Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
By turns lyrical and grotesque, and sometimes, unaccountably, both at the same time, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” despite its mutilated form, may be the great movie about the putrefaction of America. Its mutilated state plays into its meaning: it’s a wreck about a wreck. Like director Orson Welles’ later “Chimes At Midnight,” which concerns the passing of Merry England, “Ambersons” is a eulogy for a place that should have existed even if it didn’t quite, that place of collective imagination that we dream of inhabiting even as we help to discredit it. Like Prince Hal in “Chimes,” George Amberson Minafer has the awful responsibility of shouldering this inheritance. Unlike Hal, who at least understands his predicament, he isn’t able to hack it. He has nothing of the king in him; he was born to get his comeuppance. If “Ambersons” has a Falstaff figure, a character who embodies the ideals of the old world, it is Isabel Amberson Minafer, the onetime debutante, later feeble widow, who watches the world slowly rot around her, until she dies, seemingly from the disease of anachronism. To play her Welles cast Dolores Costello, the former sweetheart of the silents. Like the Gibson Girl on whom she seems modeled, her charm is stately but paradoxical. You’d adore her, if you could only get close to her. The movie is bookended by two montages, both narrated by Welles, and both ranking among the high points of American movies. In the first we see the dream, in the second its burnt-out husk. It’s appropriate that the second section is set around the time of the First World War. The truncated “Ambersons” premiered seven months after America entered the Second. Famously, it failed. Audiences wanted something more evasive.