his mother, Isabel would not have gone abroad, and might not have gotten sick and then died.  Eugene’s money would have covered the Amberson issues, so George and Fanny would not have had to find work.  Fanny probably wouldn’t have gone nutty, and George wouldn’t have had to take a dangerous job.  Of course, the downside to this would be that Lucy would become his stepsister, which would make their relationship really awkward:  he also might not have turned from idiotic spoiled brat into a responsible young man.  Regardless, it’s said that Isabel died and she and Eugene never got to resume their relationship.  Then again, she is one of the ones who spoiled George so terribly, and she ultimately chose him over Eugene.  I can understand not being able to abandon your child, but I don’t think that this was one of those situations.  Eugene wasn’t asking Isabel to completely cut ties with George, but rather to stop giving in to his demands, and make him grow up.  Isabel was unable to do this.  He doesn’t appear in the cast, but Orson Welles is responsible for adapting the script, producing and directing the movie, as well as providing the narration.  Like A Touch of Evil, this movie was heavily edited by the studio, and differed a lot from what Welles wanted.  However, this movie is a lot more coherent than that one.  Frequent Welles collaborator Joseph Cotton stars in the film, and is joined by Anne Baxter, who played the title character in All About Eve (which is why I can’t help but see her as evil), and Agnes Moorehead, who more famously played Endora on the TV show Bewitched.  She tends to steal the show in this movie, particularly when she goes bananas at the end.

RATING:  Not a happy story, but well done.


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