Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Magnificent Ambersons


Director Orson Welles

Welles on the first day of the shoot

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS                     A                                                                 USA  (88 mi)  1942  d:  Orson Welles

There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.          —Andrew Carnegie, Miscellaneous Writings of Andrew Carnegie (ed. 1933)

Something had happened.  A thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance.  He got it three times filled, and running over.  But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it.  Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.                —narration (Orson Welles)

Another astonishing artistic masterpiece produced, written, narrated, and directed by Welles, featuring his Mercury Players, which includes a legendary performance by Joseph Cotton as Eugene Morgan, an inventor with an eye on the future, yet it’s his graceful, Southern gentleman manner that so perfectly fits the style, rhythm, and mood of this film, edited with much controversy by Robert Wise, camera by Stanley Cortez, who shot in black and white, whose prior work was almost exclusively in B-pictures, set design by Mark-Lee Kirk, music written by Bernard Herrmann, though he removed his name from the credits (as did many others) after the RKO Hollywood moguls notoriously destroyed all remaining prints of the original Welles ending, which was darker and more bleak, afraid it would not suit the tastes of a wartime audience, instead re-shooting a happier tagged-on ending, where the studio heads also cut nearly 45 minutes, much of which fell on the shoulders of his editor, Robert Wise, while Welles was on a State Department good will ambassador tour of duty in Brazil, where most of the cuts and re-shoots come in the last 20-minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, viewers will never see the film Welles envisioned.  Joining the ranks of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) for the most legendary examples of destroyed studio footage, with François Truffaut calling it a “mutilated masterpiece,” while an unhappy Welles described the final 88-minute version of what was originally a 132-minute film as having “been edited by a lawnmower.”  Less than a year after the release of CITIZEN KANE (1941), a radical film showing great artistic promise, Welles found himself in catastrophic difficulties on two major productions that were taken out of his hands, JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943), where a row with RKO studio bosses led to a termination of his contract, destroying much of the original print, resulting in an entire re-editing, and IT’S ALL TRUE (1943), an unfinished Welles feature film comprising an anthology of three stories about Latin America, where Brazilian production halted after the poor audience test results from AMBERSONS, also with some at RKO concerned by the racial prevalence of black and mixed race people, actually dumping much of the negatives into the ocean, with Welles never again trusted with a major Hollywood production on his own terms, becoming an official pariah of the Hollywood system.  While KANE is bold and brash, this is a much more subtle and refined film, a painstaking reconstruction of the turn-of-the-century milieu depicted in Booth Tarkington’s 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  America had been filled with families like the Ambersons in the period after the Civil War, where the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors became enormously wealthy, but by the time Tarkington wrote the book, most of these families were in decline.  Tarkington was a friend of Welles’ father, which attracted Welles to the story partly because of the family connection, yet it also reminded him of his own Midwestern childhood, remaining surprisingly faithful to the novel except for a controversial rewritten ending, featuring the Amberson’s elegant Victorian mansion as the centerpiece of the film, the grandest home in this small, Indiana town, where the Ambersons spend much of their time sequestered inside.  Accentuating the stunning interior décors with stained glass and statues and a sweeping 3-story staircase that dazzles with exquisite detail, a haunting piece of nostalgia that is packaged in a picture post card world of ostentatious wealth on display, Welles recreates a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned way of life, a predecessor to the world depicted in Vincente Minnelli’s musical color extravaganza Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  “In those days they had time for everything,” all-day picnics in the woods, trolley cars that would wait when someone waved from the windows, Victorian high fashion, cotillion, an open house on New Year’s, a good deal of town gossip, and sleigh rides in the snowy countrysides as it sleepily makes its transition into the future during the dawn of a new era of industrialism and the coming of the automobile.  The film traces the ascent and descent of two contrasting families who diligently make the difficult choices to prepare them for the future, where one is smart, forward looking, hard working, practical and productive while attaining great success, while the other remains a relic of the past, a soap opera saga of a spoiled, rich, and pampered world where the inhabitants are ill-suited for anything except being rich.  It is their tragedy, their fall from grace, that is revealed in this small, intimate portrait of a failed American Dream.  Welles had done a radio adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons with his Mercury Theatre troupe for CBS in 1939, with Walter Huston as Eugene Morgan and Welles himself playing George Amberson Minafer, making this the only major production where Welles doesn’t star in the leading role, instead Welles poignantly narrates with humor and detail, beautifully spoken, becoming the standout characteristic of the film, intensifying the novel’s language, a glorious expression of the pain of memory.   

The film exhibits a rare and extremely sophisticated humanism from a man still in his mid 20’s, a work of moral complexity that displays a carefully calculated maturity with delicate insight, opening in a spirit of gaiety and affection on a busy street in front of the Amberson’s mansion, with horse-driven carriages and horse-driven street trolleys passing by.  Welles offers a detailed description of the times in his eloquent narration, evoking a past era when the town had yet to “spread and darken into a city,” revealing the magnificence of the Amberson’s manor, the showcase and pride of the town, with a young Eugene Morgan drunkenly stumbling in his attempt to serenade under the window of Major Amberson’s daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello, known as the Goddess of the Silent Screen and ex-wife of John Barrymore who came out of early retirement in the mid-30’s), who then refuses to see him in each subsequent attempt to bring flowers to make amends, sending the townspeople into a furious display of neighborly gossip, which reaches a feverish peak when she’s seen walking arm in arm with local merchant Wilbur Minafer.  Soon to be wed in another one of those fashionable Amberson balls, it turns into a loveless marriage where the town gossip, used in the film as a Greek chorus, suggests it will produce a spoiled offspring, diverting all that repressed marital love into a suffocating relationship with her child, which it most certainly does in the form of George Amberson Minafer, looking ever so much like Little Lord Fauntleroy, described as a “princely terror,” relying upon his wealthy status to protect him when exerting tyrannical power over the townsfolk, reeking havoc with everyone in town who would like to smack some measure of manners or decency into him, as “there were grown people that did live for hope they’d live to see the day when that boy would get his comeuppance.”  Home from his sophomore year in college, it still hadn’t happened yet, instead the family held “the last of the long-remembered dances” at the Amberson mansion in his honor, expressing fluid camera movement mixed with unforgettable interior imagery, including what was purportedly (before it was cut) his greatest single-take achievement, which allegedly ran uninterrupted for an entire fifteen minute reel, seamlessly tracking up and down the three-story staircase during the dancing sequence, capturing such an elegiac air, where the widower Eugene Morgan and his daughter Lucy (a radiantly beautiful Anne Baxter, Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter) are among the invited guests, returning to town after a twenty year absence, where George (Tim Holt, a B-Western cowboy actor) is the spitting image of spoiled privilege, a disreputable picture of arrogance and condescension, first dancing with and then seen strolling around the crowded mansion with Lucy, showing no aspirations whatsoever to pursue any profession, where at least in his mind living off the family wealth is considered a noble endeavor.  Their budding relationship, a reflection of young love, is mirrored by Eugene’s frustrated love with Isabel, which also translates to the emotionally repressed Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), Wilbur’s sister, a frequently hysterical spinster with a history of making bad investments and who harbors her own secret yearning for Eugene, but his attention is focused solely on Isabel, amicably resuming their interest as old friends.  Despite the cascading visual extravaganza on display, originally accompanied by an uninterrupted stream of music from Bernard Herrmann, using overlapping dialogue, this delightful stream of bubbly effervescence shifts the emotional dynamic on a dime, as the fate of the Amberson universe would never be the same after that night.  Morgan made quite an impression in his return and is the talk of the Ambersons afterwards, with Fanny growing flustered when accused of “ancient recollections,” while George, immediately suspicious and antagonistic, believing the automobile is a loathsome fad, assumes his only interest is borrowing money from the family, and is surprised to learn he’s made his own fortune designing a horseless carriage, the automobile, which he drives around town, even in the snow, a stark contrast to the Amberson reliance on horse-driven vehicles.  Yet one of the wondrous sequences is the countryside sleigh-ride in the snow, with George inviting Lucy into a winter wonderland while Eugene is out in his automobile but has broken down on the side of the road, with George yelling “Get a horse” as they speed past, but when they swing around a turn they both fall into the snow, rolling into each other’s arms with a kiss.  The horse runs home without them, while everyone gathers into Eugene’s contraption, with George pushing, getting a faceload of exhaust fumes, but they all ride merrily home singing songs together.  This momentous picture of innocence reveals happier times, when love is in the air, and the world is full of possibilities. 

In an ominous mood shift, Wilbur Minafer quietly passes away, handing down no fortune, where his loss will seemingly have little impact in this town, as old money was giving way to modern, technology-driven fortunes.  George, now a college graduate, is completely unaffected by his father’s death, never more coddled and catered to, seen stuffing himself afterwards with food fed by Fanny, including milk and strawberry shortcake, as Fanny plies him for all the gossip about Eugene, until interrupted by Uncle Jack, Isabel’s affable brother (Ray Collins) who is also a United States Congressman, who teases Fanny about Eugene taking a greater interest in Isabel, which sends her scurrying out of the room in embarrassment and despair.  Eugene takes the Amberson clan on a tour of his automobile factory, Isabel and Fanny wearing bonnets and lace, yet Isabel is the only one completely won over by his presentation, as the others are less than impressed, particularly George, who sees no future in the automobile.  With Eugene’s romantic interest in Isabel revitalized, she’s not ready yet to tell George, unwilling to risk his disapproval, as he continues to view Morgan as an untrusted outsider.  As if to emphasize the point, George and Lucy are driving down Main Street in a horse-driven carriage, driving through the horns and exhaust fumes of the cars driving by, with Lucy refusing his marriage proposal for the umpteenth time, as he still hasn’t decided upon a career.  George gets irritated, thinking her father has put her up to it, as if going into business is any more reputable than being an Amberson.  Eugene is an invited guest to the Amberson’s dinner table, where George is startled to learn Lucy has left town.  The discussion turns to how his invention has already changed the landscape of the country, becoming an unstoppable force.  Perhaps irritated by the news about Lucy, George butts in and rudely pronounces “Automobiles are a useless nuisance.  Never amount to anything but a nuisance and they had no business to be invented.”  This puts a pall on the conversation, leading to dead silence, out of which Eugene calmly provides the vision which all the Amberson’s lack, suggesting in time he might be inclined to agree, as they certainly “won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls,” but they’re here now and here to stay, significantly altering human behavior, which includes the ability to wage war and peace, while also influencing how mankind will think about the future.  Politely excusing himself, he departs in silence.  Uncle Jack sarcastically comments on how George has a new way of impressing a lady, by being blatantly antagonistic, deliberately offending and making an enemy of her father.  His sour disposition feels contagious, as if the entire Amberson household has become fodder for the rumor mills.  Only then does George come to realize Morgan was courting his mother, something the entire town knew before he did.  Outraged that her “good name” would be dragged through the mud, he decides to take matters into his own hands and refuses to allow Eugene to see his mother again, actually slamming the door in his face after telling him never to return.  A horrid figure that still lays claim to our sympathies, George is simply too blind and self-centered to comprehend something so foreign to him as his mother’s happiness.  “But you’re my mother.  You’re an Amberson,” still believing in the family superiority that they are somehow better than the rest, and it’s his duty, as he sees it, to guarantee it forever stays that way.  Unlike your typical audience-pleasing Hollywood love story, this film subverts the audience’s expectations, as it’s about missed opportunities with consequences elevated in grand style, using a backdrop of history to comment upon a dual series of love affairs that never happen.  In long shots, Welles makes it hard to tell the difference between the Ambersons standing around the ground floor of their home and the lifeless statues situated around them, both shadowy figures feeling like remnants of the past.  Showing just how far the rising star of Orson Welles had fallen in the eyes of the studio, the film was improbably released as part of a double bill with a Lupe Vélez movie called MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST (1942), its reputation revived by critics in the 1960’s, ranking #8 on the once in a decade BFI Sight & Sound Critic’s Poll of 1972, reaching #7 in 1982, but falling out of favor ever since, though Welles always considered it the greatest film he ever made.  A dark, character-driven study that jettisons into a downward spiral, poisoned by egotism, willfulness, and self-centeredness, this dismal turn of events circumvents any commercial aspirations the film may have had, irrespective of studio intervention, ultimately turning abysmally tragic. 

Despite the grim turn, some of the most astonishing sequences have yet to happen, starting with a study of contrasting emotions, a scene happening right on Main Street where George accidentally runs into Lucy looking absolutely stunning in her elegant hat and gloves, never looking more divine, where her bright disposition is positively angelic, smiling and beaming throughout the entire scene.  George, on the other hand, couldn’t be more glum, talking about taking a trip around the world with his mother, with no thought of ever coming back, where the idea of leaving all this behind is just killing him, but she feigns indifference and offers full unconditional support, hoping he enjoys the trip and has a wonderful time.  It’s such a pleasure watching her intelligently match wits with him, always getting the upper hand, remaining elusively just out of reach in what is a brilliantly constructed scene for its brevity and conciseness, a perfectly accurate expression of manner and tone, while George, in a scene that reveals how elitism is so self-destructive, has every reason to change his mind and offer his heart instead, but he’s too stubborn and headstrong to see the advantages of trying a different tack.  The mother and son Oedipal journey together is about what you’d expect, both running away from true love, ignoring their pleading hearts, which only speeds up the aging process, with Uncle Jack talking somberly to Eugene about Isabel’s deteriorating health, yet there’s no mention of her returning home until she is near death’s door, finally returning to the mansion in a horse-driven carriage.  Even then George refuses to allow Eugene to see her, despite that being her fondest wish, yet only upon hearing that spoken from her dying lips does he realize the enormity of his cruelty.  In short order both Isabel and Major Amberson pass away, leaving no inheritance at all, as the entire estate is worthless, where the surviving family is finally strapped for money.  Jack has to take a job in another city, where the scene with George at the train station is reminiscent of wartime farewells, using German Expressionist lighting, where after telling George what a pain in the ass he has been Jack runs off into the light seeking a better future.  In perhaps the most disconnected scene of the entire film, where the studio cuts leave it seemingly hanging on an island, literally coming out of nowhere, yet indescribably beautiful with Lucy and her father having a surreal conversation under hanging tree limbs with leaves fluttering in the breeze.  Lucy describes an allegorical Indian story about a detested chief who was pushed out of the tribe for his reckless and irresponsible behavior, literally sent out to sea alone in a canoe, never to return, revealing her somewhat ambivalent feelings for George, while George and the near delirious Fanny discuss their bleak future together living alone in a boarding house she painstakingly selected.  Fanny has come to realize she is totally dependent upon George, yet he has little affection for her.  But as fate would have it, with George contemplating working in a law office, his salary would be woefully inadequate, needing to turn instead to the most dangerous professions, like working with dangerous chemicals or in a dynamite factory.  Images of the town flash by as Welles narrates George’s final walk to the Amberson estate, shot by Welles himself with a handheld camera in the Gower Street neighborhood of Los Angeles revealing slums and brick-walled factories, feeling despondent under the changing skyline of the burgeoning town, seen praying for forgiveness in his mother’s bedroom, with the narration revealing he had finally got his comeuppance, as tomorrow they’d have to move out and everything would be gone.  It’s a poetic moment of the world caving in on someone, where once they walked upon the earth as Princes and Kings, now reduced to the rabble of ordinary working stiffs.  A newspaper headline reveals George’s dour fate, run over on the street with both legs broken in a fateful automobile accident.  The tacked on ending has Morgan and his daughter visiting George in the hospital, with Morgan pleased with himself as he walks down the hospital corridor revealing to Fanny that he has achieved a reconciliation with George, believing he has finally been able to honor his lifelong devotion to Isabel, his one true love, implying the financial security for the last of the Ambersons was assured.  In Welles’ original version, Eugene visits Fanny in a third-rate boarding house, with her long and unspoken love for him swept aside by Eugene, finding little of substance to say, with Fanny and George lost to themselves, like strangers, where Fanny has grown borderline mad, as both were completely isolated and utterly consumed by this industrialist new age, finding themselves in a very different place, mortified by a surrounding, darkened city choking on congestion and traffic, and as the camera pulls back it reveals their once magnificent home has been turned into a dilapidated boarding house filled with loud, ill-mannered, and rudely obnoxious intruders.  As Welles would describe it in interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, “Everything is over.”  Both of their worlds are finally “buried under the parking lots and the cars.  That’s what it was all about — the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age.”

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