Isabel impetuously rejects Eugene and marries Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway) instead. Thus spurned Eugene leaves Indianapolis, aiming to alchemise misfortune into success. Behind him Isabel births George (Bobby Cooper), a single child who gets spoiled rotten. Because he's an Amberson George feels that it's his right to do whatever takes his fancy. Many years later George (now Tim Holt) still gets away with murder; it's at a ball in his honour that George first gets to meet Eugene, who's accompanied by his beautiful daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Smitten, George demands that she bends to his will; fortunately the Morgans' are more than a match for the Ambersons'.
Coming after the critics' darling Citizen Kane, Orson Welles' second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, had a great deal to live up to. With his debut Welles had proved that he was a master technician, a fine actor and a gifted storyteller. Now the pressure was on to prove that this was no lucky break, but the dawning of a consistently deep and flexible director. Unfortunately George Schaefer, the president of financing studio RKO, didn't take such a relaxed viewpoint; all he wanted was for The Magnificent Ambersons to amass a decent profit, not a prospect signalled by preview audiences. With Welles out of the country, eagerly working on his next project, Robert Wise was ordered to drastically trim the final cut and splice in journeyman footage. Given Welles' talent it's hard to see how his original version could have been worse; the tragedy is that we'll never get the chance to know.
Fortunately Welles' vision was strong and distinctive enough to resist much of this onslaught; RKO would have had to shoot from scratch to expurgate his touch entirely. This is most obvious in the way that Welles handles the cast, starting with his careful choice of each member. Before a reel of film was exposed Welles rehearsed his cast thoroughly, prodding them to gauge the characters and their position. During filming improvisation was encouraged, bringing a naturalistic tone to the dialogue. The fruit of this labour is abundant, particularly in the first half of The Magnificent Ambersons. As the destiny, and past, of the Amberson family develops, the personal interactions are entirely credible; the cast truly breathes life into the roles.
The most impressive performances, in this excellent cast, emerge from Agnes Moorehead (as Fanny Amberson) and Joseph Cotten. Both dig deep to find the right emotional tone, using instinct and experience to judge individual reactions. In the former case, Moorehead is grippingly shrill, unbalanced, fragile and unknowingly a catalyst. In the shadow of Isabel, Fanny seems to have never gained anything worth living for. Cotten, in contrast, is more reserved but just as deeply wounded by Isabel (and by extension George). His affection and decency are pure, yet circumstance always seems to thwart his pursuit of Isabel, Eugene's one true love. As this focal point Costello is impressive; her unyielding devotion to George seems unwarranted to us yet Isabel never appears to even glimpse how in thrall she is. The rest of the cast all provide decent performances, Baxter particularly, and are valuable components in The Magnificent Ambersons' machine.
The Magnificent Ambersons is, however, far more restrained, heartfelt and quieter than Citizen Kane. It's as if Welles wanted to move away from the technical showmanship of his earlier film, instead integrating his talents more fully into a humanistic story. In this, Booth Tarkington's novel, which uses the passing of one era into a harder, more pressed age as a backdrop, is a fine choice. Welles captures the Ambersons descent from previously lofty heights, the clash of values that dooms them, wonderfully; this is a dynasty built in the past and wrecked in the present. There are nevertheless many instances of cinematic creativity, particularly in the low-key tracking shots, use of deep-focus photography and impeccably framed scenes. The difference is that Stanley Cortez' contrasty photography is a natural part of the film, not a prosthetic.
The sadness is that RKO elected to butcher The Magnificent Ambersons, instead of trusting Welles. During the film you can really feel how there are segments missing from the movie; important meetings are truncated, characters lost and the overall tone muddied. What we have are several amazingly intense and personal scenes, probing deeply into the dynamics of the Amberson tribe, connected in an eccentric fashion. It's the stuff in-between, especially near the film's out of character summation, that prevents The Magnificent Ambersons from becoming a masterpiece. Even more depressing, the hour of footage hacked out by RKO was criminally destroyed, leaving us no way back from the present version. Orson Welles created an impressive meditation on the price of progress, expressing his visual genius in service to an encompassing story; it's a pity that The Magnificent Ambersons doesn't truly represent this.