Once we (yours truly) worked in a building with a quirky sliding door.
It was an entrance that hosted a lot of foot traffic, and folks were able to successfully operate the door, despite its uniqueness. Except one day a wealthy and influential man pulled the thing off its rails because he couldn’t Figure It Out.
“I broke your door,” he said, as though it were both an Achievement and an Act of Charity.
This sort of thing makes you wonder about the wealthy and influential, about how they became wealthy and influential, especially when they don’t appear to be smarter or more capable than anyone else.
But it also makes them fascinating. Although they are like the rest of us mortals, they don’t really believe they are, and we wonder what it’ll be like when they discover that Cold, Hard Truth.
The film mainly centres on the son (Tim Holt), a young man spoiled Beyond Belief and described as “a princely terror.” Holt’s character believes he occupies an Exalted Position in the universe, which is obvious in the way he treats others.
Folks generally despise him and cannot wait for his Comeuppance. We the audience can’t wait, either, although we know it’ll be messy enough to Take Down the entire family.
This is Holt’s character as a child, and this shows you with whom we are dealing:
The Ambersons are an odd, self-deluded bunch, and they have an enormous blind spot when it comes to the evolution of American society. Their livelihood is threatened by the emergence of the automobile, but they waive it aside as a temporary amusement for the masses.
They are big fish in a small pond, steadfastly opposing Change and Progress. They enjoy a suffocating and insular existence, which, ultimately, isn’t very helpful.
But they are interesting. Holt’s mother (Dolores Costello) tries not to have an affair with ex-boyfriend and automobile entrepreneur Joseph Cotten. This leads to some intrigue perpetrated by Holt’s aunt (Agnes Moorehead), because she’s also in love with Cotten.
As for Holt himself, he’s infatuated with Cotten’s daughter (Anne Baxter). Alas, she refuses to take him or his affections seriously, and you can’t blame her. You want to tell her to Run! every time she’s in the same scene as Holt.
The most interesting relationship in the film, we think, is between Holt and Moorehead. Moorehead’s character never married, nor has she measured the distance between her youth and present day. Although she confides in – and manipulates – Holt, she treats him as a child in the way she scolds his eating habits, for example.
Everyone in the family treats Holt like a child. Look at the scene where (spoiler!) Costello is gravely ill. Even from her Deathbed she asks him if he dresses warmly enough when he’s outside.
It would be easy to blame Holt for the downfall of the Ambersons, because he refuses to be anything other than a “Gentleman” (don’t laugh), and Gentlemen don’t soil their hands with Work.
It’s pitiful to see them clinging to their Place in the world, until that same world, unaware of their existence, steamrolls over the whole bunch.
The Magnificent Ambersons is based on the 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, once considered to be one of America’s most influential writers.
Much that has been written* about Welles’s film adaptation, about how it could have been Welles’s greatest film – greater, even, than Citizen Kane – save for the final edit which removed 40 minutes of the film, done after Welles was dispatched to South America to direct another project.
It’s a gloomy film, a lament of sorrow and anger, with an ill-fitting studio-esque ending. However, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Moorehead. Welles, despite his vision and innovative direction, was not nominated.
This is a brilliant film, we think, an unsparing, critical look at a Family of Privilege, yet it’s not without sympathy. We hope you’ll have the chance to see it.
The Magnificent Ambersons: starring Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello. Written & directed by Orson Welles. Mercury Productions, 1942, B&W, 88 mins.