The Magnificent Ambersons (film)

The Magnificent Ambersons is a 1942 American period drama, the second feature film produced and directed by Orson Welles. Welles adapted Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1918 novel, about the declining fortunes of a wealthy Midwestern family and the social changes brought by the automobile age.[5] The film stars Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins, with Welles providing the narration.[6]

The Magnificent Ambersons
Theatrical release poster
with illustrations by Norman Rockwell[1]
Directed byOrson Welles
Produced byOrson Welles
Screenplay byOrson Welles
Based onThe Magnificent Ambersons
by Booth Tarkington
Narrated byOrson Welles
Music byNo credit in film
CinematographyStanley Cortez
Edited byRobert Wise
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • July 10, 1942 (1942-07-10)
Running time
88 minutes
148 minutes (original)
131 minutes (preview)
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.1 million[2]:71–72
Box office$1 million (US rentals)[3]
210,966 admissions (France, 1946)[4]

Welles lost control of the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons to RKO, and the final version released to audiences differed significantly from his rough cut of the film. More than an hour of footage was cut by the studio, which also shot and substituted a happier ending. Although Welles' extensive notes for how he wished the film to be cut have survived, the excised footage was destroyed. Composer Bernard Herrmann insisted his credit be removed when, like the film itself, his score was heavily edited by the studio.

Even in the released version, The Magnificent Ambersons is often regarded as among the greatest films of all time, a distinction it shares with Welles' first film, Citizen Kane.[7][8] The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1991.


Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt
Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Ray Collins
Richard Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Tim Holt, and Ray Collins

The Ambersons are by far the wealthiest family in the midwestern city of Indianapolis, Indiana, at the beginning of the 20th century. Eugene Morgan is a young man who is courting Isabel Amberson, but she rejects him after he publicly embarrasses her. Isabel instead marries Wilbur Minafer, a passionless man she does not love. They have a child, George, whom she spoils and who becomes the terror of the town. The townspeople long to see George get his 'comeuppance'.

George Minafer returns home from college during the holidays and attends a large party at the Amberson mansion hosted by his grandfather, Major Amberson. Among the guests are Eugene Morgan, now a widower who has just returned to town after a 20-year absence, and his daughter, Lucy. George instantly takes to the beautiful and charming Lucy but intensely dislikes Eugene, whom he sees as a social climber. He also ridicules Eugene's investment in the new "horseless carriage" technology—automobiles.

The next day, George, his aunt Fanny, Isabel, and Isabel's brother, Jack, take a sleigh ride. They pass Eugene and Lucy, whose primitive automobile has gotten stuck in the snow. George derides Eugene and his "horseless carriage". The Amberson sleigh then overturns, and Eugene (his vehicle now mobile again) gives everyone a ride back to the Minafer mansion. George is humiliated during the incident and angered by Eugene's attentions toward Isabel as well as his mother's obvious affection for Eugene.

George returns to college. Wilbur Minafer loses a substantial amount of money on bad investments, and soon afterward dies. George is largely unmoved by his father's death. The night after the funeral, George cruelly teases Fanny, who is besotted with Eugene.

Time passes, and Eugene becomes very wealthy in automobile manufacturing. Eugene also begins to court Isabel. One summer, he asks Isabel to tell George about their love, but she refuses, unwilling to risk her son's disapproval. Meanwhile, George proposes to Lucy. She rejects him, saying he has no ambition in life other than to be wealthy and keep things as they are. George blames Eugene for turning Lucy against him. Lucy leaves town soon after, and the Ambersons invite the lonely Eugene to dinner. During the meal, George nastily criticizes automobiles in front of Eugene. The other family members are taken aback by his rudeness, but Eugene says that George may turn out to be right. That evening, George learns from his aunt Fanny that Eugene has been courting Isabel. George's uncle Jack confirms Fanny's revelation. Enraged, George rudely confronts a neighbor for spreading gossip about his mother. The next day, George refuses to let Eugene see his mother. Jack tells Isabel about George's terrible behavior, but she declines to do anything which might upset her son. Eugene writes to Isabel, asking her to choose between her son and his love. Isabel chooses George.

Lucy returns home in time to discover that George is taking his mother to Europe on an extended trip. George talks to Lucy in an attempt to discover if she loves him. She feigns indifference to his absence, and they part. Lucy is heartbroken, however, and faints.

Months pass. Jack Amberson returns from Europe and tells Eugene that Isabel is seriously ill. George, however, will not allow her to come home because he fears she will renew her relationship with Eugene. When Isabel starts to die, George finally relents and he and his mother return to Indianapolis. Eugene tries to see her, but George refuses to let him into the house. Eugene leaves when Fanny tells him that Isabel is on her deathbed. Isabel dies while holding George's hand, begging to see Eugene one last time.

Shortly after Isabel's death, Major Amberson learns he has only a short time to live. George is too self-centered and preoccupied with his own problems, and ignores his grandfather's revelation. Major Amberson dies, and the family learns his estate is worthless and there are numerous large debts. Jack leaves town to take a job in another city. George tells Fanny that he intends to live on her income, but she reveals that she lost everything after making bad investments. With the utilities having been turned off and the Amberson home and all their belongings soon to be sold, George and Fanny discover they have only a few hundred dollars to live on for the rest of the year.

Eugene asks Lucy if she will reconcile with George. Lucy instead tells her father a story about an American Indian chieftain who was "pushed out on a canoe into the sea" when he became too obnoxious and overbearing, which Eugene understands to be an analogy for George.

Penniless, George gives up his job as a clerk at Roger Bronson's law firm, and finds entry-level but high-paying employment in a dynamite factory. This gives him enough money to live on and take care of Fanny. George wanders the newly-industrialized city, dazed by the modern society that has grown up around him. In his last night in the Amberson family home, George prays desperately by his dead mother's bed. The narrator says that no one is around to see George Minafer receive his comeuppance.

The next day, George is struck by an automobile and seriously injured. In the film's final scenes, Lucy is seen in the hospital at George's bedside, having reconciled with him. Eugene and Fanny walk arm in arm down the hospital corridor, as Eugene says that George and Fanny's financial security is what Isabel would have wanted.



Adaptation history

Welles first adapted The Magnificent Ambersons for a one-hour radio drama performed October 29, 1939, by his Mercury Players on The Campbell Playhouse, with Orson Welles portraying George Minafer, and providing narration. While Welles supplied narration to the film adaptation, Ray Collins was the only actor from the radio production to appear in the film.[10]:354[11][12]

Production history

The Magnificent Ambersons was in production October 28, 1941 – January 22, 1942, at RKO's Gower Street studios in Los Angeles. The set for the Amberson mansion was constructed like a real house, but it had walls that could be rolled back, raised, or lowered to allow the camera to appear to pass through them in a continuous take.[9] RKO later used many of the film's sets for its low-budget films, including a series of horror films produced by Val Lewton.

Location shooting took place at various places around the Los Angeles area, including Big Bear Lake, the San Bernardino National Forest, and East Los Angeles. Snow scenes were shot in the Union Ice Company ice house in downtown L.A.[9][13] The film was budgeted at $853,950 but this went over during the shoot and ultimately exceeded $1 million.[14]

In a 1973 interview with Dick Cavett, Moorehead recalled the arduous work involved before filming her climactic scene where she sinks against the unheated boiler. In rehearsal, Welles told Moorehead (who was still a novice to film acting) to "play it like a little girl," a characterization which went against what Moorehead had prepared. Then Welles told her to play "like an insane woman." Following that Welles told her to play it "like she's absolutely inebriated." Then he said to play with "an absolutely vacuous mind." Moorehead was thinking to herself "What in the world does he want?" She did the scene 11 times, each with a different characterization. For the twelfth time, Welles told Moorehead: "Now play it." After those rehearsals, her playing the scene had "a little bit of the hysteria, it had a little bit of the insanity, it had a little bit of the little girl...he had mixed it all up in my mind so that the characterization that I played had a little bit of all of these; and it was terribly exciting." Moorehead continued reflecting on Welles' directorial abilities: "He never directed obviously; he always directed in some strange oblique way where you thought 'Well, that isn't right at all.' But if you put your career or the role in his hands he loved to mold you the way he wanted and it was always much better than you could do yourself. He was the most exciting director that you could possibly imagine."[15]

The original rough cut of the film was approximately 135 minutes in length. Welles felt that the film needed to be shortened and, after receiving a mixed response from a March 17 preview audience in Pomona, film editor Robert Wise removed several minutes from it.[16] The film was previewed again, but the audience's response did not improve.

Because Welles had conceded his original contractual right to the final cut (in a negotiation with RKO over a film which he was obliged to direct but never did), RKO took over editing once Welles had delivered a first cut. RKO deleted more than 40 additional minutes and reshot the ending in late April and early May, in changes directed by assistant director Fred Fleck, Robert Wise, and Jack Moss, the business manager of Welles's Mercury Theatre. The retakes replaced Welles' original ending with a happier one that broke significantly with the film's elegiac tone. The reshot ending is the same as in the novel.

Welles did not approve of the cuts, but because he was simultaneously working in Brazil on It's All True for RKO—Nelson Rockefeller had personally asked him to make a film in Latin America as part of the wartime Good Neighbor Policy[16]—his attempts to protect his version ultimately failed. Details of Welles' conflict over the editing are included in the 1993 documentary about It's All True.[9]

"Of course I expected that there would be an uproar about a picture which, by any ordinary American standards, was much darker than anybody was making pictures," Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming. "There was just a built-in dread of the downbeat movie, and I knew I'd have that to face, but I thought I had a movie so good—I was absolutely certain of its value, much more than of Kane ... It's a tremendous preparation for the boardinghouse ... and the terrible walk of George Minafer when he gets his comeuppance. And without that, there wasn't any plot. It's all about some rich people fighting in their house."[17]:244–245

Welles said he would not have gone to South America without the studio's guarantee that he could finish editing The Magnificent Ambersons there. "And they absolutely betrayed me and never gave me a shot at it. You know, all I could do was send wires ... But I couldn't walk out on a job which had diplomatic overtones. I was representing America in Brazil, you see. I was a prisoner of the Good Neighbor Policy. That's what made it such a nightmare. I couldn't walk out on Mr. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy with the biggest single thing that they'd done on the cultural level, and simply walk away. And I couldn't get my film in my hands."[17]:245

The negatives for the excised portions of The Magnificent Ambersons were later destroyed in order to free vault space. A print of the rough cut sent to Welles in Brazil has yet to be found and is generally considered to be lost, along with the prints from the previews. Robert Wise maintained that the original was not better than the edited version.

The film features what could be considered an inside joke: news of the increase in automobile accidents is featured prominently on the front page of the Indianapolis Daily Inquirer, part of the fictional chain of newspapers owned by mogul Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Also appearing on the front page is the column, "Stage News", by the fictional writer Jed Leland, with a photo of Joseph Cotten, who portrayed Leland in the earlier film.


The budget for The Magnificent Ambersons was set at $853,950, roughly the final cost of Citizen Kane. During shooting the film went over budget by 19 percent ($159,810), bringing the cost of the Welles cut to $1,013,760. RKO's subsequent changes cost $104,164. The total cost of the motion picture was $1,117,924.[2]:71–72


Like the film itself, Bernard Herrmann's score for The Magnificent Ambersons was heavily edited by RKO. When more than half of his score was removed from the soundtrack, Herrmann bitterly severed his ties with the film and promised legal action if his name were not removed from the credits.[18]

Spoken credits

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the earliest films in movie history in which nearly all the credits are spoken by an off-screen voice and not shown printed onscreen—a technique used before only by the French director and player Sacha Guitry. The only credits shown onscreen are the RKO logo, "A Mercury Production by Orson Welles", and the film's title, shown at the beginning of the picture. At the end of the film, Welles' voice announces all the main credits. Each actor in the film is shown as Welles announces his or her name. As he speaks each technical credit, a machine is shown performing that function.[9] Welles reads his own credit — "My name is Orson Welles" — over top of an image of a microphone which then recedes into the distance.[19][20]

"I got a lot of hell because of that," Welles later said of his verbal sign-off. "People think it's egotistic. The truth is, I was just speaking to a public who knew me from the radio in a way they were used to hearing on our shows. In those days we had an enormous public — in the millions — who heard us every week, so it didn't seem pompous to end a movie in our radio style."[10]:130–131

Welles's 1970s revisit

In conversations (1969–1975) with Peter Bogdanovich compiled in This Is Orson Welles, Welles confirmed that he had planned to reshoot the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons with the principal cast members who were still living:

Yes, I had an outside chance to finish it again just a couple of years ago, but I couldn't swing it. The fellow who was going to buy the film for me disappeared from view. The idea was to take the actors who are still alive now—Cotten, Baxter, Moorehead, Holt—and do quite a new end to the movie, twenty years after. Maybe that way we could have got a new release and a large audience to see it for the first time.

You see, the basic intention was to portray a golden world—almost one of memory—and then show what it turns into. Having set up this dream town of the "good old days," the whole point was to show the automobile wrecking it—not only the family but the town. All this is out. What's left is only the first six reels. Then there's a kind of arbitrary bringing back down the curtain by a series of clumsy, quick devices. The bad, black world was supposed to be too much for people. My whole third act is lost because of all the hysterical tinkering that went on. And it was hysterical. Everybody they could find was cutting it.[10]:114


Box office

The film managed to earn $1 million in rentals in the U.S. and Canada, according to Variety.[3] However it was not enough to recoup the film's cost and it recorded a loss of $620,000.[21]

Critical reception

The Magnificent Ambersons is regarded as one of Welles' masterpieces. In The Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas argued, "Although reams have been written about the mutilation of Orson Welles's second feature, what remains of it is nevertheless a major accomplishment".[22] Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader called its mise-en-scène "extraordinary" and wrote that the film contains some of the finest acting in American cinema.[23]

The Magnificent Ambersons placed 81st in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll of the greatest films ever made; it also received four directors' votes, one of which was that of Terence Davies.[24]


In 1991, The Magnificent Ambersons was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was included in Sight and Sound's 1972 list of the top 10 greatest films ever made,[25] and again in the 1982 list.[26]



Academy Award Nominations[27]

Film memorabilia

In an auction April 26, 2014, a script of The Magnificent Ambersons was sold for $10,625[28] and a collection of approximately 275 stills and production photos sold for $2,750.[29] The materials were among those found in boxes and trunks of Welles's personal possessions by his daughter Beatrice Welles.[30]

Home video releases

Soundtrack releases

A CD of the soundtrack to this film was released in 1990 in the US. The pieces were entirely re-recorded.[34]

All pieces by Bernard Herrmann. Re-recorded by the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Tony Bremner.

2002 remake

In 2002, The Magnificent Ambersons was made as an A&E Network original film for television, using the Welles screenplay and his editing notes. Directed by Alfonso Arau, the film stars Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Gretchen Mol, and Jennifer Tilly. This film does not strictly follow Welles's screenplay; it omits several scenes included in the 1942 version and has essentially the same happy ending.

See also


  1. "The Magnificent Ambersons, Dolores Costello movie poster, circa 1942". Heritage Auctions. October 27, 2009. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  2. McBride, Joseph, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2006, ISBN 0-8131-2410-7
  3. "101 Pix Gross in Millions". Variety. January 6, 1943. p. 58. Retrieved July 8, 2018 via
  4. Orson Welles box office information in France at Box Office Story
  5. "Movie Review -- 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' Welles's Film From Novel by Tarkington, Opens at Capitol -- 'The Big Street' at Palace". The New York Times. August 10, 1942. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  6. Jewell, Richard B.; Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House. p. 173. ISBN 978-0517546567.
  7. "100 Greatest Films". Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  8. Dirks, Tim. "The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) review". Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  9. "The Magnificent Ambersons". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  10. Welles, Orson; Bogdanovich, Peter (1992). Rosenbaum, Jonathan (ed.). This is Orson Welles. New York City: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016616-9.
  11. "The Campbell Playhouse". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  12. "The Magnificent Ambersons". Orson Welles on the Air 1938–1946. Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  13. IMDB Filming Locations for The Magnificent Ambersons
  14. Jewell, Richard B. (2012). RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born. Sacramento, California: University of California. pp. 239–240. ISBN 978-0520271791.
  15. Moorehead, Agnes (February 19, 1973). "The Dick Cavett Show" (Interview). Interviewed by Dick Cavett. New York City: ABC.
  16. Miller, Frank; Thompson, Lang. "Why 'The Magnificent Ambersons' is Essential". Turner Classic Movies. Atlanta, Georgia: Turner Broadcasting Systems. Retrieved May 20, 2009. The standard story is that the audience was hostile and disapproving, which sent the studio into a panic over what they considered Welles's excesses. But the critic and historian Jonathan Rosenbaum has examined the 125 original comment cards and reports that 53 were positive; many were overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
  17. Leaming, Barbara (1985). Orson Welles, A Biography. New York City: Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-618-15446-3.
  18. Husted, Christopher, liner notes for The Magnificent Ambersons: Original 1942 Motion Picture Score, Preamble (PRCD 1783), Fifth Continent Music Corp. 1990
  19. The footage of the microphone is taken from the trailer for Citizen Kane in which Welles similarly narrated the key acting credits for the film.
  20. "The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)". Art of the Title. Retrieved September 1, 2015.
  21. Richard Jewell, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p45
  22. Thomas, Kevin (June 19, 1994). "Four-Star Films : 'The Magnificent Ambersons'". The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California: tronc. Retrieved December 19, 2016.
  23. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "The Magnificent Ambersons". Chicago Reader. Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved December 19, 2016.
  24. "Votes for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)". British Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2016.
  25. "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1972". September 5, 2006. Archived from the original on July 17, 2007. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  26. "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1982". September 5, 2006. Archived from the original on May 31, 2009. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  27. "NY Times: The Magnificent Ambersons". The New York Times. Retrieved December 14, 2008.
  28. "An Orson Welles Script with a Different Ending from The Magnificent Ambersons (Lot 46027)". Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction, New York (#7089), Heritage Auctions. Retrieved May 11, 2014.
  29. "An Orson Welles Large Collection of Black and White Film Stills from The Magnificent Ambersons (Lot 46029)". Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction, New York (#7089), Heritage Auctions. Retrieved May 11, 2014.
  30. Tang, Terry (March 31, 2014). "Orson Welles' camera, other items up for auction". Associated Press. Retrieved May 11, 2014.
  31. The Magnificent Ambersons essay by Robert Carringer (December 11, 1986) at The Criterion Collection
  32. Wilkinson, Jack E. (November 22, 1989). "What's New on the Home Video Scene". United Press International.
  33. "Criterion sets 'Magnificent Ambersons' release for November 20". Wellesnet. August 15, 2018. Retrieved August 18, 2018.
  34. "Soundtrack details: Magnificent Ambersons, The". SoundtrackCollector. Retrieved March 6, 2010.
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