Since 1873, this small town had been the centrepiece of the wealthy Amberson family, who everyone locally looked up to and in many cases envied - they certainly loved to gossip about them. Time may have seemed to move quickly in those far off days, with fashions changing with the seasons, but then there was the transport where a horsedrawn carriage was the most widely available form of getting about if you were not prepared to use Shanks's pony, even so the public transport would be good enough to wait on you if you called the driver from your bedroom window and hurried down to meet it. But there were innovations, and the motor car was one of those, a sign of things to come...
If you've heard of Orson Welles, you'll likely be aware of two aspects of his career, which were he started with the oft-proclaimed greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane, and his second, The Magnificent Ambersons, was taken away from him in its latter stages and recut against his wishes, without any of his input. Nevertheless, this work has been subject to as much acclaim from aficionados as the more visible classic that preceded it, who ignore the harm done to what was a two-and-a-half-hour film to cut around an hour out of the running time, all the better to make it more palatable for the general audience who now had more on their collective minds than a depressing tale of a family in decline.
That was World War II, which the United States had been forced to enter after the Pearl Harbor attack, and is often given the blame for The Magnificent Ambersons poor reception. This may be an easy scapegoat, for what Welles had made was an art film on a blockbuster budget, at least for the studio RKO who channelled a small fortune into the production, by their standards. It was exquisitely designed and photographed by Stanley Cortez, his deep focus style generating a tone of the past that at once seemed so vivid and so far away, which operated as a perfect encapsulation of Welles' theme of time being unstoppable, and even the tallest trees destined to be felled by the passing of the years eventually.
We meet the Ambersons just as they are riding the crest of the wave of their fortune and popularity, but that merely lasts for the first few minutes, as after that it was downhill all the way. What to do when you used to be "magnificent" as the title of Booth Tarkington's novel had it, but now you are seeing that fall away because you always expected life to stay the same, when of course the only constant is change and there's nothing you can do to halt that? The parallels with Welles' own experiences were too irresistible not to bring up, as his decline was well documented and a source of humiliation for the man many called a genius before he was even out of his mid-twenties: whom the Gods wish to destroy, are first called promising, indeed. Yet similarly, it was difficult to take pleasure in this when you could see the plot was being rushed along to a conclusion he never intended.
That ending, as he envisioned it, would be downbeat and melancholy, but a panicking RKO reverted to having the original ending of the book hastily shot and tacked onto what looked increasingly like a film that did not want to hang around as it neared its finale. The fact there was so much quality in this, with the observations on progress and how it leaves everyone behind eventually superbly delivered by a top notch ensemble (unusual in those days when a protagonist was used as the audience's focal point in the story). Joseph Cotten was the decent man who loved a woman he had missed his chance with, Isobel Amberson (Dolores Costello), until she was widowed but her son, the bratty and entitled George (Tim Holt) was dead against it, ruining so much potential for happiness, his own included (with Anne Baxter), because he sneered at Cotten's automobile business, and Holt's Aunt (Agnes Moorhead in a powerhouse of despair) serves as a reminder of where has gone wrong. Rich with emotion and poignancy, as you can see, but simply frittered away in the version released, the original edit lost forever. Again, more irony. Music by Bernard Hermann (who had his name removed).