Today, Agnes Moorehead is best known as Endora, Elizabeth Montgomery’s mother on the 1960s television sitcom, Bewitched. However, while Agnes is amazing as Endora, especially when terrorizing “Durwood,” she is so much more than Endora (even though she’s amazing and one of the best characters in the show). Agnes had already completed dozens of films prior to her turn on the small screen. She was also nominated for four Academy Awards. Unfortunately, she did not win any of her nominations. In my opinion, Agnes should have won for her turn as “Aunt Fanny” in Orson Welles’ 1942 film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), or as I prefer to call it: The Magnificent Aunt Fanny.
In the late 1930s, Agnes Moorehead joined Orson Welles’ stock company, The Mercury Theater. One of her fellow players was Joseph Cotten. Both Moorehead and Cotten would appear in Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane (1941) and they both star in his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. ‘Ambersons’ is notorious for the hack-job that RKO did on the film during editing. Welles was out of the country working on another project. RKO removed over 40 minutes of footage from Welles’ original cut and also re-shot the ending. The studio changed the ending to a happier ending, one that matches the original novel on which the film is based.
While the final cut of ‘Ambersons’ is not what Welles envisioned, there is no doubt that Agnes Moorehead was a brilliant and gifted actress. Her characterization of Aunt Fanny is fantastic. Aunt Fanny is a jealous, but tortured woman. She might be the most sympathetic character in the entire film. It is not an easy feat to play someone who is jealous and bitter, yet vulnerable and tragic. This is a woman who has loved and lost without ever having love reciprocated. Can you really lose what you never had? The tragedy of it all is that Aunt Fanny held onto a false dream that she’d be with Eugene (Joseph Cotten) someday. Now, she’s alone without seemingly any prospects. She’s let her entire life pass her by.
Throughout the entire film, Aunt Fanny and George (Tim Holt) are foes and allies. At the beginning of the film, George and Aunt Fanny quarrel over Mr. Minafer’s (George’s father, Fanny’s brother) reluctance to take a ride on Eugene’s new-fangled contraption, “the horseless carriage.” From their whisper argument, it becomes clear that Aunt Fanny is holding a torch for Eugene. Eugene, on the other hand, is holding a torch for Isabel (Dolores Costello), George’s mother and Fanny’s sister-in-law. It seems that Eugene and Isabel used to date in their youth until he embarasses her in public and she rejects him publicly. Isabel married Wilbur Amberson, a man whom she does not love. Together Wilbur and Isabel raise spoiled brat George.
After Wilbur’s death, George and Aunt Fanny remain allies throughout the film–especially when discussing Eugene and Isabel’s budding relationship. George doesn’t approve of Eugene and is embarrassed by Eugene’s affection towards his mother. At first, Aunt Fanny claims that nobody knows about Eugene and Isabel, but lets it slip that there is town gossip. Then, George discovers that Isabel and Eugene were involved prior to his birth. He is horrified. He makes a jackass out of himself to one of the neighbors and town gossips when he demands to know where these stories about his mother originated. Aunt Fanny continues to play both sides, at times supporting Eugene and Isabel and opposing George; but also struggling with her desire to be with Eugene.
I just want to reiterate how much George sucks. George Amberson is one of the biggest spoiled brats in movies. He has no business trying to meddle in his mother’s affairs. He is such a whiner in this film.
At least he gets his comeuppance in the film. He deserved it.
Aunt Fanny, this poor woman, has such bleak prospects in her life. She’s a lonely spinster, having lost (but never having had him in the first place) the only man she’s ever loved. Her only family, Wilbur, has died. He didn’t leave much of an estate, but did leave Fanny his insurance payout. The only blood family she has is stupid George, who belittles and mocks her endlessly. She is still acquainted with Isabel and Jack, but without Wilbur, she’s not really connected to them any more. Then, the only man she’s ever loved, Eugene, wants to be with another woman. Eugene is friendly with Aunt Fanny, but appears to only think of her as Isabel’s family, the kindly spinster Aunt.
“You wouldn’t treat anybody in the world like this, except Old Fanny! ‘Old Fanny’ you say, ‘It’s nobody but old Fanny, so I’ll kick her. Nobody’ll resent it. I’ll kick her all I want to!’ And you’re right. I haven’t got anything in the world since my brother died. Nobody. Nothing!”Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)
Finally, all the stress, anxieties, depression, the whole gamut of Aunt Fanny’s emotions comes to head when she has to reveal to George that her bad investments have left her and by proxy, George, penniless. George’s prospective $8/week lawyer job suddenly doesn’t look so great when he figures that they’ll need approximately $100/month to live on. Aunt Fanny’s bank ledger shows a balance of $28. Of course, being George, instead of giving Fanny some sympathy, continues to press and needle until she’s a hysterical, blubbering mess on the floor, leaning against the radiator. One gets the sense that George is more embarrassed by Aunt Fanny’s behavior than he is that she’s broke and by proxy, so is he. Aunt Fanny has reached absolute rock bottom. Not only is she alone and without Eugene. Now she doesn’t even have any money. She’s lost her only means of support. She’s lost the storied Amberson home. She’s lost everything due to her bad investments.
(George warns Aunt Fanny about leaning against the supposed hot radiator) “It’s not hot. It’s cold! The plumbers’ disconnected it. I wouldn’t mind if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t mind if it burned me George!”Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)
At the end of the film, when things seem the bleakest for Aunt Fanny, George finally does something admirable. Probably the only nice thing he has ever done in his entire life. After Aunt Fanny finds a boarding house that she’d like to live in, mostly due to the sense of community and friendship amongst the other boarders, he decides to find a higher paying job so that he can help Aunt Fanny. Things are looking up for Aunt Fanny when the twice-widowed Eugene shows up at George’s bedside (where Fanny is sitting after George’s accident) and promises to look out for both her and George, as a tribute to his late wife Isabel.
While Eugene and Aunt Fanny may not end up a romantic couple, one cannot help but feel happy for Aunt Fanny after all that she’s gone through. She may have seemed jealous and bitter, but in the end, she was just a lonely woman who desperately wanted to be with somebody and take care of them.