Another magnificent triumph from the one and only Orson Welles. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons tells the tale of a whip smart scion from an aristocratic family who tries to ruin his mother’s happiness. One of course questions whether there was an American aristocracy, perhaps an important family would be a more accurate description. In any case, this is a really terrific film, an unfinished masterpiece. Welles’ work is missing some 43 minutes after RKO decided to publish an alternative cut. I read recently that TCM have joined the search for the lost minutes of this masterpiece, which is very exciting indeed.

Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book struck many chords with Welles,  himself the Midwestern son of a wealthy inventor (like Joseph Cotten’s character, Eugene Morgan). In fact, he suspected that Tarkington, a friend of Welles’ family, based the spoilt brat and “princely terror” Georgie Amberson Minafer on him — he, too, was called Georgie as a child. Empire

Joseph Cotten … Eugene Morgan

Dolores Costello … Isabel Amberson Minafer

Anne Baxter … Lucy Morgan

Tim Holt … George Minafer

Agnes Moorehead … Fanny Minafer

Ray Collins … Jack Amberson

 Erskine Sanford … Roger Bronson

Richard Bennett … Major Amberson

Orson Welles … Narrator (voice)

For a film which is unfinished, the message in The Magnificent Ambersons is conveys loudly, clearly, and dare I say, completely. Joseph Cotton (later starring in Welles’ Citizen Kane) is the perfect antidote to the insufferable George Minafer – who is spoiled rotten and drives the whole town around the bend. His repulsive nature conveys perfectly the critique of the dying old money class as pitted against Eugene Morgan’s much more palatable character bringing in the new money of the motor industry. In a way the film pits old against new. Georgie represents the sternly held but ultimately unfounded set of restrictions, body and mind, which the bourgeoisie impose on itself. This is represented in the physical sense by Georgie repeatedly getting in the way of his mother having a relationship with Eugene, partly I suppose derived from his own desire to marry Eugene’s daughter Lucy but also out of repulsion for Eugene’s innovation and vigour. Of course Georgie goes about any purported positive goal in the worst possible ways and might end up receiving the correct comeuppance by the end of the film…

But it’s a flawed masterpiece, as brilliant a study of social change as Visconti’s The Leopard. We see a rich, Midwestern family in decline from the 1870s into the 20th century as a new commercial, bourgeois society emerges.Welles doesn’t appear but provides an eloquent, seductive voiceover, and the movie is admirably served by several Mercury Company performers from Kane (Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins) and new recruits (Tim Holt, Anne Baxter). The experimental narrative combines extended takes with sharp montages of social commentary, and veteran Stanley Cortez’s photography is as remarkable as Gregg Toland’s on Kane. Guardian