Before watching the movie:
I seem to recall that this is sometimes regarded as at least equal in stature to Citizen Kane in some way. It doesn’t get the hype that Kane does though, and it seems to get discussed to the extent of “probably Orson Wells’ best film ever, but moving on…”
Much like Kane is a portrait of a life, just with a nominal mystery to drive the plot, this seems to be a portrait of a family’s travails over possibly years. I have a sense that it’s character driven and plot light and would probably be comfortable on the same shelf with Little Women.
After watching the movie:
Everyone in Indianapolis knows the wealthiest family in town is the Ambersons. In the early 1900s, Major Amberson’s daughter Isabel was courted by Eugene Morgan, until a public embarrassment caused her to shun him. She went on to enter into a loveless marriage with Wilbur Minafer. Twenty years later, their spoiled son George Amberson Minafer, notorious in town as a childish menace, comes home from college to attend a party hosted by Major Amberson. George is drawn to a young woman in attendance named Lucy, but has no fondness for her father, a widower by the name of Eugene Morgan, now heavily invested in the laughable dead-end industry of horseless carriages. The next day in a chance encounter between their families, George is further soured on Eugene when he notices too much affection between Eugene and Isabel. Some time later, George’s father dies, leaving only bad investments and debts behind, and Eugene begins courting Isabel again, until George tries to put a stop to it.
The prologue that lays out who the Amberson family is and what happened with Eugene and Isabel is very long and told with heavy narration to the point where I wondered if the whole movie was going to be Orson Welles reading the book with actors illustrating the scenes. I had flashbacks to how One Hundred Years of Solitude quietly recounts several generations of soap opera drama unfolding in slow motion. Eventually I realized that the plot had gotten under way and it was going to concern George’s relationship with his mother and with Eugene, and I was able to get invested.
Apparently, Welles meant for the story to be an illustration of the end of assumptions made in the early 1900s when industrialization takes over, but aside from Morgan’s burgeoning automobile venture and a slew of vague “bad investments” that erode the family’s wealth, the world outside the Ambersons’ mansion doesn’t really affect the course of events until the finale, as George’s bubble is finally, totally burst and he has to open his eyes and see that the city has been remade around him while he was fussing about his mother’s life choices.
Much has been made about the reshot ending that lands on a happier note than Welles intended, but I didn’t find it all that happy. It certainly is a last minute turn of affairs that’s trying to assure us that everything will be okay after the 90 minutes of everything falling to pieces, but it’s very pyrrhic in how it arrives there, and that extends the melancholy of the rest of the movie into the so-called happy ending. People pretty much just have their pride broken down to the point where they’ll finally work together they way they’ve been refusing to the whole time to make the best of an awful situation. According to Wikipedia, the ending used in the finished movie is the same as how the novel ends anyway, so I don’t really see a great loss in what the studio did over Welles’ objections.
This is altogether a slow grinding down to a crisis point, which contrasts sharply with anything made at the time, but is now much more familiar to audiences. It doesn’t seem to me to match the heights of artistic quality that Citizen Kane did, but it is a well-crafted piece of cinema that tells a grand story of arrogance and loss.