Orson Welles made several movies but it would be his first two feature films which would dominate his life; the magnificent "Citizen Kane" and the equally visually brilliant "The Magnificent Ambersons". But the irony is that when it comes to "The Magnificent Ambersons", which is undoubtedly a stunning looking movie, the question of its greatness is more of what might have been as RKO packed Welles off to make another movie in another country and in his absence cut his movie down by 40 minutes and destroyed the footage they removed. So that has lead to the speculation that whilst "The Magnificent Ambersons" is a stunning looking movie in the RKO version what would Welles's movie been like and would it have been even more impressive if he had cut it down himself. But here is another irony because whilst "The Magnificent Ambersons" is a joy to watch thanks to Welles's vision with some gob smacking scenes which take us through a mansion the actual story well it isn't amazing, still a very good story but almost inferior to the actual production.
Young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten - The Great Sioux Massacre) wishes to marry Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello - Little Lord Fauntleroy) but the Amberson's are upper-class coming from established money and Eugene is not suitable where as Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) is. And so Isabel marries Wilbur and they have a son George (Tim Holt - His Kind of Woman) who is spoiled rotten by the entire family. 20 years later Eugene returns to town, a widow with a daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter - Fool's Parade) and a wealth thanks to starting up an automobile business and he finds himself at the Amberson mansion for a ball in honour of Isabel's father Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). Immediately Eugene and Isabel become friendly and when Wilbur passes it doesn't take long for Eugene to declare his love for Isabel again. But George and his Aunt Franny (Agnes Moorehead) are opposed to Eugene and Isabel setting out to prevent any romance from ever happening despite George liking Eugene's daughter Lucy. But when a series of disasters befall the Amberson household George is forced to learn some hard lessons.
Now to be honest the story to "The Magnificent Ambersons" is enjoyable with this mix of elements from the well to do Amberson family originally deeming Eugene not proper to court Isabel and then young George following suit deeming his wealth as being new money. Add to that his general dislike of the idea that his mum would fall for someone else; Aunt Franny's fondness for Eugene yet his blinkered vision for Isabel as well as scandal over the suggestion that before Wilbur died Eugene and Isabel were seeing each other. It has a nice dramatic mix which a decade later wouldn't have been out of place as a Douglas Sirk movie. But at the same time as being nicely put together it is not the most amazing story every told, in fact the elements are all very familiar and in a strange way it is the weakest part of the movie.
What certainly isn't weak is Orson Welles's vision for "The Magnificent Ambersons" and it is a movie which makes you salivate when it comes to the look and style. There are again the use of the vertical shots which help establish power but there are some extraordinary tracking shots such as one where George leads a hysterical Franny through the mansion traversing one room to another and another with the camera reversing through this corridor of rooms, when you consider when this was made it is stunning. And so are the sets, the Amberson mansion is visually amazing and Welles again takes advantage of this unique setting built for the movie with great use of a staircase which goes up several floors with drama taking part on each level. I tell you what if a movie was just about the look, the style, the technical detail then "The Magnificent Ambersons" blows pretty much every other movie out of the water.
And then there is the acting and again the acting throughout is superb with the likes of Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello and Anne Baxter all delivering wonderful characters rather than performances. Yet the star of the movie is Tim Holt as George making this evil minded and bitter character come to life so brilliantly that at the same time as disliking him we feel sorry for him because he is the result of wealth and being spoilt as a child.
But here is the thing take "The Magnificent Ambersons" as the movie it ended up and it is very good, a well worked drama with great style and camera work. Yet because of what happened with RKO shipping Welles out of the country to work on another movie and then after a test screening chopping out 40 minutes of footage to change the tone you have that question of "what if". Now it is said that Welles's original 131 minute version was not good but yet some say they are sure that Welles could have re-edited to make it a triumphant version of his vision rather than RKO making a movie which would make money, ironically at the time of release it made a loss. But it is all "What If" and whilst "The Magnificent Ambersons" is a great movie I think that aspect of "What If" has helped lift it to legendary status.
What this all boils down to is that "The Magnificent Ambersons" is a great movie especially for those who love the craft of a film maker more than the actual story. But it is also a movie which I honestly believe has got legendary status as much for the fact RKO robbed the world of Welles's original version by destroying footage as it is for the movie itself.