I have already reviewed the 2002 version of “The Magnificent Ambersons”: now I am ready to tackle the original, the 1942 version, written (based on the Booth Tarkington novel of the same name), directed, produced and narrated by Orson Welles. I don’t remember the 2002 version having a narrator at all, as does this version, with Welles’ bombing voice. The 1942 version is in black and white while the 2002 was in color. The 1942 movie also features the perspective of the neighbors more profoundly in the beginning, exposing their envy over “hot and cold running water” and gossip about Isabel Amberson.
Despite the difference between the two movies, the plotline remains the same. Isabel and Wilbur are married, and they give birth to George Amberson Minafer, who is still spoiled. Tim Holt plays George, and he’s more mean that was Jonathon Rhys Meyers in 2002, who gave a better spoiled and bratty performance.
This Isabel, played by Dolores Costello (fun fact: Costello is Drew Barrymore’s real-life grandmother, married to John Barrymore and mother to Drew’s father), is blonde and not as waify or as demure as Madeleine Stowe’s Isabel. She lacks a certain necessary fragility that I believe Stowe embodied more effectively for the role.
Anne Baxter plays Lucy Morgan. This Lucy is wholly enamored with the Amberson name and social status in the beginning, more so than the 2002 Lucy. I can see why Gretchen Mol was cast in the 2002 version, as she bears a strong resemblance to a young Baxter. Joseph Cotton, fresh from his role in Citizen Kane, plays Lucy’s dad, Eugene Morgan, who is Isabel’s first and only true love. I don’t have much to say about his performance here, except that he is present, but it’s not really a substantial role.
Agnes Moorehead plays Aunt Fanny, and she’s so much more believable and appropriately cast than was Jennifer Tilly. Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny is nastier, angrier, edgier, and ultimately, just as emotionally disturbed. She has this quirky way of making her voice go up at the most inappropriate times during her performance that I found irritating, but also in some ways explains the casting of Tilly in the 2002 movie. Moorehead was much colder, less emotionally available as Charles Foster Kane’s mother in Citizen Kane – here she’s more craggy and prone to emotional outbursts. The 1942 version actually gives us, more fully and overtly, Fanny’s feelings for Eugene Morgan that were more alluded to in the 2002 version.
The 2002 version is very faithful to the original script, although it adds scenes (such as the college graduation and the trip to Europe, among others) that were cut out of Welles’ original screenplay and the 1942 movie by RKO Pictures in the aftermath of the fall out from Citizen Kane. I never thought I would say this, but I actually recommend the 2002 version over the 1942 version.
Many of the scenes in the 1942 version are too packed and cluttered with objects, I suppose in an attempt to replicate that ostentatious materiality of the Ambersons, but it removes the eye from the important central action of each scene and the dialogue/conversation between the characters. The black and white of this film also doesn’t work for me. There are unexplained and unnecessary shadows in many of the scenes. The 2002 is so much better staged and filmed. Also, the 1942 version is missing the closeness between George and his mother, Isabel. In contrast, the 2002 version actually had them as too close in part. Isabel is a much less central character – in fact, she’s practically absent in the 1942 version, while extraordinarily present in the 2002 movie. The 1942 version also has a more gothic quality due to the black and white shadowing and the music, while the 2002 is much more dreamy.
Welles announces the credits, not just for the actors, but the other credits, including director, wardrobe, etc…. That was an interesting touch at the end of the movie. But given a choice between watching the 1942 “The Magnificent Ambersons” and its successor some 60 years later, I will choose the 2002 each time. Sorry Orson!
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