Accompanied by Orson Welles’s distinctive voice narrating the story’s background, this intriguing opening scene bears signs of a kind of filmmaking much ahead of its time. The black screen slowly fades out and reveals the image of a house as the voice-over tells us: ‘The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city’. The camera stays intact, but a moment later, a horse carriage comes and stops by the gate. It waits for the lady inside as she prepares to leave the house and hop on to the carriage, which the voice over explains in detail, and we wait with it, for roughly 30 seconds.
Next is a set of loosely attached images, most of which are like this first one, possessing a photograph-like quality. It is the voice-over that explains to us the significance of these images while introducing the main characters in a very brief and unconventional way. Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) is the old man whose hat is blown away and he turns around to smile. Next is a series of shots of Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), the male protagonist, getting dressed presumably for different occasions in different time periods. Meanwhile the voice-over narration fills in the missing information about the changing trends in fashion in the late 19th century.
Before we see where Eugene is headed to, there is another image of the same house above, first in winter time, then at night with lights hanging outside, as the voice-over explains how people spent their time in those days. They had time for ‘even that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade’. Out of the darkness a group of men appear, carrying instruments. In front of them is Eugene; he stumbles and falls onto his viola and breaks it. As he sits and looks up, there is a cut to the reciprocating look of a woman in the window. This is Major Amberson’s daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello).
The brilliance of this moment is that it foreshadows some of the most important elements of Eugene and Isabel’s impossible relationship. Eugene is deeply in love with Isabel, as he is completely mesmerized by the image on the window. He is shot outside and below of her house, though, despite his efforts for a serenade, he has fallen down and ruined it. Isabel is strictly contained inside of her house, within the window frame, almost immobile. She carries the look of despair, hopelessness and impossibility.
Next, the film continues from where it left off. Eugene wears the same dress as above, carrying the gift in his hand and enters the Amberson mansion, saluting the crowd looking at him. These are the gossipy townspeople who immediately start talking about the mansion’s worth and its fanciful details, filling in the missing pieces for each other.
The Magnificent Ambersons is about the great love story between Eugene and Isabel as much as a display and criticism of the effects of the development of modern life in the 19th and 20th century on individuals and relationships. It is about machines and how they changed the perception of time and wealth and leisure. It is about community and the rigid statuses it creates as well as a demand for recognition and reputation. It is about how others perceive and make of you to a certain extent. The opening scene manages to introduce all these main themes.
*The use of sound plays an incredibly significant role in the film’s narration; not surprisingly Welles previously adapted the same novel that the film was based on for a radio play.
**Although the majority of the film’s editing was not done according to how Welles wanted it because of a dispute between him and RKO, the final outcome is magnificent. I can’t imagine how it would have turned out if he were to take control.