Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Midway through the voice-over, the scene dissolves to the room where Isabel is reading the letter. Obviously, the letter is deeply affecting her - her face is saddened, and her eyes are luminous with tears. She rises and moves in the darkness toward the camera and small shafts of light. Her eyes reflect light in a difficult-to-achieve effect - a marvelous example of Stanley Cortez' cinematography.

[The following scene, in which George speaks with Isabel about Eugene's letter, is the first time in the film that original footage is mixed with re-shot and re-written material.] After reading Eugene's letter, George enters his mother's room and taunts her with his reaction to it, mocking Eugene's reassuring feeling that they shouldn't care about gossip and what cruel tongues say: "Fair! Fair when he says that he and you don't care what people say?" He also can't fathom gossips speaking the obvious truth that she has always loved Eugene. As an aspiring "Amberson" himself, he is appalled by her acceptance of Eugene's love:

But you're my mother. You're an Amberson.

With tenderness and compassion, Isabel responds with her motherly nature, comforting and forgiving George's arrogance and contemptuousness. In a momentous decision, she postpones any further romance with Eugene by renouncing him and siding with her oedipal son. She tells George as she cradles his head in her hands that they will take an extended European tour to forget their troubles: "We'll go away for a while, you and I."

The next day, as George is about to leave for the trip with his mother, he accidentally meets Lucy, by chance, on the street. At this point, Lucy is unaware of the conflict between George and Eugene, although she reminds him of their previous quarrel about the direction of their lives during a buggy ride. While they promenade along the main boardwalk of the town in another of the film's long takes, [they stroll in front of many shops, and also by the Bijou movie house marquee where Jack Holt, Tim Holt's father, is starring in a western titled The Revenge], he bluntly and hesitantly tells her that he is imminently departing for a world trip. As they step into the sunlight at a street corner, he hints that their relationship might die right there with his break-away - he hopes that she will show some emotion for him - but his theatricality doesn't affect her:

This is our last walk together, Lucy...This is the last time I'll see you ever, ever in my life. Mother and I are starting on a trip around the world tomorrow. We've made no plans at all for coming back...Lucy. I can't stand this...It's quite a shock, find out just how deeply you care, to see how much difference this makes to you...Can't stand this any longer. I can't Lucy. Good-bye, Lucy. It's good-bye. I think it's good-bye for good, Lucy.

Although she has faced his goodbye with a fixed smile unbetrayed by sadness, and she has wished him well: "I do hope you have the most splendid trip," once George has left, her face reveals a deep sadness and her eyes fill with tears [the shot of her face, in soft-focus closeup, was inserted inappropriately by RKO]. She faints in a nearby chemist's shop after asking for a glass of water and a few drops of aromatic spirits of ammonia.

[A major scene involving the decline of the Ambersons has been removed at this point. In other excised film footage, Jack had warned George of the peril to Isabel's health if she traveled, but he ignored it and went abroad anyway.]

Several months later in a reception room at Eugene's mansion, in a scene that now illustrates Eugene's prosperous ascendancy (the room is lit by electricity), Jack pays a visit to Lucy and her father after a trip abroad to visit Isabel and George. During the after-dinner conversation, Eugene sits prominently in a high-backed, wing chair, as a fire burns behind him in the chimney's fireplace. Lucy sits to the right with her facial expression turned away from the camera. In a long continuous and fixed-camera take with deep focus typical of Welles, Jack reveals - to the differing perspectives of father and daughter - that he saw Isabel, who "isn't particularly well" and "ought to be in a wheelchair." In his account, she seemed cheerful but was "short of breath" and her health was deteriorating. Jack expresses his view about Isabel returning home: "I told her I thought she ought to make Georgie let her come home," but "she doesn't urge it" since George appears to be enjoying life in Europe: "George seems to like the life there in his grand, gloomy and peculiar way." Wasting away, Isabel should come home, but George doesn't let it happen:

Eugene: And you say he won't let her come home.
Jack: I don't think he uses force. He's very gentle with her. I doubt that the subject is mentioned between them yet - (he turns toward Eugene rather than Lucy) - knowing my interesting nephew as you do, wouldn't you think 'that' was about the way to put it?
Eugene: Knowing him as I do, yes.

And then Isabel returns from abroad, but she is so frail and ill that she has to be assisted from the railway station into a waiting carriage. As the horse-drawn carriage moves toward town, and diagonal shadows flash across her, Jack and George strain to hear her withdrawn voice:

Isabel: It's changed. It's so changed.
Jack: You mean, you mean the town? You mean the old place has changed, don't you dear?
Isabel: Yes.
Jack: It will change to a happier place, old dear, now that you're back. You're going to get well here.

[Another scene was cut in which the Amberson family is upstairs discussing the state of Isabel's health.] Eugene comes calling to see Isabel, [another scene re-shot and re-written] and again, the insensitive George immediately refuses entrance. Although Eugene insists on seeing her, both Fanny (in tears) and Jack gently reinforce the doctor's recommendation that she be visited later. It is ultimately a great injustice to Eugene - he is prevented from seeing her just as she is about to die.

In a beautifully-captured close-up image, George watches as Eugene departs the mansion for the last time. His determined face is reflected in the window pane from Isabel's familiar vantage point - he replaces her image and imposes his own will. [It is one of the most famous shots in the original film.]

A nurse hovers in the background between dark pillars and ominous music plays. In Isabel's death-bed farewell scene, George enters his mother's dimly-lit room. Her face is covered with a complex spider-web pattern of lighting from the window's lace curtain - another superb cinematographic effect. The web is symbolically one of frustration, pride, and conflicting loves from which she was never able to free herself. Delirious, she shows tender concern for her son, even though she is the one who is dying:

Darling, did you get something to eat?...Are you sure you didn't catch cold coming home?

And then she inquires whether Eugene and Lucy know that they have returned from their trip abroad. She pointedly asks: "Has he asked about me?" Learning that Eugene was there and left, she sighs poignantly: "I would have liked to have seen him. Just once."

To symbolize the darkness of death taking her, the shade is pulled down over the lace curtain and the web patterns becomes dark over Isabel's face. Nearby, Major Amberson restlessly reclines fully clothed in a near-death stupor himself in George's bed. (George's Harvard banner is above it.) Isabel's death occurs off-screen in a simple, emotionally-effective scene. In desperate anguish after the death, Fanny rushes in and embraces George tightly: "She loved you. She loved you."

An abrupt transition moves into the haunting scene of Major Amberson's own death. [It is not immediately after Isabel's death, but at some unspecified time in the future when affairs of the estate are being decided.] A dying fire flickers on a close-up of his pensive, staring face (toward the camera) as he ponders his own death and the here-after - in a long camera take. Welles softly narrates from Booth Tarkington's words:

And now, Major Amberson was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. And he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste beside what concerned him now. For the Major knew now that he had to plan how to enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson.

The Major is too far senile to answer Jack's (off-screen) complex probate and estate questions concerning the deed to the house. [The Major leaves no deeds to his remaining property, and the mansion itself is sold off, and later subdivided into a boarding house.] In a rambling, incoherent speech (again from Tarkington), the old Major disjointedly muses on the source of life:

It must be in the sun. There wasn't anything here but the sun in the first place...The Earth came out o' the sun, and we came out of the Earth. So whatever we are...

When the light fades, his voice grows silent, the screen turns slowly to black, and his life ends.

[The next scene is also some time in the future. Footage is missing of Jack borrowing money from George to make his trip. He will use his past Congressional position to secure a consulship somewhere overseas.] In a farewell scene at the railroad station before a column and a railroad bench and in front of the great inside dome, Uncle Jack leaves George to seek a new job, attempting to earn some money to bolster the sagging Amberson finances - now busted. Jack identifies them as "two gentlemen of elegant appearance in a state of bustitude." In a very economical scene, he both manages to reminisce about a goodbye to a young girl he once knew (in Tarkington's words), and to ambivalently praise and blame George with chastening words:

Once I stood where we're standing now to say goodbye to a pretty girl. Only it was in the old station before this was built. We called it the depot. We knew we wouldn't see each other again for almost a year. I thought I couldn't live through it. She stood there crying - don't even know where she lives now. Or if she is living. If she ever thinks of me she probably imagines I'm still dancing in the ballroom of the Amberson mansion. She probably thinks of the mansion as still beautiful. Still the finest house in town. Ah, life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they're gone, you can't tell where, or what the devil you did with them.

I've always been fond of you, Georgie. I can't say I've always liked ya. But we all spoiled you terribly when you were a boy....There have been times when I thought you ought to be hanged. And just for a last word, there may be somebody else in this town (Lucy Morgan) who's always felt about you like that. Fond of you, I mean, no matter how much it seems you ought to be hanged.

[The following garden scene was originally intended to come after the scene of Fanny's final hysteria.] In a lyrical garden scene [faithful to Tarkington's novel], Lucy (with Eugene) recounts an Indian folk tale (fabricated by her?) about a detestable Indian chief sent into exile - the legend obviously parallels the story of the life of George Amberson. As they walk toward the camera between tall weeping willow trees, and orchestral garden music plays, Eugene knocks his pipe against the palm of his hand. She has resigned herself to not marrying George because of his vindictiveness. Instead, she will remain in her garden and see to her father's every wish, forgetting the name of the Indian chief and George's name as well:

Lucy: Ever hear the Indian name for that little grove of beech trees?
Eugene: No, and you never did either. Well? (They stop. Lucy laughs.)
Lucy: The name was Loma-Nashah. It means: 'They-couldn't-help-it.'
Eugene: Doesn't sound like it.
Lucy: Indian names don't. There was a bad Indian chief, the worst Indian that ever lived, and his name was Vendonah. Means: 'Rides-Down-Everything.'
Eugene: What?
Lucy: His name was Vendonah, same thing as: 'Rides-Down-Everything.'
Eugene: I see. (She laughs.) Go on.
Lucy: Vendonah was unspeakable. He was so proud he wore iron shoes and walked over people's faces. So at last, the tribe decided that it wasn't a good enough excuse for him that he was young and inexperienced. He'd have to go. So they took him down to the river, put him in a canoe, and pushed him out from shore. The current carried him on down to the ocean. And he never got back. They didn't want him back, of course. They hated Vendonah, but they weren't able to discover any other warrior they wanted to make chief in his place. They couldn't help feeling that way.
Eugene: I see. So that's why they named the place: 'They-couldn't help-it.'
Lucy: Must have been. (They start walking again and then stop.)
Eugene: So you're going to stay in your garden. You think it's better just to keep walking about among your flower beds and get old like a pensive garden lady in a Victorian engraving? Huh?
Lucy: I suppose I'm like that tribe that lived here, Papa. I had too much unpleasant excitement. I don't want any more. In fact, I don't want anything but you.
Eugene: You don't? What was the name of that grove?
Lucy: 'They-could...'
Eugene: No, the Indian name, I mean.
Lucy: Oh. Mola-Haha. (They laugh together.)
Eugene: Mola-Haha. That wasn't the name you said.
Lucy: Oh, I've forgotten.
Eugene: So you have. Perhaps you remember the chief's name better?
Lucy: I don't. (Eugene puts his arm around his daughter)
Eugene: I hope some day you can forget it.

In the now dim, deserted and changed Amberson house in the empty kitchen [in a scene partially re-shot to replace the original film and spliced together with the original Cortez/Welles film], George and Fanny discuss the sorry state of their finances and how much they'll need to live:

George: I'm only going to be getting $8 a week at the law office. You'd be paying more of the expenses than I would.
Fanny: I'd be paying? I'd be paying?
George: Certainly you would. We'd be using more of your money than mine.
Fanny: My money. My money. (She makes a desperate laugh) I've got $28, that's all.
George: $28?
Fanny: That's all. I know I told you I didn't put everything in the Headlight Company, but I did. Every cent, and it's gone.

After admitting her foolish investment of her small inheritance from Wilbur in an auto headlight factory, she worries whether Georgie will abandon her, and then slumps helplessly against the boiler and slides to the floor:

Oh, I know what you're gonna do. (Sobbing) You're, you're gonna leave me in the lurch!

Knowing that both of them are equally destitute and penniless, George demands that she get up from her defeated, child-like position. Tormented and grief-stricken, she remains down and complains about how her own penny-pinching efforts to provide have failed miserably:

I knew your mother wanted me to watch over you, and try and make something like a home for you, and I tried. I tried to make things as nice for you as I could...I walked my heels down looking for a place for us to live. I-I walked and walked over this town. I didn't ride one block on a streetcar.

Again, George commands her to get up and not sit there with her back against the boiler, but she becomes hysterical:

It's not hot, it's cold. The plumber's disconnected it. I wouldn't mind if they hadn't...I wouldn't mind if it burned me George!

And then in a brilliantly-choreographed, elaborate tracking dolly shot moving through four rooms, they continue to argue. They move backward from the cold boiler out the kitchen door and through the reception hall (past the circular staircase) and into the boarded-up front parlor - where sheets shroud the furniture in the otherwise empty living room. As George shakes her to end her maniacal, hysterical laughter, he learns she has picked out boarding house accommodations for them that cost $36 a month and $22.50 for dinner.

Sacrificially, George must abandon not only the Amberson mansion but also his law-firm position and his law career to earn money - something unthinkable years earlier - so that he can support himself and his spinster aunt. In the offices of his employer Benson, George decides on a desperate alternative - he will take a higher-paying position as a dynamiter:

Benson: A real flair for the law. That's right. Couldn't wait till tomorrow to begin. The law's a jealous mistress and a stern mistress.
George: I can't do it. I can't take up the law.
Benson: What?
George: I've come to tell you that I've got to find something quicker. Something that pays from the start...Well sir, I've heard that they pay very high wages to people in dangerous trades, people that handle touchy chemicals, high explosives. Men in the dynamite factories. Thought I'd see if I couldn't get a job like that. I want to get started tomorrow if I could.
Benson: Georgie. Your grandfather and I were boys together. Don't you think I ought to know what's the trouble?
George: Well sir, it's Aunt Fanny. She set her mind on this particular boardinghouse. It seems she put everything in the Headlight Company. Well, she got some old cronies, and I guess she's been looking forward to the games of bridge and the harmless kind of gossip that goes on in such places. Really, it's the life she'd like better than anything else. It struck me that she's just about got to have it.

Feeling some of the responsibility, Benson promises to help George find a suitable job as a dynamiter: "You certainly are the most practical young man I ever met."

As George walks home for the last time, images of the new machine age and the changed way of life in the growing industrialized city are seen from George's perspective. As the town grows, it also dies, "befouled" with large buildings, telegraph poles and lines, pipelines, electric streetcar wires, steel girders, factory windows, deserted homes in the central part of the city, and "New Hope Apartment For Rent" signs. Welles' voice-over narrates and then the screen goes black:

George Amberson Minafer walked homeward slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city. The town was growing and changing. It was heaving up in the middle, incredibly. It was spreading, incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself, and darkened its sky. This was the last walk home he was ever to take up National Avenue to Amberson addition, and the big old house at the foot of Amberson Boulevard. Tomorrow, they were to move out. Tomorrow, everything would be gone.

At the foot of the bed where his mother died, in a bedroom now dark and depressing, George kneels to say a final prayer and farewell to his long-departed mother: "God, forgive me." The narration begins again, quietly. The eagerly-awaited fall (when he gets his 'come-uppance') of Georgie Amberson Minafer passes almost unnoticed, as his mother dies after he has suffered the loss of Lucy's love. The Ambersons (and most definitely the Minafers) are already a forgotten family:

Something had happened, a thing which years ago had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town. And now it came at last: George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He'd got it three times filled and running over. But those who had longed for it were not there to see it. And they never knew it, those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about him.

A clanging bell presages an automobile accident shortly afterwards - a third tragedy. George is almost killed - literally and physically run over by an automobile (made by Eugene's company?) - a machine that he had earlier called "a useless nuisance." At the accident scene, as George's form is carried away on a stretcher [never to be seen again in the film], one of the policemen remarks: "It's wonderful the damage one of these little machines can do. You'd never believe it." A headline in the city's newspaper, The Indianapolis Daily Inquirer announces a bold headline: "AUTO CASUALTIES MOUNT." [Two 'inside' jokes refer to Citizen Kane (1941) - the paper is a Kane Empire newspaper, and the left column article entitled "Stage Views" is written by Jed Leland, a character played by Joseph Cotten in the film.] Another newspaper column titled TODAY'S TOLL describes George's crippling accident - abbreviating his name to mere initials: "Serious Accident - G. A. Minafer, Akers Chemical Co., both legs broken."

In his study, Eugene reads about the accident in the paper and then contemplates whether he will respond to the notice. He doesn't answer Lucy's question: "What are you going to do, Papa?" She decides to visit the pauperized George in the hospital after he was brought down by the street accident: "I'm going to him. You coming, father?" and then she strides out of the frame. Eugene is resigned to join her and rises after he hears the door shut.

Eugene, Lucy and George are ultimately reconciled in the hospital. At last, outside George's hospital room and as they walk down the corridor in a long traveling shot, Eugene [a representative of the machine age] is able to confide to Fanny that George had asked for forgiveness from him.

You know what he said to me when we went in that room? He said, 'You must have known my mother wanted you to come here today, so that I could ask you to forgive me.' We shook hands.

Despite George's own character faults, it is understood that he will be redeemed. Eugene will take care of the disabled George. Through Eugene, Isabel would love her own son, enabling Eugene to feel close and remain faithful to the memory of his true love, Isabel. Fanny will have nothing to fear, now that Isabel is dead, and she smiles indulgently as they both look straight ahead and walk toward the camera. Fulfilled, Eugene tells Fanny of his conviction that he is "true at last" to his true love - Isabel:

I never noticed before how much like Isabel Georgie looks. (Tears sparkle on Fanny's cheeks.) You know something, Fanny? I wouldn't tell this to anybody but you. But it seemed to me as if someone else was in that room. And that through me, she brought her boy under shelter again, and that I'd been true at last to my true love.

The reconciliation scene ends on a close-up of Fanny's face wearing a beatific, rejoicing smile and looking upward toward heaven [toward Isabel in the spiritual world], before it fades to black from a view of the empty, barren hospital corridor. Violins swell with sentimentality on the soundtrack.

[The last sugar-coated scene in the hospital in the film's happy, uplifting conclusion has been much criticized as the ultimate insult toward Welles and the original film. The scene was re-written and re-directed, and then tacked onto the film. In the original film's ending (footage that was destroyed), Eugene visited an aging, bitter Fanny in her sparse boarding room house/old folks' home and told her about his hospital visit to George and their reconciliation, as she rocked back and forth in a creaking chair and listened to a phonograph record playing in the background.]

In the final, imaginative credits sequence, Orson Welles returns in voice-over, off-stage. In the darkness and then with a display of the book, his voice has the final words:

Ladies and gentlemen, The Magnificent Ambersons was based on Booth Tarkington's novel.

He re-introduces the various major contributors of the crew (and then cast) by their names (and trademarks):

  • Stanley Cortez was the photographer (A movie camera symbolizes the Cinematographer)
  • Mark-Lee Kirk designed the sets (Set sketches symbolize the Art Director)
  • Al Fields dressed them (An ornate chair, drapery, and statuary symbolize the Set Designer)
  • Robert Wise was the film editor (A rotating movie reel in front of a strip of film stock moving through a projector)
  • Freddie Fleck was the assistant director (The top of a typewritten page of the screenplay, a conversation between Lucy and George)
  • Edward Stevenson designed the ladies' wardrobe (A piece of fabric being cut and fashioned for one of the ladies' dresses symbolizes the Costumes Designer)
  • The special effects were by Vernon L. Walker (An elaborate camera set-up films a special effect)
  • The sound recording was by Bailey Fessler and James G. Stewart (Two hands turn round instrument dials to adjust sound volume)
  • Here's the cast: [all filmed in cameos against a black backdrop]
  • Eugene - Joseph Cotten
  • Isabel - Dolores Costello
  • Lucy - Anne Baxter
  • George - Tim Holt
  • Fanny - Agnes Moorehead
  • Jack - Ray Collins
  • Roger Benson - Erskine Sanford
  • Major Amberson - Richard Bennett

The final image of the film is a closeup of a microphone that hangs from a boom in space - as Welles intones about his own triple contribution (as screenwriter, director, and producer):

I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production.

The boom and microphone swing up and away into a shaft of light coming through a skylight in the ceiling.

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