Fanny hasn’t got much in her life …. Really don’t know of anything much Fanny has got, except her feeling about Eugene.” — Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons) — Best Supporting Actress of 1942

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons: better, pre-Endora days

It’s a shame that Agnes Moorehead is best remembered – or maybe only remembered by most – for her flamboyant portrayal of Endora on the hackneyed TV program Bewitched. It’s a testament to her talent that, somehow, she sparkled on that small screen debacle despite the wooden dialogue, groan-worthy and lusterless jokes, and paint-by-the-numbers sitcom plots. Kids who grew up watching Moorehead’s Endora in reruns (like myself) often don’t realize that she had a long and distinguished career as a supporting actor in movies, television, and radio.

Moorehead tried to make a break into Hollywood early in her career, but casting agents took one look at her unconventional, almost vulpine features and passed, opting to continue looking for the next Miriam Hopkins or Jean Harlow. It wasn’t until she hooked up with Orson Welles, whose greatest talent may have been identifying talent in unlikely places and knowing how to exploit that talent to fulfill his artistic vision, that she found her entrée into Hollywood. Following Welles from the Mercury Theater for Citizen Kane, she found a new success in film. Welles understood the depth of her talent and knew how to turn what others called physical disadvantages into advantages. She appeared in several of Welles’ early films and went on to become a fixture in Hollywood, appearing in dozens of features.

After her first role as Charles Foster Kane’s stoic mother, Welles cast her as Aunt Fanny in his ill-fated second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a chronicle of a turn-of-the-century aristocratic family of the Midwest who struggle to adapt to an industrial modern world. Ambersons was another Hollywood horror story for Welles. Annoyed with the long run time and downbeat ending, RKO executives authorized an edit that clopped off close to an hour and added a re-shot ending. What we have left is a bare remnant of what was probably a masterful film, possibly the best American movie ever made.

Moorehead with Joseph Cotton

In the movie, Fanny is the spinster aunt of the Amberson family, at once content with her social position as a member of the family, yet bitter over her unmarried status. She is especially stung by the unreciprocated affections of local industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), who has instead nursed a love for her married sister-in-law (Dolores Costello).

Moorehead exhibits remarkable emotional range, some of which are hauntingly unforgettable – from a giggly coquette to a scheming woman scorned to a broken woman resigned to a new life of poverty. Her hysterical breakdown at the end of the movie is her most famous scene of the movie and, since the Academy eats up stuff like this, probably got her an Oscar nomination. But pay attention to her work in more restrained scenes, like when she serves her spoiled nephew George an impromptu meal in the kitchen. While she tries to casually pump George for information about Eugene, her motherly instincts kick in and she gently chides him for gobbling down his food too fast. The way she delivers her lines feels remarkably natural, especially for the sometimes stiff, formal acting style popular in Hollywood at the time. In this particular scene we feel like we’re actually watching a meal that Welles secretly filmed.

It’s scenes like these, along with the emotionally crushing (and flashier) scenes, that make Agnes Moorehead my choice for the best supporting actress of 1942. And if you don’t believe me, check out Moorehead’s most famous scene here . Tragically, Welles apparently claimed that Moorehead’s best scene ended up on the cutting room floor during RKO’s mutilation of the movie. Damn you RKO…

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Fanny hasn’t got much in her life …. Really don’t know of anything much Fanny has got, except her feeling about Eugene.” — Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons) — Best Supporting Actress of 1942

  1. Great piece, Jason, and I do agree it is such a shame this film was so badly mutilated. Agree that Moorehead is great in what remains anyway, and that scenes like the one where she is encouraging Tim Holt to eat are even better than the famous hysterical scene – I also really like her understated performance as the mother in ‘Our Vines Have Tender Grapes’ in 1945. I did vote for Gladys Cooper in ‘Now, Voyager’ as my favourite supporting role from 1942 over at Wonders, but on another day I might go for Moorehead.

    • That’s the problem with these sorts of endeavors. Our favorites change. One day Agnes Moorehead, the next could be Gladys Cooper. I don’t think this choice will change for me as Moorehead stands out well above everyone else for me, but don’t think I don’t look at some of my choices from the 1930s and wonder what I was thinking. And sometimes I’ve seen films I hadn’t had a chance to see and decide they definitely have a place on a previous top ten list I already wrote. Well, I’ve got about 40, 50 years left of writing time. Plenty of time to go back and get it right.

  2. Yep, before reading this post I only knew her as Endora. Props to you for using “vulpine”, and thanks for the introduction to Moorehead’s film career!

  3. Wonderful writing in a glorious defense of one of the greatest of all supporting performance (heck 1942 had two of em with Moorehead and Raines) She did some great things later but what she accomplished in this film is her piece de resistance.

  4. I’d heard that this film had been mangled before release. Shame. I’ll have to take a look at it now on your recommendation.

    My first and so far only encounter with Moorehead was as the ‘calve’s foot jelly woman’ in “Pollyanna”. It was only later that I understood who she was and the career she’d had beforehand.

    • I can’t say I love the movie, but it should be seen by anyone who cares anything about movies and their history. You should definitely see it, but always remember gaps in tone and narrative may have been caused by the studio’s mutilation.

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