The general consensus about Orson Welles’ second film is that while Citizen Kane is about 1,000 times better, The Magnificent Ambersons is still a great masterpiece, and is among the best films ever made. I’m not so sure. If I had to choose Welles’ second best film, I would probably say it is The Stranger. I’ve seen Citizen Kane around 30 times, and it is a real emotional workout every time I see it. Seeing The Magnificent Ambersons for the second time, I realized that the reason that it does not do so much for me is that the characters are not all that sympathetic. We feel for Charles Foster Kane since he had humble beginnings, Welles doesn’t do much to make the Amberson and Mason families engaging. For course Joseph Cotton is good as always, and the best subplot is his character’s life-long love of the woman who spurned him in youth because serenaded her when he had had too much to drink, making a social faux pas in their little, enclosed world.
Welles famously lost control of the film, and RKO tacked on a hastily shot happy ending when he was away in South America making his next film. Even with this awkward ending, it is a technically excellent film, with good editing from Robert Wise at the very beginning of his career, and good performances for Anne Baxter and Agnesmorehead. I only wish Welles had picked a better novel to base his second film on.