View Full Version : The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

03-23-2005, 02:09 PM
For reasons I'll not get into I am reading a biography on the life of Orson Welles called Rosebud (David Thompson). Reading through it I felt a bug biting me. I kept glancing over to see my DVD of Citizen Kane still waiting to be watched (I still had the Roger Ebert commentary to sit through). It was already past 3 AM and I figured perhaps I should hold off on Kane. Reading the book, and the few passages of the film that are mentioned, I knew exactly what was being talked about. I realized that I think I've grasped Kane, granted I've only seen the film about 6 or 7 times, but I don't think any details have really slipped by me. Thompson makes an interesting case that Mankiewicz's script for Kane isn't so much about William Randolph Hearst, as it is about Welles himself. Certainly parallels can be made between the frantic young Kane starting the Inquirer and the tireless Welles bouncing from radio to stage, writing and rewriting a new script a week. I still managed to pass on re-watching Kane.

Then I progressed through the book, and Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons was the topic of discussion. I started reading and realized that I hadn't fully grasped this film. I had seen Ambersons twice before, the last time being at least 3 or 4 years ago (maybe even longer). I focused primarily on the narrative, although I was able to pay attention to the lighting the second time. I didn't watch for editing, didn't pay much attention to deep focus composition, and didn't watch to see those characteristic long Wellesian takes. So there I read, hearing at once the brilliance and the tragedy of the most famously butchered film in Hollywood history (with Greed as the toughest contender).

Again the bug was biting me to watch this film, there was more on it's side than Kane had. I finished my chapter and flipped a coin, and it said "watch the film". I dug it out, and popped it in. My audio wasn't too great and the picture quality was about as good as a VHS tape recorded from TV could get, but I didn't care. I had fogotten so much of this film (granted reading Thompson I was being reminded). The opening credits were much the same as Kane, although the title of the film wasn't quite as overwhelming as the screen filling Citizen Kane. The narration makes the film sound like some nostalgiac love letter to the past.

The opening is brisk, Welles quickly breezes through years and fashion, with Joseph Cotten being his model for the latest wears. We start to believe that perhaps this was a better time, one where running water was a luxury. What transpires though is that that wasn't a better time. Sure it was a slower pace, and people had time for things like sleigh rides, balls, and walks through the garden, but so what? The world Booth Tarkington is describing is a relic, one that shuns progress and invention and "modern" ideas. Welles makes sure that we dislike George Amberson Minafer, right from the get-go. A demon on wheels, horsewhipping townspeople as he drives past them. It doesn't help Minafer that he begins the film with long blonde curls, that just screams "someone beat the shit out of me please". Our first look at George the adult (played by Tim Holt, although Welles had previously played the role for a Mercury radio program) confirms our dislike. The shot is nearly repeated from the first shot of the child, and although the curls are gone, in it's place is a fully grown arrogant menace.

George becomes a model for all spoiled children. His mother babies him constantly, even on her death bed. George is used to it, accustomed to it, and as the later part of the film suggests, he can't do without it. His grandfather Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) is treated as an ATM machine. George spends his money and really has no idea where it comes from. When asked what he wants to do in life he replies he doesn't want a profession, he wants to do his part for charity and take up whatever causes interest him. Clearly this is a man worth laughing at for his ignorance. He is well aware that his family is the envy of the neighborhood, in many ways more aware of it than the neighborhood, but he never stopped to wonder how they got there. George knows nothing of money, just how to spend it, and at his rate there might not be much left to spend.

Although George is made to be the eventual victim of the film, and clearly the film could have had a sound ending as he sits alone in the vacant Amberson mansion the night before they're selling it as Welles' narrator says "He got his comuppance, three times filled, and running over". Truth is though, George isn't the victim or someone to pity. I must say I'm glad he got his, he deserved it, lord knows he was selfish, arrogant, and stubborn enough the entire film to deserve massive retribution, I consider it justice. The victim of the film is Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). She is taunted and teased the entire film, and when the Amberson's glory fades, it is only her and George that have to endure it. She lost all her money as well, and she didn't deserve it. She was sensible, she had some understanding of finance, and she wasn't selfish and self centered like George. Fanny remains about the most generous character in the household, and she doesn't deserve the treatment she gets throughtout. Moorehead on the other hand, was well received for her work here, winning the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review award for best actress, and pulling a best supporting actress nomination at the Academy that year.

I don't think that the film is really a remarkable achievement in terms of makeup. Cotten looks the same in the last glorious final shot as he does in the beginning modelling a stove-pipe hat. Despite a clear passage of time, most characters seem to look the same throughout the film. Granted this isn't exactly a flaw in the film, but we can't exactly say it's perfect with this handicap though can we?

Reading information about the original cut, which was some 40 minutes longer, I found that people were bored to tears with the original cut. No amount of trimming or reshooting could make this film fly by. There are scenes and passages that leap across the screen, and there are simple scenes that seem to take hours to get through. Even on a third viewing I noticed the pacing was off, and it is numbingly slow at parts, particularly the "what does this have to do with anything" scene where Lucy (Anne Baxter) is telling her father of the Indian name of her garden. Ironic that in all the cutting that went into the film this useless scene stayed in.

There are useful scenes however, or at least noteworthy scenes that managed to stay in. The longest shot in the film comes in the nearly lost srawberry shortcake sequence, where George and Fanny are in the kitchen. Here is where we learn of Fanny's great culinary skills, and George's tactless manner. Despite being a "gentleman" George eats like a horse, and doesn't usually wait until he's done chewing to start talking. The shot has very little camera movement, but it does involve some choreography, as well as the arrival of Jack (Ray Collins). I wonder how many pieces of shortcake Holt had to eat in filming this scene, because he eats it all in the shot that's in the film, not just little nibbles.

Like Kane this film is remarkable in its sets. The approved budget of this film kept ballooning because Welles wanted as much authenticity as possible. These interior scenes are again not conventional sets, the ceiling is prsent in almost all the shots, one of the innovations of Kane. Welles also likes to move between rooms and hallways in his mansion, enabling a real mansion to be used in the film. Perhaps it was his "artistry" or like George he had no concept of money, he just knew how to spend it. In this regard George is even more like Welles than Kane was. Perhaps Welles was predicting his own doom, but he was about to get his comuppance, primarily with this film. Reading about the editing of the film, I realized that Welles could have saved this picture, but he didn't care. He got bored easily and while the film was being edited, he was too busy living it up in Rio "filming" It's All True. He trusted his editors and tried communicating via lenghty cables, but was never available on the phone, and his contract which was revised after Kane's failure didn't give him final cut regardless. Welles had a way of getting what he wanted though, so if he had been more presuasive he certainly could have saved his film, but that brings about another mystery of the film.

I once wandered what the film's missing 40 minutes would do to it. Would that make this sometimes incoherent film make sense, would it fill the missing gaps and make it the realized masterpiece that everyone seems to think it is? Or would this film just be longer, make less sense, and be even slower paced than before. Watching it again I realized that it is pretty economical, I can't tell whether the film "needs" any more scenes. Thompson however brings about the best point I can find, when he says that "Suppose it had been finished - at two hours and twelve minutes - lovely, sad, perfect - would we thinkg of it so much? Or do we especially treasure the things lost?" I couldn't agree more, had the film been complete, it would most likely be taken for granted, considered an inferior follow up, or just another in a string of Welles films. It wouldn't hold the myth that it does, which is arguably the strongest feature of the film.

Despite the Academy nominated cinematography by up and comer Stanley Cortez being remarkable as it is, even up to Greg Toland's exceptional standards set in Kane, Welles didn't like him. Toland though the same way Welles did, and explaining shots took no time for Toland, which in some ways spoiled Welles for this, and future films. He was constantly bashing Cortez and even had him replaced at the very end of the film. Cortez, as battered as he may have been at the hands of Welles could at least thank him for giving him industry recognition and leading to a long career as an A list DP. Although there was no term for it yet, noir is the style of the film. Actors are constantly in darkness and it makes you wonder that in the biggest mansion in town, surely the Ambersons of all people could afford to light the place up every so often right?

It doesn't matter, the darkness is what gives the film its character. The film's story is dark, so why should the film itself be dark? The darkness however was what made the film a gauranteed failure. While the film was still being made Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the public wanted uplifting films (as many people commented on early previews). Not surprising the dated and rather weak Mrs. Minniver won the best picture Oscar that year, but that's what the public wanted. No one in 1942 wanted to see a gloomy dark film about a spoiled rich kid who believes automobiles had no business being invented. So at 132 minutes or 88 minutes this film was going to fail, and fail it did.

Let's talk about the music for a minute. The score was again performed by Bernard Herrmann and although it might not be as memorable as Kane, it is a perfect companion piece to it (as this film is in so many other aspects). One particular sequence where the film diverges from most conventional movie music is when George and Lucy are on a sleigh ride and Eugene is trying to start his "horseless carriage". Herrmann's music is that of sleigh bells and really Christmas music in the shots of George and Lucy. When the action cuts to Eugene however all we hear is the sound of his poor engine trying to get started. The background music doesn't get quieter, it stops entirely. Many passages in the film are silent, and that violates the most essential of classic Hollywood music. Hermann was going to have a long career in Hollywood, and this was him at the beginning allowing himself to try new things, and being forever encouraged by Welles, who let the composer in while the script was still being written. Herrmann was involved creatively with the music, not just assigned by the studio to provide a score. He was one of the Mercury players, doing the music for their radio shows back in NYC, so by this point he was practically family to the group.

Emotional power is not usually somethign associated with Welles and his work, but there are two utterly heart breaking scenes in this film. The first comes when George confronts Lucy before he is goign away on his trip around the world. Lucy is as uncaring as it seems humanly possible, in fact it is inhuman. She sits there smiling at George saying "have a nice trip" as he's telling her that he'll probably never see her again. I sat there wondering how she could possibly be that cruel, but as we find out once George leaves, she does care. Perhaps she cares too much, but she has to let George go, and it nearly kills her in the process. In some ways she anticipates the Setsuko Hara of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, a daughter more content to stay with her father than marry, even if she is in love.

That seems to be a great theme in Ambersons about misunderstanding and stubborness allowing for bad timing and unnecessary suffering. George makes life harder for Eugene and his mother (Dolores Costello), and Isabel's weakness to tell her son "no" makes her suffer. She also does plenty of damage to George with her neverending babying. In fact George even being a Minafer is the result of unnecessary stubborness at the hands of Isabel. Sure Eugene got a little drunk, but surely it was something to be forgiven. Then would George have been the way he was, or would Lucy have even been born? We would be eliminating most of our story, granted we might have another one, but this early scene establishes that the people in this film, and in this "long lost great" time torture each other for no reason other than a fear of societal retribution, which never happens.

Although it was a studio insert, I do love the ending. The power of it is in Agnes Moorehead. Walking down the hospital corridor with Eugene (the man she loved, who has been indifferent to her as everyone else has) she doesn't say much. Eugene does the talking, but it is the face of Moorehead that makes this scene memorable. That face that wells up in tears as Eugene embarasingly tells her he believed Isabel was watching over them in the hospital. We know that for the first time in the film that the stubborness is getting put aside. Perhaps it took a lot of misery, and even a life threatening car accident (how ironic) for them to realize that life is short. Lucy comes around, and she does her best to make things better for herself finally realizing that she does love George. George forgives Eugene for the way he acted towards him on behalf of his mother, and there is a wonderful sense of redemption. The ending isn't overly happy, although it is ironic that this dark looking film is ended in a brightly lit hospital, but it's reaffirming, something good to walk away with after all this gloom.

I'll stop now and congratulate anyone who read this.