When writer/director Orson Welles made “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Franklin Roosevelt was beginning his third term as President.
FDR was born into one of the richest, most powerful, families in the country. Teddy Roosevelt was his cousin. Eleanor Roosevelt (maiden name Roosevelt) was Teddy Roosevelt’s niece.
Americans were still perfectly comfortable being ruled by the idle rich: people whose only qualification was the name on their birth certificate. Orson Welles was not. “Ambersons” is a devastating attack on American elites and a bold prediction that their time was almost up.
Welles tells the epic story of the Ambersons and the Morgans. The Ambersons have been the richest family in town for as long as anyone can remember. The Morgans don’t have money or blue blood.
But America is changing. The action picks up in approximately 1900. The Ambersons’ reputation and fortune is passing to Georgie (Tim Holt), who just graduated college.
Georgie’s ignorance of the real world and sense of entitlement is hilarious. On a first date with Lucy Morgan, Georgie expresses his disdain for lowly people who work for a living. But he also is disgusted by the people in his own family who go into politics. “So what do you want to be?” Lucy asks. “A Yachtsman.”
Contrast that with Lucy’s father Eugene Morgan. He started tinkering with machines when he was young and now he owns the town’s automobile factory. Morgan is making his fortune while clueless Georgie is squandering his.
And Georgie simply doesn’t get what’s happening. At a dinner party, Georgie proclaims that the automobile is nothing but an obnoxious fad that is a scourge on civilization. Right in front of Eugene Morgan.
After the party, Georgie’s uncle laughs at the young man’s faux pas:
“Well, that’s a new style of courting a pretty girl, I must say, for a young fellow to go deliberately out of his way to try to make an enemy of her father by attacking his business. By jove, that’s a new way of winning a woman!”
“The Magnificent Ambersons” has a completely unique lead character. Georgie is the reason that movie nerds worship the film and the general public has never understood why.
Georgie is not a villain. He doesn’t have an evil scheme and doesn’t intentionally hurt anyone.
Yet you simply can’t root for him. He doesn’t have a single redeeming human quality. He is not smart, good-looking, or talented. He isn’t kind or empathetic.
Orson Welles presents Georgie as the ultimate victim of America’s idiotic caste system: a useless white dude who has been raised to think he is more important and more honorable than everybody else.
In a different era, Georgie would have been killed in a duel. But in the early 20th Century, he lives long enough to help destroy the power and prestige of the upper class.
Class has been at the center of the American experience from the very start. And there has never been a more thoughtful film about the subject than “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Orson Welles predicts with confidence that the Roosevelts of the world were being replaced by the Morgans – the industrialists, the capitalists. But he’s sober enough to observe that this isn’t necessarily a good thing; it is just one group of rich rulers being replaced by another. This is a fascinating movie. And relentlessly grim.