The Ambersons live a life of almost royal opulence
Orson Welles, 1942, bw (9.2*)
Welles' first film after Citizen Kane was his adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel about the decline of an aristocratic midwestern American family, one who prized traditional values and their own social position above change, tolerance, and open-mindedness.
Joseph Cotten plays a family friend, a builder of early motor cars, often criticized by the Amberson patriarch as smoky, noisy nuisances, and something "that will never replace the horse". As a modernist, and someone from the wrong side of the tracks, he is never totally accepted as an equal to the Ambersons. Dolores Costello is an Amberson who admires Cotten and his ingenuity, and who falls in love with him, and of course has to defend him and progress in the family debates. Terrific Oscar-winning actress Anne Baxter plays his daughter, but doesn't have a lot of acting to do here (check her out in The Razor's Edge and All About Eve).
Agnes Moorehead shines as a slightly psychotic member of the Amberson clan, who keep to themselves enough that their huge Victorian mansion becomes more like a prison or asylum as they rarely mingle with the masses of their town. Tim Holt is an Ambersons' son and heir who seems to worry more about what people think than anything else.
The film is a little dark and moody, yet remains one of the enduring cinema portraits of turn-of-the-century American life and values, and a searing critique of those who perpetuate class differences to the point of prejudice. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez must be given some credit for the beautifully classic black-and-white look of the film.
Welles did not play a part in this film, preferring to remain behind the scenes. Author Tarkington was a family friend of Welles' growing up, so this is an author whose work and intent he knew personally. It's said that the studio butchered his final cut, yet it remains a classic American film, almost as revered as Citizen Kane, and certainly one of the finest adaptations from literature put on film. Nominated for four Oscars, including Cortez' cinematography, Moorehead's performance, best picture, and the terrific art direction, but it won none.
Anne Baxter and Joseph Cotten ride in his own invention