The Magnificent Ambersons
Director: Orson Welles, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise / Screenplay: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Jack Moss (from novel by Booth Tarkington) / Editing: Robert Wise, Jack Moss, Mark Robson / DP: Stanley Cortez, Jack Mackenzie / Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Joseph Cotten / Dolores Costello / Anne Baxter / Tim Holt / Agnes Moorhead / Ray Collins / Erskine Sandford / Richard Bennett / Orson Welles
Philistines dimmed The Magnificence of the Ambersons…
Read between the lines and it’s clear that Orson Welles was bound to ‘get his comeuppance’, sooner or later. That it should occur with only his second picture, was an outcome few expected – and one that a few more definitely wanted to see…
A prodigious theatrical & radio-dramatist both cursed & blessed with an embarrassment of talent, by the time he was just 23, Welles was building a name for himself as an artistic innovator. From directing a string of successful stage shows in New York, he – along with John Houseman – had formed The Mercury Theatre; a tight-knit company of players which, in 1937, had secured a weekly drama slot on CBS. Just a few months later, in early ‘38, Mercury would secure its place in radio history. Welles had written an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds and Mercury’s live performance of the material was so compelling (including as it did, fake witness reports of newly-landed Martians ‘wreaking havoc’) as to interest Hollywood.
In the end, it would be moribund RKO Pictures, under new studio head George Schaefer, who’d jump first with a contract, offering Welles a two-picture deal. Schaefer’s remit promised to avoid making the same old ‘pot-boilers’ of the past, in favour of pictures conceived and made to a higher standard. It was hoped therefore, that Welles (among other key signings) would bring the required magic.
As if anyone need reminding, no amount of talent guarantees success, especially in the movie business, where countless underdogs have flourished alongside well-resourced failures, as if merely to prove the point. That said, with his first feature Citizen Kane (1941), Welles DID manage to capture lightning-in-a-bottle. Long-regarded by critics & polls alike as ‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’, ‘Kane innovated on several fronts. First, it used a non-linear narrative structure and added innovative camera positions & set-ups that established directors before him, either hadn’t conceived or been ‘allowed’ to use.
If you’ve never seen ‘Kane, I urge you to, if only to see what all the fuss has been about these past 75 years… I’ve seen it more times than I can remember and it still dazzles me how this young, inexperienced film-maker managed to push the medium so far. By his own admission, Welles ‘knew nothing’ about cinema – or the ‘language of film’ – when he began ‘Kane and came to rely on the advice of DP Gregg Toland. It sounds a terrifying prospect, but as Welles himself explained in later interviews, his ignorance was an advantage, as it meant he had no conception of what was – and wasn’t – possible. He would work with Toland to achieve on-film, as close to the vision in his head, as could be reached; viewed like that, the process appears almost liberating!
It’s little wonder that Welles ruffled the feathers of the old guard. This ‘blow-in’ from the stage & radio – had made them look amateurish at his first attempt… So, when it came to his second picture for RKO, it’s fair to say that some, both within and without, were on their mettle & keen to spot chinks in the Wunderkind’s armour.
Not that he did himself any favours in his choice of material: an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons. The book uses the development of an automobile business, by an engineer-cum-industrialist over a span of thirty-odd years, as a catalyst for the emergence of a brash, despoiled & ‘modern’ industrialised society that threatens to sweep aside the old, patrician order (much like Welles himself with Hollywood). Throw-in a little thwarted love and allusions to classical mythology and before you know it, a few hallowed walls are crashing-down, in this late-Edwardian lament…
Tarkington might’ve been writing in 1918, about the automobile’s disruptive influence, but across the pond in Europe, the First World War was still burning-through an entire generation of young men and respected neither class nor privilege. As a result, I DO think Tarkington was drawing analogous comparisons to the European catastrophe, using the rise of the automobile as metaphor.
So to the film itself. As I’ll explain later, the version that survives today is somewhat butchered from Welles’ original cut, but what remains is presented here, as a crisply-remastered print courtesy of the Criterion Collection. I’d not had an opportunity to view the picture to this point, but having now seen their sympathetic presentation of what’s left of Welles’ picture, I can’t help but feel aggrieved over what’s been lost.
From Welles’ opening narration, as he talks of how a lady might once have hailed a horse-drawn streetcar from her bedroom window, to the point where she runs-out to board it, he holds his camera square-on to the house, so we can see the action play out, synchronised to the speech. So many details, even here: from the bump in the road, that preoccupies the other passengers while they wait for the lady, to the horse’s impatience to be off, Welles’ open lens sees all. It’s so simple, yet deceptively elegant at setting tone & mood; a light-hearted opening to a surprisingly dark film.
Cleverly, in shifting from the streetcar to watching Eugene Morgan don a variety of stylish clothes, Welles has moved from anonymity to a specific character, whom we now follow as he serenades a girl with a band. Things don’t go well. Gene trips and unceremoniously flattens his bass-fiddle, leading to the girl Isabel Amberson (a wishy-washy Dolores Costello) passing-over this apparent klutz, in-favour of the anodyne Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway as a convincing, pencil-necked dweeb). He won’t be falling onto a musical instrument and embarrassing all and sundry, anytime soon: appearances really ARE everything. Come to think of it, Wilbur and Isabel deserve each other…
Thanks to a Chorus of townsfolk, who chime-in with background detail, we learn this: that Isabel, only daughter of Major Amberson (the expressive Richard Bennett), belongs to the wealthiest family in the town, occupying the grandest house. Opinion also has it, that she’s unlikely to exchange much love with Wilbur, so her affections will end-up going into her children, making them the most spoiled brats in the whole town. In the end, as the Narrator has it, ‘the prophetess was wrong in one detail only: Isabel had no children but a single child: George’.
In this young incarnation, George Amberson-Minafer is indeed a spoiled, effeminately-dressed brat, who enjoys driving his pony & trap with reckless abandon about the town and getting into fisticuffs with anyone he takes a dislike to.
He does this, because he can.
Because he has ineffectual & indulgent parents who, rather than punishing George, simper over his worst transgressions. I think both the book & Welles’ adaptation are telling us something here, about the fecklessness of the upper classes; their indifference to a society on the brink of fundamental change (appearances over substance, remember). It’s little wonder, that one of the Chorus is heard to wish for George’s ‘comeuppance’.
It’s coming, old-timer. But probably not in your lifetime…
So George goes off to college and returns in his sophomore year, still driving about like a forerunner of Mr. Toad. There’s to be a ball in his honour at the Amberson’s mansion. The Narrator tells us that ‘cards had gone out’ for ‘one of those pageants for the tenantry’. It’s here, that Isabel meets Eugene again, after a gap of 20 years (Wilbur’s nowhere to be seen, preferring the billiard room or somesuch) and she’s clearly thrilled to see him, as is George when introduced to Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter). At this stage, the writing’s deliberately cagey as George & Lucy work each other out, with George unaware either of Gene’s significance to his mother, or the fact that Lucy is Gene’s daughter (he repeatedly calls Gene a ‘queer looking duck’).
Tim Holt played the adult George and was a surprising casting choice, having come-up through a string of Westerns, but I think he gets mileage out of an unsympathetic part. Neither could I recall seeing Anne Baxter in many pictures before now, but she’s unafraid to go toe-to-toe with Holt in their scenes together and imbues Lucy with a real fire; going along with George’s demands only to a point.
The ballroom scene has been lauded as a triumphant piece of film-making and I can see why. Here’s an example: Welles’ has his camera advance whilst looking-backwards as Gene & Isabel waltz forward. They then peel-off to the side, replaced by George & Lucy who dance towards the still-moving camera. The camera then stops, at the moment when they rest at a table, still in-focus. This shot – this single take, remember – then continues, as Lucy asks George what he’s studying at college. He answers: ‘Some useless guff!’ This is disappointing to Lucy, who’s been studying this man all evening, perhaps wondering if this young buck harbours a radical vision to rival that of her father’s. When she asks what it is that he wants to do, George replies ‘A Yachtsman!’ as though it’s the most reasonable ambition in the world. Instantly, both Lucy – and us – see him as deluded. All along, George has been carrying himself as if possessing some ‘inside knowledge’, yet close inspection reveals himself to be little more than a dilettante, insulated by money and free of meaningful responsibilities. The boy has not yet become a man, after all. Welles knows this answer to be the landmine it truly is, because after registering the disillusionment on Lucy’s face, he has the camera stay-put, as George pulls her back into the dance. For someone who, not long before, confessed to being ‘bored’ by the whole thing to suddenly drag them both back into the fray, tells us that he’s secretly embarrassed at her reaction and wants to dance it away. Maybe… In any event, it’s a mesmerising piece of film-making.
Lucy & Gene are last to leave; that in itself, is telling, for Gene & Isabel have reignited their spark and Lucy’s allowing herself to give George another chance; acquiescing to his strangely precise request demand that he collect her at ‘ten-past-two’ the following afternoon in ‘the Cutter’ (a horse-drawn sleigh). This excursion will coincide with a trip for the other Ambersons, in Gene’s new-fangled motor-car, out in a snowy landscape. Bernard Herrmann’s score bristles with energy here, as he flips between glockenspiel & sleigh-bells whilst seeing the Cutter glide about the snowy lane and urgent, stabbing strings as Welles quick-cuts with Gene’s motor-car.
When I first saw this sequence, with the actors’ breaths visible in the cold, I took it to be a conventional exterior location, so imagine my amazement on-learning that Welles shot in an ice-making factory!
Naturally, there’s an accident, as George’s Cutter flips-over on a tight bend. His reward? Aside from forcing a kiss out of Lucy, Gene gets him to push the stuck automobile from deep snow. As we see George cough in the machine’s exhaust, what is Welles telling us? It’s as though the infernal machine knows that the age of the horse is over. George might be choking on its fumes, but he’s just as antiquated! Secondly, it’s a rebuttal to George’s comments back at the Ball when, having learnt of Gene’s profession, he dismisses the whole idea of the car, wishing it’d never been invented: with every puff of exhaust pushed into George’s face, the automobile is having the last laugh. This theme – of a Canute-like inability to hold back progress – is one that George clings to, once his father dies…
Then Wilbur dies off-screen. The Chorus: ‘Wilbur Minafer. Quiet man. Town’ll hardly know he’s gone.’
And neither does the film.
Thus endeth Act One. The next, begins with a revelatory scene in the Amberson’s kitchen, when George parries leading questions from Wilbur’s sister, Aunt Fanny (the shimmering Agnes Moorhead). Now employed as the housekeeper (in order to save money), Fanny’s asking what news George has of Gene, given that his connection with Lucy ensures he sees more of Gene than anyone else. This somehow dissolves into yet more bickering between them; not the first time that Fanny has let slip to George more than is wise…
Thus armed, he’ll use it to wound: but against Gene more than anyone else. There’s a memorable outburst at a dinner party held for the Morgans, when George tears-into Gene for having contributed to the ‘end’ of their quiet town with his ‘wretched’ automobile. You see, Dear Reader, he might be talking about Gene’s motor-car as being the harbinger of doom, but what he’s actually saying is something else entirely… I’ll say no more.
After that, there’s another death in the family to go through. Then a third and, yes, George does indeed ‘get his comeuppance’, ‘three-times filled and running over’. At which point, I’ll leave the film with this observation: if its last act seem a little ‘odd’ to you, as if out of kilter with what’s gone before, then you’re not wrong to think it.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, occurred during the film’s production and threw the USA into World War 2. What’d begun as a period piece, looking at the almost trivial fall of a global elite, was now in-danger of being out of step with the public mood: and RKO knew it.
Although production on Ambersons continued into January, Welles was asked by a newly-formed branch of the State Department, charged with improving bilateral relations with neighbouring countries, to travel to Rio de Janeiro and film its carnival, as part of a concerted effort to sway local opinion away from siding with the Axis Powers. In order to arrive in-time for carnival, Welles would have to leave within a week of wrapping on Ambersons…
With the Director away on State-Department business, what better opportunity for the ‘Old Guard’ I spoke of at the outset, to meddle with the film? A test-screening of Welles’ first cut scored badly and triggered a studio-led rethink of the picture, under Welles’ editor Robert Wise and producer Jack Moss. As ever, it’s hindsight that reveals the film to have been (deliberately?) shown to an inappropriate audience (of teens, apparently). The outcome was already planned-for; the studio would get there, one way or another…
The result? The loss of around 45 minutes from Welles’ cut, with the dismembered remains lumbered with a hastily-shot, more optimistic ending that even looks out-of-step with the rest of the picture. In perhaps the most egregious act of cultural vandalism, RKO then sanctioned the dumping of Welles’ excised material into the Pacific…
It was common practice to dump surplus cans of (flammable nitrate) film out-at-sea, but Welles was no ordinary director and even an executive such as Schaefer could see that. He fought for the trimmings’ preservation, thinking that Welles might make a more authoritative re-cut on his return from Brazil. The studio even sent a work-print out to Rio, for Welles to tinker with, but it seems that was a fig-leaf; a gesture to preserve their modesty, for none of Welles’ notes were, it seems, ever acted upon. One tragedy among many is that, with every year that passes, it seems increasingly likely that the missing footage really is gone and not squirrelled away in some vault – or someone’s garage.
‘They’ wanted him – and Schaefer – out and, after this experience, Welles’ might’ve been forgiven for reaching a similar conclusion. That he subsequently disowned the film is understandable. After all, a good chunk of it, isn’t even his! He wasn’t alone: in solidarity with his friend & Director, composer Bernard Herrmann asked for his name to be withdrawn from the credits…
Yet few observers back then, could’ve predicted just how far from Grace, Welles’s career would end-up falling. For the rest of his life, he’d be scratching-about for funding with which to make pictures and, when a budget was approved, the numbers were always lower, along with his expectations (if not his ambition). By the time he was advertising Campari, towards the end of his life, Welles had become a Falstaffian caricature; a cautionary tale to chill the blood of every aspiring auteur to graduate from film school.
In retrospect, Welles was right to call Ambersons his most personal film as few others took their public comeuppance with such grace and acceptance. Still fewer, kept trying against-the-odds to prove their worth, against a system that wanted to shut them out. Oh, for what might’ve been!
Don’t strike me down twice, Dear. This time, I’ll not have deserved it.