The year after Orson Welles released “Citizen Kane”, considered one of the greatest films ever made, Welles wrote for the screen and directed “The Magnificent Ambersons”, the second film he made for RKO Radio Pictures over which he had complete creative control. Almost. Somewhere along the way, studio workers edited down the two-and-a-half-hour-long period film to about ninety minutes, which was the start of the slow downfall of Welles’ film work within a studio. Nobody knows what the original film was really like, since the deleted footage is surely long gone, but the film that remains is still, in my opinion, a masterpiece. Fantastic visuals, powerhouse acting, and a message that still hits home to this day, just as “Citizen Kane” did.
The film centers on the Amberson family, a rich family in early 20th-century Indianapolis, and the daughter Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) is perhaps the most beautiful woman in the city. Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) surely believes this, but when he acts like a fool in front of her, Isabel decides to court and marry Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway), a man who—though she does not love—at least has the decency of a businessman who won’t foolishly act so as to make her believe he doesn’t care about her. (It makes more sense when you see it in the film.) Eventually, Wilbur and Isabel have a boy, George Minafer (played as a young adult by Tim Holt), who treats everyone with disrespect. Even when he is sent away to school, he comes back with the same selfish attitude. The narrator, Welles himself, tells of the townspeople’s reaction:
NARRATOR: There were people—grown people they were—who expressed themselves longingly. They did hope to live to see the day, they said, when that boy would get his comeuppance.
When George begins college and then comes home on break, a party is held at the Amberson mansion by Isabel and her father, known simply as Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). There, George meets Lucy, the daughter of now widower Eugene. It seems that now, Eugene and Isabel have made amends and are starting to fall in love. George himself starts falling in love with Lucy, but has a strong dislike for Eugene. When Wilbur passes away (and leaves a washed-up estate) and Eugene’s automobile plant meanwhile becomes more and more successful, the love between him and Isabel starts getting stronger. George finds out that his uncle Jack (Ray Collins) and aunt Fanny (a phenomenal Agnes Moorehead) that they were both surely in love while Wilbur was still alive, and that people are still gossiping about it, and George decides to do something about it.
After Eugene tries visiting Isabel at home one day and George shoots him down, George decides to take his mother on a world tour, getting away from Eugene and the town gossip for a while. When he tries saying goodbye to Lucy, she seems to not care as he hoped she would, and he reluctantly goes on his trip. While away, Isabel gets sick, and they have to come home so she can be taken care of. Eugene tries to see her, but she is too sick, and he leaves shortly before she passes away. In the time that follows, Major Amberson also passes away, leaving nothing to George or the rest of the family. Eugene and Lucy start anew as Jack moves away and George is left to figure out how he and Fanny, who has practically gone crazy, are going to live.
As George eventually finds a job at a factory, we see his point of view of the new, industrialized city, as the narrator reads:
NARRATOR: George Amberson-Minafer walked home through the strange streets of what seemed to be a strange city. …This was the last walk home he was ever to take up National Avenue, to Amberson Edition, and the big old house at the foot of Amberson Boulevard. Tomorrow, they were to move out. Tomorrow everything would be gone.
The film dissolves to a dark shot of George kneeling by his bedside, praying quietly.
GEORGE: Mother, forgive me. God, forgive me!
NARRATOR: Something had happened: a thing which years ago had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last. George Amberson-Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.
The film fades out, then fades back into a tacked-on studio ending where George has been in a serious car accident, and we see Eugene and Fanny talking at the hospital about how Eugene, George, and Lucy had reconciled. It’s a nice ending, but it doesn’t have nearly the impact that I feel Welles’ original ending would have had. And yeah, it would have been a much darker ending, but like “Citizen Kane” and several other Welles films, it ends as a downer because that’s the point he wants to get across. Some people live life with the wrong intentions, and they end up in a mess.
And like “Citizen Kane”, “The Magnificent Ambersons” portrays this theme not in a way to explicitly reference Christianity, but it still resonates. Like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson-Minafer had the whole world but lost his soul. Eventually, he pretty much lost the whole world, too! The whole Amberson family did, really. But there’s one scene where we see Major Amberson sitting by a fire contemplating what’s next, and wondering where he could have ever found wealth that lasts.
MAJOR AMBERSON: It—it must be in the sun. There wasn’t anything here but the sun in the first place. The sun… The earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth. So, wherever we are…
The scene and the Major’s thoughts fade out, and it’s a beautiful moment in the film. And it reminded me of a certain passage of Scripture. Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes after he had searched the world over for something that truly lasts. And after he couldn’t find it, he repeats a certain phrase several times: “under the sun”. Chapter one verse nine, he writes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Verse fourteen: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
It turns out that on this earth, there is nothing that will truly satisfy. But if there is nothing for us “under the sun”, what is there “over” the sun? There certainly is something over the sun—Someone, to be exact—and that seems to be the thing that the Ambersons truly needed. I pray that we would recognize that need in ourselves too.