The film, based on the book by Booth Tarkington, is set in a Midland town in the post-bellum period of the late 1800s. It portrays the magnificence of the Ambersons, an indisputably well-off family in this small town. The patriarch, Major Amberson, developed a portion of the town, and built a grandiose mansion to house his clan. The early parts of the tale describe the changing times afflicting the town, from personal appearance to architecture. The verbiage of the book is replaced by a visual collage of these social changes. Much like we ourselves find our world buffetted by unceasing change, those fin-de-siecle times had a tumultuous zeitgeist. As a passage in the book describes it,
It was a hairier day than this. Beards were to the wearers' fancy, and things as strange as the Kaiserliche boar-tusk moustache were commonplace. "Side-burns" found nourishment upon childlike profiles; great Dundreary whiskers blew like tippets over young shoulders; moustaches were trained as lambrequins over forgotten mouths; and it was possible for a Senator of the United States to wear a mist of white whisker upon his throat only, not a newspaper in the land finding the ornament distinguished enough to warrant a lampoon. Surely no more is needed to prove that so short a time ago we were living in another age!
The simple town, dealing with these changes, found the Ambersons a surprise and a challenge. their magnificence "as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral". The Amberson heiress, Miss Isabel is much serenaded by many a boisterous town gentleman, but chooses instead a more persistent suitor, Wilbur Minifer, not precisely because she loves him. They have a child, George, who turns out to be a spoilt, arrogant rich brat.
The arrogant boy grows up to be an intolerable rich young man, used to getting his own way, and calling the shots. In one scene, George, played by Tim Holt, tells Miss Lucy, featuring Anne Baxter in her debut, and I'm paraphrasing a bit, "Be ready by 2 P.M. for our sleigh ride". She replies, "I will not be ready at 2". He responds, firmly, "You WILL be ready at 2 for our ride". She acquiesces, only a minor example of his pride and effrontery.
Miss Lucy is the daughter of Eugene Morgan, who, as it turns out, was one of Miss Isabel's jilted suitors, and the one she truly loved. Following the demise of her husband, Mr Minafer, he presses his suit once again. She does not deny him her favors, but her proud son, slams the door on his face literally. His aunt Fanny, played by Agnes Moorehead, delivers a sterling performance of an old maid, destined to suffer in the shadows of her more beautiful and richer sister. This state of affairs persists, set against a backdrop of portending economic ruin, caused by the changing fortunes of the family and coupled with the challenges faced by the upcoming 'horseless carriages'.
An investment in headlights goes bad, and George is finally faced with reality as most people live it. His aims of leading an idle life, or following a social cause are dashed, as is his interest in Lucy. He plans to leave the town, but his mother falls ill. He refuses Eugene permission to be with her in her final moments, yet he finally gets his 'come-uppance', as long desired by the townsfolk, when he is forced to work for a minimum wage, and grapple with quotidian challenges. Enfin, he is wounded in an automobile accident. Close to the end of the film, he acknowledges that Eugene might have been in the right, and his mother would have been pleased to see Eugene minister to her son in his pain.
The film has a staccato feeling in the second half, and one cannot but wonder which scenes were forever lost to the studio's knife. The democratization of American society, the leveling of it's aristocracy, and the rise of a generation of nouveau riche engineers and industrialists serve as backdrops for the tale.
Frank Lloyd Wright, grandfather of Anne Baxter, visited the sets of the film and reportedly could not stop exclaiming about the sets, not that they were poorly made, but that people could live in houses such as the ones depicted. Much has changed in the world, yet the magnificence of wealth, and the arrogance it can engender does not much change.
In a classic Hindi film, Waqt, or Time, a wealthy industrialist, proud and satisfied, is abruptly challenged with rebuilding his life when an earthquake destroys his secure world. The comforts one derives from the material and substantial cannot be held onto when faced with time's vagaries, is the message, conveyed by this film as well.
Project Gutenberg edition of The Magnificent Ambersons