Never let it be said that Welles was not a gifted filmmaker. It’s almost a shame that many people no doubt think of either “War of the Worlds” or “Rosebud” when they hear his name, and not much more. But the man really knew how to make the most of the possibilities inherent in the motion picture artform, which is all the more impressive considering that he entered the field in its earliest era, with very few others illuminating the way ahead for him. There are technical elements of The Magnificent Ambersons which are extremely striking: long, unbroken tracking shots, mood-evoking lighting that ranges from bright outdoor sunlight on a city street in the morning to the shadows of a kitchen late at night. And there are also more subtle elements which lend a novelistic feeling to the film, such as the fades to and from scenes of the townspeople of Indianapolis talking about the Ambersons, breaking up the chapters of the movie and creating the feeling of depth and background that a novel usually provides. The Magnificent Ambersons could fairly be held up as an example to be followed, or at the very least referenced, for adapting prose to the screen.
And yet … the story itself which Welles took the time to adapt was, I must admit, not my cup of tea. Tales of the declining fortunes of once prosperous aristocratic families do little if anything for me. I find it hard to summon up much sympathy, empathy, or anything else positive for characters who grew up privileged due to what was handed down to them, and suddenly find that either the world is changing around them in ways which do not enrich them, or that they have become impoverished by either their own active incompetence or passive indifference. I also find it hard to become emotionally invested in love stories in which two characters pine for one another and yet are kept forever apart due to artificial constructs such as societal expectations and the like. The Magnificent Ambersons is a double-barreled shot of both of those types of stories, and in its own way, it seems self-aware of it. Arguably the narrative spine consists of the origins, rise, and completely telegraphed comeuppance of George Amberson Minafer, and George is highly unlikable, not because Welles (or Tarkington, for that matter) tried and failed to make him the hero, but because that’s the point of his character, to represent and embody the worst traits of entitlement and arrogance. Watching and waiting for his comeuppance is like sitting through a largely incident-free revenge movie wrapped in turn-of-the-previous-century manners. As I say, not my cup of tea.
And (as Neil Gaiman once said of the ill-advised revisions to Shakespeare which flourished in the late 18th C.) the idiots have given it a happy ending. George contributes to and causes most if not all of his own ruin, but is ultimately forgiven and loved. His family fortune is gone, but it belonged to another world which, by the end of the elegiac film, is gone as well. And that may be the most fascinating aspect of The Magnificent Ambersons, from my point of view: a novel written in 1918 about the 1890’s and 1900’s had a certain amount of perspective through which to view the era of the setting, and a movie based on the novel filmed in 1941 added its own perspective, and watching that movie in 2014 layers on even more perspective still. It makes the movie as a historical artifact an intriguing multi-faceted time capsule, however a mixed bag the movie as a pure work of art might be.