Magnificent Ambersons [1942]

Genre: Drama, Romance
Citizen Kane is considered by many to be Orson Welles's masterpiece, but more than a few prominent critics have argued that his second film, 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons, is an even greater artistic achievement. It's certainly the source of the most painful injustice of Welles's brief career in Hollywood, having been seized from the director's control, drastically cut from over two hours to merely 88 minutes, and reshot with a different, upbeat ending that Welles vehemently disapproved of. Adapted by Welles from the novel by Booth Tarkington, it remains a truncated masterpiece, as impressive for what remains as for the even greater film it might have been. The story is set during the late 19th century and follows the rise and fall of the wealthy Amberson family of Indianapolis, Indiana. Central to the drama is George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), who is snobbishly to the manor born, and whose petty jealousies and truculent pride compel him to prevent a wealthy inventor (Joseph Cotten) from marrying his widowed mother (Dolores Costello). This in part is the cause of the Ambersons' downfall, and ultimately leads to George's humbling "comeuppance" at the film's dramatic conclusion. It's an absorbing tale of fading traditions and changing times, and it's also a magnificent showcase for Welles's cinematic audacity, famous among film students for its long, fluid shots and ambitious compositions. Responding to the film's drastic cutting and re-editing, Welles justifiably complained that "they destroyed the heart of the film, really." And yet, the director's stamp of genius is evident throughout--the work of a young master (Welles was only 26 when the film was made) that still shines despite its unfortunate fate. --Jeff Shannon

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Narrator:
The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the girl what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare. During the earlier years of this period, while bangs and bustles were having their way with women, there were seen men of all ages to whom a hat meant only that rigid, tall silk thing known to impudence as a stovepipe. But the long contagion of the derby had arrived. One season the crown of this hat would be a bucket; the next it would be a spoon. Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-top boots gave way to shoes and congress gaiters, and these were played through fashions that shaped them now with toes like box ends, and now with toes like the prows of racing shells. Trousers with a crease were considered plebian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf and hence was ready-made. With evening dress, a gentleman wore a tan overcoat, so short that his black coattails hung visible five inches below the overcoat. But after a season or two, he lengthened his overcoat till it touched his heels. And he passed out of his tight trousers into trousers like great bags. In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year's, and all-day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade. Of a summer night, young men would bring an orchestra under a pretty girl's window, and flute, harp, fiddle, cello, cornet, bass viol, would presently release their melodies to the dulcet stars. Against so home-spun a background, the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.

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