Thursday, January 28, 2016

Orson Welles | The Magnificent Ambersons

a comeuppance that no one any longer cares about

by Douglas Messerli 

Orson Welles (screenplay, based on the fiction by Booth Tarkington; and director) The Magnificent Ambersons / 1942

At once one the most beautifully filmed of American movies and a terribly flawed soap opera, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is a fascinating work that I have watched numerous times over the years, and taught as a graduate assistant to English department film course. 

      Seeing it again recently, those extremes became even more apparent. One might also be tempted to suggest it is a richer work than his masterpiece Citizen Kane, if it weren’t for the fact that Booth Tarkington’s novel, upon which the film is based, is basically just a story of a family, who over the course of the narrative, falls from grace. And, although Welles certainly attempts to lift the film to the gravitas of Kane, suggesting that the Ambersons/Minifer’s fall comes simultaneously with end of the belle époque and the rise of industrialism, the real cause their decay is the family’s pride and the utter blindness of certain family members to the well-being of family individuals and the community at large, issues that have no universal significance.

      Much has been written, moreover, about the editorial changes made without Welles’ approval. Welles, shooting a film for the government in Brazil, was not allowed to share the decisions, despite his attempt to intervene. Even composer Bernard Herrmann insisted that his name be taken from the credits, when a large part of his original score was cut. Yet, many of the changes made do, in retrospect, make sense, while others alterations, particularly the film’s ending, can easily be recognized as flaws.

      Welles begins his tale by trying to tie the wealthy Ambersons with both the period (a time, which the narrator [Welles himself] describes as one in which the streetcar would stop and wait for the woman of the house, while she put on her hat and spoke to the cook about dinner) and with the community—through the everyday gossip about the family. But the early incidents which fuel the gossips, the drunken behavior of the Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), Isabel Amberson’s (Dolores Costello) inability to forgive him, and her marriage, soon after, to the more stable but utter boring Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), seem so trivial that it is difficult even to care about what might happen to the grand Ambersons and the things they represent. 
      As one gossip predicts, because Isabel is not truly in love Wilbur, she will spoil her children, giving all her love to them, turns out to be true, except in one detail, that she has only one child George (Tim Holt). In a short series of scenarios, we meet the young spoiled boy, decked out with long curls of flowing hair that represents him more as a effeminate prig than a spoiled brat. 
      It is only when Eugene, somewhat inexplicably, returns to Indianapolis that the movie actually becomes more interesting. For Eugene (through Cotten’s excellent acting) is not only a charmer, he is now a successful businessman, a creator of a new automobile that will drive even through snow.

     The memorable ball which Isabel and Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) throw to celebrate his return with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) is a whirling affair  where—at least in the original cut—the camera lifted in crane shots in one long flow throughout the house, moving from room to room and Lucy and George walked through the attendees and dancers. Much of that scene was cut, but even as it is, we recognize it as amazing moment of film, wherein, through its fluid shifts in space, it is quickly established that Eugene is beloved by the entire community and that his daughter has already been feted by many of the citizens in the brief time since her arrival. 
     It is clear that she might have dated nearly any young man in the room, while George seems dismissive of them all, and particularly of the man at the center of the affair, who he does not recognize as her father—and, whom, he soon discovers much to his horror, was the former courtier of his mother and would-be lover of his Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead).

     In the very next scene we witness a continuation of that evening, as Eugene, attempts to drive his car, filled with the elder Ambersons, through a snow-white field. The car is having difficulty in moving, just as a horse-drawn sleigh, which contains George and Lucy, comes effortlessly springing through the landscape,  proving, momentarily, the preference of the past methods of transportation to the present. A moment later, however, the sleigh, hitting a snow bank, spills out its passengers, and the younger couple, no worse for wear, must join the others in the automobile, which the young George is enlisted in pushing. The car does eventually start, and, however gingerly, makes its way across the beautiful countryside in what is surely one the most beautiful and arresting images in American filmmaking.
      In a real sense “Georgie,” in that very scene, has had a kind of “comeuppance,” as the city dwellers predict; he simply does not yet recognize it as such. And after, when he father dies and he and others of his family are invited to dine with the Morgans, he gets his psychological revenge by brutally dismissing the creation of his host (“automobiles are a useless nuisance, which had business being invented”). Eugene’s suave response—suggesting that George may turn out to be right and recognizing that, if nothing else, the automobile would surely alter human civilization—again represents his true fairness and nobility as opposed to George’s simple priggishness.
      The scenes where George attempts to court Lucy, where Welles walks his characters laterally along streets, similarly reveals her ease the way things are, while George seems uncomfortably out of place in his own hometown.
      The difficulty of Holt’s role is that, despite the unlikableness of his character, he must nonetheless make George seem intelligent and interesting enough to attract Lucy’s attention. In Welles’ original, his attack on Eugene was evidently much more vicious; while the studio revisers (which included noted director Robert Wise), I think appropriately, toned it down so that might still hold out some hope for his change. 
     In the famed “kitchen scene” where George and Jack tease Fanny until she cries, Welles originally followed it by a scene where George catches a glimpse of his grandfather’s new construction from the window and rushes into a rainstorm shouting out in rage, which, reportedly, preview audiences derisively heckled.
     Once again, it appears, some careful editing was necessary if the character were to remain believable.

     As the various figures, Jack (Ray Collins), Fanny, and George, hovering over the grand staircases of the Amberson house, whisper and squabble, and it becomes increasingly apparent to him just how in love both his mother and aunt were with the man he now perceives as the intruder, the character grows so mean and selfish that we can no longer imagine why Lucy might even have bothered with him.. And, finally, as the relationship between Eugene and Isabel develops, George becomes entirely implacable, refusing Eugene even entry into their home. As Lucy herself metaphorically describes George to her father, he is like the Native American chief who was “pushed out on a canoe into the sea” when he became to overbearing to the tribe.
      Welles brilliantly hints that these family melodramas are something closer to madness, which temporarily heightens the grandeur of his story; but when Isabel, choosing to placate her son as opposed to fulfilling her own desires, finally refuses Eugene’s offer to marry, the story, even as Welles himself recognized, has nowhere else to go.
      Traveling with her son to Europe, Isabel sinks out of sight and quickly dissipates through an illness into nothingness, Eugene not even allowed a final visit with her before her death. Originally, Eugene was kept from her only by Fanny’s turning him away; but, once again the studio editors improved the scene, I would argue, by having all three, Jack, George, and Fanny, tell him to leave, helping us to realize that the entire family has disintegrated, falling to the level of the spoiled son.
     Unable to find the deed to their house after Isabel’s death, and losing their money in investments in a headlight company, the family quickly crumbles, Fanny psychologically breaking down, In the original version Welles allowed her the full force of melodramatic fury. While some claimed it was Moorehead’s best scene, preview audiences found it laughable, and again the studio revised the scene, demanding a more subdued performance from the actresss.
      The final scenes of Welles’ original cut do seem, in hindsight, far preferable to what the studio re-filmed after the director had left for Brazil. In the original, George wanders through the city, followed by a long tracking shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, presumably finally receiving his “comeuppance”—although even the narrator notes that those who so wanted it were no longer around to witness it.
     The very final scene consisted of Eugene visiting Fanny in her boarding house where, throughout their conversation overheard by other residential friends, Fanny squeakily rocks away in her chair while a corny comedy record plays in the corner.
      All of these scenes, alas, were cut, to be replaced by the quite obviously, inferior scene which the film now ends. Even the light looks radically different from Welles’ intense black and white images as Eugene and Fanny, upon visiting the injured George in the hospital, leave the place together, suggesting a reconciliation between the two.      
     In short, as Wise and others have argued, the final film we see today is perhaps no better or worse than the one Welles had shot. That such a basically conventional fiction still resulted in such a magnificent film, is testimony enough to Welles remarkable talents, even if he was not the total genius he himself and others have declared him to be.

Los Angeles, January 27, 2016

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