Simanaitis Says

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THE AUTOMOBILE HERE happens to be driven by a guy named Morgan, but it’s not the English sports car. Instead, Orson Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942, is a tale of a wealthy Midwestern family brought low by social changes of the early 20th century including those attributed to the automobile. The film is adapted from Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. 

The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1918.

AbeBooks lists a first edition of the Tarkington book for $11,000. And for the evidently well-heeled movie buff, it also lists a near fine 1st-edition of Orson Welles’ screenplay ($25,000) and an original photograph from the set of the 1942 film ($975).

Here are tidbits about the flick, its automotive involvement, and why there are those unhappy with the final cut of the Welles film. 

The Plot. Wikipedia needs a dozen lengthy paragraphs to describe the complex downfall of Major Amberson and his family. There’s a well-executed analysis by Jim Emerson at The movie can be rented at YouTube. Or, like me, you can catch its occasional broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

A Motoring Incident. A telling automotive vignette comes when young George Amberson Minafer (Isabel Amberson Minafer’s snob son) takes a sleigh ride with Lucy Morgan (daughter of automotive-investor Eugene who once had been jilted by Isabel). When Eugene’s motor car gets stuck in the snow with Isabel and others aboard, George jeers “Get a horse!”

Image from The Magnificent Ambersons.

But then, like in “Jingle Bells,” the sleigh gets upsot. Eugene’s horseless carriage motors free of the snow and he gives everyone a lift back home. 

Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) motors with Isabel (Dolores Costello), Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorhead), Lucy (Anne Baxter), George (Tim Holt), and Isabel’s brother Jack (Ray Collins).

The Movie’s Fate. The flick’s fate is equally complex. It got mixed reviews at its March 17, 1942, preview showing in Pomona, California.The film editor cut some of its approximately 135 minutes, but that didn’t help.

Then Hollywood/Washington, D.C., politics came to the fore. Welles had conceded his final-cut rights to the film’s producer RKO. What’s more, he had accepted an assignment from the government to make a film in Brazil as part of a wartime Good Neighbor policy. (This was to thwart Nazi attempts at influencing South American countries.)

Welles felt betrayed while on assignment when RKO did more than shortening the flick: The studio reshot the ending with one that was more upbeat, which as Wikipedia notes, “broke significantly with the film’s elegiac tone.”

The Music Too. What’s more, RKO heavily edited Bernard Herrmann’s score to the point that he “promised legal action if his name was not removed from the credits.” Herrmann was a long-time colleague of Welles. 

Indeed, the flick as seen on Turner Classic Movies has only the briefest opening credits: the RKO logo, “A Mercury Production by Orson Welles,” and the title. At its conclusion, Welles offers voice-over credits while images of the cast are shown. He cites several of the technical crew, but honors Herrmann’s wish.

Even though we may be missing the “elegiac” version, The Magnificent Ambersons still displays the genius of Orson Welles. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023


  1. Bill U
    March 21, 2023

    Thanks for this Dennis, including timeless images.
    That Rockwell guy was good . . . in ’42 he also found time to fit in The Four Freedoms.

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