Monday, 9 April 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Dir. Orson Welles
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt

There is a strange conceit at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons. Instead of written credits, there is a voice over named the cast and crew. The final words of the film, therefore, are: “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles…”

Mr Welles should maybe have not been so quick to put his name to the film. This, his second directorial effort (after Citizen Kane) is a ponderous, turgid affair. It tells the story of the lordly Amberson family – aristocracy almost in their provincial ‘midland’ town (hell, in his younger days 'Georgie' almost looks the spit of Sun King Louis XIV with his ringlets and velvet). Founded in their splendour (or ‘magnificence’) by one generation – the Major (Richard Bennett) – the family fortune decays away in the lifetime of his grandson George (Tim Holt). By the end of the film George is working for hazard pay in industry, his paternal aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorhead) is slightly deranged and playing bridge in a boarding house, and his maternal uncle Jack (Ray Collins) is away working. His father has died, his mother has died, and his grandfather has died. The grand Amberson mansion has been vacated and they have a bare handful of scraped together dollars to sustain them.

Time has passed them by. And this is something the film handles well. It raises a wry eyebrow at the passing fads of fashion and fancy. Welles’ own narration early in the film sets the scene as a time when “there were seen men of all ages to whom a hat meant only that rigid, tall silk thing known to impudence as a stovepipe. But the long contagion of the derby had arrived. One season the crown of this hat would be a bucket; the next it would be a spoon. Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-top boots gave way to shoes and congress gaiters, and these were played through fashions that shaped them now with toes like box ends, and now with toes like the prows of racing shells.” Certainly with the shoes he could be almost talking about today. Fashion flitted by, and the Ambersons’ moment in the sun proved too just to be one of those fashions. They rose; they would also fall. Such is the passing of the ages. It is almost elegiac. And the midland town around which once they swaggered changed too: “the town was growing… changing… it was heaving up in the middle, incredibly; it was spreading incredibly. And as it heaved and spread it befouled itself and darkened its skies.”

There are two things that prove to be more than just passing fashions. The first is the horseless carriage: the automobile. Eugene Morris (Joseph Cotten, serial collaborator of Welles) is an inventor. We first see him with a primitive steam-powered model. When he returns to town after twenty years he has a hand-cranked version with an internal combustion engine. He perfects it further; he builds a factory to churn out his automobiles. It is the automobile that changes the town. They shorten distances; they help the town spread to the county limits. And, as the Major and Jack recognise, as the town spreads the property values of the current residential areas such as Amberson Addition are undercut. Through his invention, his industry, and his ability to spot a rising trend, Eugene becomes a rich man; conversely the Ambersons, through lethargy, laziness and bad investments impoverish themselves. The old world of respect for names is eclipsed by the new world of self-made men.

The second is love. As a young man Eugene had wooed Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). She rebuffed him and married instead Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway); George Amberson Minafer was their issue. Eugene left, married, had a daughter, and became a widower. Upon his return it is obvious that the intervening years have not lessened his and Isabel’s ardour for each other. After Wilbur’s death they spend more and more time with each other. They plan to marry. But George forbids it. George, the spoiled brat of the start of the film, has become a conceited young prig of a man. He is horrified that the town gossips are suggesting that his mother still loved Eugene, even when she was married to his father. He sends Eugene away, and takes his mother off to Europe. The irony, of course, is that a union with the by-now wealthy industrialist would have solved any financial problems the Ambersons had. But to George the family name is more important than the sordid world of trade (when he is asked what he wants to do with his life he replies that he does not intend to go into a business or profession at all). George, too, finds love, of a sort, with Eugene’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). When he tells her he is going to Europe he clearly, desperately, wants her to feel something. Instead she smiles and laughs and prattles on. It is only when he walks off that her face crumples into an abject mask of misery and she runs into a nearby druggist, where she faints. She later, in one of the best-written scenes, talks to her father about a local Indian legend of a young chieftain who was so arrogant and dictatorial that his tribe rebelled, loaded him into a canoe, and let him drift all the way out to sea. It was only when he was gone that they realised that no other individual could ever have taken that chief’s place. It is clear that she is discussing, in a coded way, her feelings for George.

George, the horrid child, the swollen-headed Bullingdon Club-ber, is forced to taste the fruits of his youth. He actually grows up. He realises that $8 a week will not be enough to support himself and his aunt, so he refuses an entry into the legal profession in favour of working in a hazardous industry (he mentions working with dynamite) where the pay is better. He makes sacrifices to support his aunt. When at last all the vestiges of nobility have been stripped away from him, he finally learns to act nobly. He receives the “comeuppance” his childhood contemporaries had prayed for. “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.”

And then he is knocked down by a car. He breaks his legs. Eugene Morgan goes to see him in hospital. Eugene takes care of everything. And so, a happy ending. Even Fanny, who we were led to believe had harboured feelings for Eugene for years, is happy. What just happened there? I’ll tell you what just happened: Orson Welles went to Brazil. While away his work was edited and re-edited in Hollywood. He tried to exercise some control by phone and telegram from Brazil, but the studio made excisions. They reinserted scenes he had cut. And they completely reshot the ending. In the final edit that survives, Eugene goes to see the dying Isabel upon her return but is turned away by Ambersons saying that the doctor recommends she have quiet. In Welles’ original George and Fanny continued to conspire to keep him from her. And in Welles’ original audiences could see the decaying Amberson mansion, and could see a passive Fanny in her boarding house. The studio reshot scenes to give it a more happy ending (in this the studio were actually closer to the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington from which the story was adapted). Fanny, who appeared raving and mad in one scene is now smiling contentedly in the finale. Furthermore Major Amberson just vanishes; the screen simply fades to black part way through a rambling speech. He never reappears. In fact George never reappears after he leaves the legal office. We simply see a crowd around a car crash, read about him in the newspaper, and then hear Eugene speaking about going to see him. Frankly, the way the ending has been cobbled together it would be like Casablanca's Rick and Ilsa vanishing off screen prior to the final airfield scene and instead having Renard sat at a desk talking about how Rick insisted on her getting on the plane and that they would be leaving together shortly. But test screenings showed mostly poorly whatever they did. It was released to no great fanfare (though Welles and Moorhead were both nominated for Oscars) and made a $600,000 loss on a $1 million budget, much as Welles’ previous effort, Citizen Kane, had made a loss. Yes, Citizen Kane, which regularly tops lists of the greatest movies ever made, was a flop. So was The Magnificent Ambersons. What was released was not what Orson Welles had wanted to release but, removed to Rio, was unable to prevent. But his name was all over it. He personally felt that Ambersons ruined him; as late as the 1970s he was hoping to get the surviving cast together to shoot extra footage and ‘fix’ the film. Certainly comparing 1942’s limited black and white story of the Ambersons with 1939’s epic Technicolor Gone With the Wind leaves this looking distinctly, drearily, third-rate.

And so George is left with Sweet Fanny Amberson
The Amberson / Minafers before they have to leave their mansion

 In the end, both the strengths and also many of the weaknesses of The Magnificent Ambersons come from its genesis as a novel. The elegiac narration about the passing of time and the changing of the seasons and the endless parades of fads and fashions is lovely; so too is Lucy’s parable about the Indian chief. These feel as though they were chunks of text lifted straight from the novel. But the film keeps too closely to its literary origins. Its reliance upon Welles’s narration and upon a chorus of behatted townsfolk passing comment upon every action makes the film appear too much like a literary adaptation rather than a stand-alone movie in its own right. I just get the feeling that, if I had read the book, I would find it an improvement over the film.

What have I learnt about Indiana?
The state is never mentioned. It is only at the end that we see a copy of the Indianapolis Daily Inquirer (which, incidentally, was one of the newspapers in Charles Foster Kane’s stable). This sites the pleasant midland town that became a sprawling, befouled, industrial city: Indianapolis. And one of Indianapolis’s big industries in the early years of the 20th century was indeed automobile manufacture, a link that still survives in its fame as a motor-racing venue. So presumably the city saw men of business and industry rise in wealth and status around the turn of the century at the expense of the elder gentry of the county. Mind you, these gentry themselves had risen from somewhere: as Lucy tells us, once the grove of trees in her garden was the heart of an Indian tribe. And whatever happened to them?

Furthermore, from how it is depicted in the film, one would imagine that the winters can be very bitter.

Can we go there?
Indianapolis is the largest city in Indiana, and lies right at the heart of the state. Its motoring heritage is still preserved at the museum of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In particular the refined circles that the Ambersons move in was based by original author Booth Tarkington upon the sort of society he knew growing up in the late-19th century residential area of Woodruff Place, one mile east of the centre. Woodruff Place is now on the United States’ National Register of Historic Places.

That being said, the movie was shot entirely in California. The wonderful exterior town scenes and the mighty three-storey set that served as the Amberson Mansion were created on the RKO Ranch at Encino. The winter scene did use real snow, and it was filmed at the Ice & Cold Storage Company at 400 S Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Overall rating: 1/5 

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