The Magnificent Ambersons

Editors Note: We at WatchingOurselves would like to apologize for the delay in this post. Craig’s computer broke, and he doesn’t back up his files (I know!, I mean, what?!…) Anyways, thank you as always for reading.


By Craig Joseph

As will become apparent, based on the movies that made my list, if there were a Dysfunctional Family Drama shelf at the video store, I’d frequent it daily.  Why do I love these films, with their strained dinner scenes, awkwardly intense relationships between parents and children, and buried secrets unearthed two-thirds of the way through?  Tim will argue they make me feel better about my own family.  I’ll agree, and one-up him, suggesting that I find the infinite variations with which this age-old story can play out utterly fascinating.

Orson Welles’s The Magnicficent Ambersons, a follow-up to and arguably better film than Citizen Kane, is the granddaddy of the subgenre.  What sets it apart is its ability to chronicle the decline of one particular family against a background of societal change.  Viewers get to watch the specific and the universal, forced to consider them in tandem.

In the earliest scenes, we experience the Ambersons in their prime: young Isabel is desired by many men, the Major’s wealth is at its height, their home, standing along main street, is beautiful and admired, and their graciousness is manifested in the large parties they host at it.  Welles structures this first chunk of the film to underscore the family’s importance in the community; we hear from a chorus of voices – townspeople and the like – who gaze upon the radiance of the family in their midst.  And the social commentary emanating from an off-screen narrator extols the virtue of this time gone past – elegant dress for men and women, a world with trolley cars that moved unhurriedly, the regularity of moonlight serenades and courtship.  As viewers, we yearn for mores we miss or have never known.  And yet, Welles is sly, also sprinkling this section with the seeds of the family’s downfall: hints at a loveless marriage, several introductions to George, the spoiled brat and arguably Oedipal son of Isabel, spinster aunt Fanny – so jealous that she causes dissension – and a suggestion or two that the money is going to run out.

In contrast, the second half focuses heavily on Eugene Morgan – representing “new money” via the automobile he’s been manufacturing.  The filmmaking tempts us to distrust what he represents.  Evidencing “progress,” Welles’ leisurely single shots (several minutes long and accompanied by instrumental waltzes) are replaced by quick montages with frenetic music.  The omniscient narrator, securely guiding us through the world, drops out for large chunks, and the voices of the community – which suggest a fabric of cohesion and tradition – disintegrate.  Eugene himself suggests that not everything the car brings to society is good, and the film shuts the door in his face several times, trying to get him off screen.  Old world values seem to be fighting against hurry, speed, commercialism and acquisition.  And yet, Eugene and his daughter Lucy are morally superior to the Ambersons – honest, forgiving, industrious, self-aware and adaptable.

So, the old world we yearn for incubates a magnificent family that loses its prestige due to their own dysfunction, while the modern world, harried and empty, produces characters we want to emulate.  I like this dissonance – one of many things that make this movie a favorite.


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