The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)


By Scott Ross

Had RKO not cut, and then destroyed, 40 minutes of Orson Welles’ exquisitely imagined adaptation of the great Booth Tarkington novel, this would have been Welles’ undisputed Hollywood masterwork. As it stands, it’s still astonishing, absorbing and deeply moving.

This saga of a “great” family in a small town and the way time, and progress (aided by blind complacency) passes it by is made, through Welles’ unerring sense of place, timing, visual perfection and empathy, an entrancing waltz of a movie.

Tim Holt leads a perfect cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Richard Bennett, and — supremely — the great Agnes Moorehead, giving the performance of her life as the family’s unloved, lonely, embittered spinster aunt. Far too much of her performance was edited out in that wretched final cut, which likely cost her the Academy Award for which she was nominated.

Welles produced, wrote the elegiac screenplay, and provides the understated, ironic narration. The lovely, evocative cinematography is by Stanley Cortez, and Bernard Herrmann composed the rueful score.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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