The Ambersons are by far the wealthiest family in the small midwestern city of Indianapolis 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 embarasses 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, 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, claiming 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 a Native American 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 taking financial care of George and Fanny is what Isabel would have wanted.
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 that production to appear in the film.
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. 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. The film was budgeted at $853,950 but this went over during the shoot and ultimately exceeded $1 million.
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. 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's 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 another project for RKO – Nelson Rockefeller had personally asked him to make a film in Latin America as part of the wartime Good Neighbor Policy – his attempts to protect his version ultimately failed. Details of Welles's conflict over the editing are included in the 1993 documentary about the Brazilian film It's All True.
"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."
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."
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.
More than 40 minutes of Welles's original footage was deleted, with portions reshot. Welles later said, "They destroyed 'Ambersons,' and 'it' destroyed me."
Among the material deleted:
- As Morgan went to court Isabel, he waved hello to some townspeople.
- Welles's two favorite scenes of the film were the ball sequence and the boarding house finale. When the film was reedited, the ball sequence was severely reduced, and the finale was removed. Welles said that the ball sequence, in its original form, was the greatest technical achievement of the film. It consisted of a long take. It had a continuous, carefully choreographed crane shot that traveled up the three floors of the mansion to the ballroom on the top floor. Various characters conversed and moved in and out of the frame as the camera wove around them. To pick up the pace, editors removed the middle section of the shot.
- In the ball scene, George mentions to Lucy that he saw some people who were in a club he was in many years ago. He also mentions that he was the president of this club. A film passage showed the past references unfolding. George joined the Friends of the Ace (the local secret society). He insisted on being president of the society and threatened to take away their clubroom if not elected - he became president.
- The 'kitchen scene', where George and Jack tease Fanny until she runs away crying, was the beginning of a longer scene. George spots his grandfather's new construction through the window. He stands at the window and delivers an angry denunciation of the developments, all the while a storm rages on outside. At the Pomona preview, audiences screamed with laughter during this dramatic scene.
- The first of two porch scenes, a long take that lasted six minutes without a cut. It showed Isabel and Fanny chatting about their changing town while George sits lost in his own thoughts. Isabel goes inside, and Fanny worries aloud to George that Isabel is being too hasty to finish mourning her late husband Wilbur. After his aunt Fanny leaves, George fantasizes about Lucy's begging his forgiveness. He next imagines her socializing with other men without thinking of him at all.
- The second porch scene, also a long take, lasting three minutes. Fanny and Major Amberson discussed his financial problems. The two decided to invest in a headlight company. It is this investment that later ruins them. This was Richard Bennett's (the Major) longest scene in the film.
- After George and Jack argued about Morgan and Isabel, there was an additional scene. George is furious and tries to avoid his mother Isabel by going into the ballroom. When she follows, George stands still with his back to her. She tries to wish him goodnight, not knowing that he is upset with her, but he is quiet and utters only a few words.
- Isabel and George discuss her relationship with Morgan in her bedroom. The version that appears in the released film is not that of Welles. In the original version, George was more vicious when he condemned Morgan.
- Isabel writes a letter to George, asking for his forgiveness for the suffering she has caused him over Eugene. She reassures him that she will no longer see Eugene. She slips the letter under his door.
- After talking with George, Lucy went into a nearby shop and fainted in front of the clerk. Later the clerk visited a pool hall and told his friends about the pretty young woman fainting in his shop that day.
- When Isabel is dying, Eugene Morgan arrives to see her. In Welles's version, Fanny whispers to George that Eugene has arrived. George tells her to get rid of him, motivated by anger and spite. Fanny, alone (and in a harsh manner), tells Eugene to leave. In the altered cut, Jack, George and Fanny all tell Morgan he should leave, with suggestions they are thinking of Isabel's comfort.
- After the death of his daughter Isabel, Major Amberson has a major scene in which he ponders the origin and meaning of life. In the recut version, after the scene ends, the major is never seen again (he seems to pass away off screen). In the original cut, Major Amberson continues to think aloud, and says, "I wish someone would tell me....." as the film dissolves to the graves of Isabel and her father. Audiences did not like the occurrence of Isabel and the Major's deaths happening in such quick succession.
- In Agnes Moorehead's signature scene, Aunt Fanny breaks down in front of George in the boiler room. The original scene showed Fanny as extremely distraught and out of control. While this was said to be Moorehead's best scene, the test screening audience laughed as they had at many of her scenes. The scene was reshot with Moorehead playing a more subdued Fanny.
- After Fanny and George move out of the Amberson mansion, George wanders through town and gets his comeuppance. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez filmed a long tracking shot revealing the empty and decaying mansion. Cortez was extremely proud of this shot, but Welles did not use it in his final cut.
Welles's ending, his favorite scene of the film, was changed radically in the final cut. In the original ending, Morgan goes to visit Fanny in her boarding house. He tells her about his hospital visit with George, and says that they have finally made peace. He also says that he was finally "true at last to his true love (Isabel)". During this sequence, Fanny is inexpressive. Destitute and lonely, she has given up hope that Morgan will ever have romantic interest in her. Throughout, Fanny rocks in a squeaky chair, a corny comedy record plays in the background, and a collection of older women listen in on their conversation. After Morgan says goodbye to Fanny and leaves, the film ends. Joseph Cotten noted that Welles's ending was more Chekhov than Tarkington. Audiences were uncomfortable with it and the final scene was reshot. The new "happy ending" shows Morgan and Fanny leaving the hospital after having seen George. Morgan talks about their reconciliation, and when he finishes with "true at last to my true love", Fanny smiles happily and they leave together.
Before the final editing, Welles proposed to the studio that they keep his ending, but have a "cheerful closing credits" sequence to send audiences out happy. This would have included showing an oval picture of a younger Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) in Civil War uniform; an image of Ray Collins sitting on a veranda with the ocean behind him; Agnes Moorehead busily playing cards with friends in the boarding house, and Joseph Cotten looking out a window as Tim Holt and Anne Baxter drive away together waving to him. Similar images would have been shown for Dolores Costello, Erskine Sanford and Don Dillaway.
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.
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's voice announces all the main credits. Each actor in the film is shown as Welles announces the name. As he speaks each technical credit, a machine is shown performing that function. Welles reads his own credit—"My name is Orson Welles"—over top of an image of a microphone which then recedes into the distance.
"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."
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:
The film managed to earn $1 million in rentals in the US and Canada, according to Variety. However it was not enough to recoup the film's cost and it recorded a loss of $620,000.
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' second feature, what remains of it is nevertheless a major accomplishment". 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. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 91% of critics gave the film a positive review.
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.
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 ten greatest films ever made, and again in the 1982 list.Wins
New York Film Critics Circle Awards: NYFCC Award; Best Actress, Agnes Moorehead; 1942.
National Board of Review: Best Acting, Tim Holt & Agnes Moorehead, 1942
Academy Award NominationsBest Actress in a Supporting Role - Agnes Moorehead
Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Interior Decoration - Albert S. D'Agostino, A. Roland Fields and Darrell Silvera
Best Black-and-White Cinematography - Stanley Cortez
Best Picture - Orson Welles
In an auction April 26, 2014, a script of The Magnificent Ambersons was sold for $10,625 and a collection of approximately 275 stills and production photos sold for $2,750. The materials were among those found in boxes and trunks of Welles's personal possessions by his daughter Beatrice Welles.1985: RKO Home Video, VHS (2073), 1985
1986: The Voyager Company (The Criterion Collection), Laserdisc, 1986—audio commentary by Robert Carringer
1989: Turner Home Entertainment, VHS, December 27, 1989, colorized version
2011: Warner Home Video, Region 1 DVD, September 13, 2011 (Amazon.com exclusive); January 31, 2012 (general release) ISBN 0-7806-7648-3
A CD of the soundtrack to this film was released in 1990 in the US. The pieces were totally re-recorded.
All pieces by Bernard Herrmann. Re-recorded by the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tony Bremner.
- "Theme and Variations/George's Homecoming" (07:18)
- "Snow Ride" (03:05)
- "The Door/Death and Youth" (00:56)
- "Toccata" (01:12)
- "Pleasure Trip" (01:06)
- "Prelude" (01:30)
- "First Nocturne" (04:08)
- "Garden Scene" (01:14)
- "Fantasia" (02:11)
- "Scene Pathetique" (02:19)
- "Waiting" (01:32)
- "Ostinato" (01:52)
- "First Letter Scene" (03:25)
- "Second Letter Scene/Romanza" (02:12)
- "Second Nocturne" (03:22)
- "Departure/Isabel's Death" (01:47)
- "First Reverie/Second Reverie" (02:40)
- "The Walk Home" (02:49)
- "Garden Music" (02:59)
- "Elegy" (01:23)
- "End Title" (02:20)
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 lacks several scenes included in the 1942 version, and has essentially the same happy ending.