' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

It is virtually impossible to discuss “The Magnificent Ambersons” without also discussing its turbulent backstory – that is, as boy genius Orson Welles’ follow-up to his eventual landmark “Citizen Kane”, “Ambersons”, based on a Booth Tarkington novel, was taken from its auteur in the editing room on account of some studio fine print and chopped up and pared down. A two-hour plus film became barely ninety minutes and a happy ending was shot and graphed on because no one likes sad face emoticons at the cinema (it’s not, as my notes say, “what the people want”). Welles’ personal instructions for how he wanted the film cut survive, the necessary footage to make that happen does not, and yet what remains is often cited by film scholars as being significantly valuable and of immense quality. And so with all this prior knowledge (expectation?) the viewer wades into “The Magnificent Ambersons” desperate to determine for him or herself what he or she thinks about what is there and not what isn’t there or could be there or how it compares to “Citizen Kane”.


As Kane, Welles was front and center for most of his trumpeted masterpiece and that’s not quite the case in “Ambersons.” He plays no role yet he does contribute the voiceover which is featured throughout, though most prominently in the opening as the opulent stage is set. To be sure, this narration is laced with exposition, often recounting precisely what we see happening on the screen, but then that’s one of the two details I adore most about it. “Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-top boots gave way to shoes and congress gaiters,” Welles explains as on screen boots give 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.” This, of course, belies Welles’ theatrical background, he not only gets to orate, he gets to show, and the decadent cinematography here and throughout reflect his glee at getting to show. But Orson’s Orson. Dude likes to talk. And that shows too. But while his voice could be self-impressed and disinterested, here it’s something else……it’s wistful. Listen to the way he says “In those days…” Oh, mercy. “The Magnificent Ambersons”, it turns out, is all about nostalgia and its mortal enemy…..progress.

It opens at the turn of the 20th Century and the passages here are idyllically reminiscent of days gone by, projected on the screen with noticeable soft focus along the frame’s edges, wondrously evoking the black matte background of an old-timey photo album. Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) is courted (“In those days,” the reviewer said aloud to himself in the middle of his own review, “they still said ‘courted’”) by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), but he finds himself rebuffed on account of whimsical happenstance. Ah, and so it is. She marries Wilbur Manifer (Don Dillaway) instead and they have a son, George, whom Isobel spoils rotten, a choice she will learn to regret when we catch up with everyone twenty years later.

Twentysomething George (Tim Holt) is a stuck-up jerkwad richy-rich, a Billy Zabka in top hat and tails, and when his return home from college coincides with both his father’s death and Eugene’s return to Indianapolis to re-attempt a courting of his mother, he becomes righteously indignant and swears eternal hatred toward Eugene. Though, of course, he simultaneously swears eternal love toward Eugene’s daughter, Lucy, because this is how life works. Admittedly, placing a character as petulant and abrasive as George at the center of a film can be off-putting and subsequently lead to the age-old query “Why am I supposed to care about this person?” But I dare say Welles, whose presence is always felt even during the extended periods where his voiceover stops, is grinning like Harry Lime in the doorway just off camera. If Welles seems to revel in nostalgia at film’s open, the further it goes along, the further he plunges a shiv into nostalgia’s side.


“The Magnificent Ambersons” chronicles the crumbling façade of that magnificence and, by extension, chronicles how an older way of American life reluctantly ceded to the new. The most adroit parallel drawn between these two is in Eugene’s status as an automobile manufacturing titan, bridging the gap between the horse-drawn buggy and carbon emissions. In a dinner table sequence George works himself up into a lather over what he perceives as the uselessness of the automobile, and Eugene doesn’t necessarily disagree. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization,” he says. “May be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of the men's souls, I'm not sure.” But it’s what he says next that is most critical. “But automobiles have come.” What they mean or don’t mean, what they will or won’t bring, what good or bad they will tender is of no consequence because we are all road kill beneath the steamroller of evolution. Lay down and die or try like hell to keep up. George is content to lie down.

Many of the changes and re-shoots in the film’s second half – as documented per TCM – involve attempts to soften George’s character to make him more sympathetic as opposed to an apoplectic madman quashing his family name in his attempts to save it, and this admittedly sticks out, standing at odds with the film’s first half. Even so, it’s still hard not to shake your head at his misplaced hubris, and the famous test audience-influenced re-done happy ending is so spectacularly (humorously, really) wrong-headed that to a modern day viewer well aware of its historical context it can't help but play as commentary. Orson Welles surely had more talent than George Amberson could dream of possessing, but there is still something of a parallel - a boy wonder fattened on the spoils of premature riches and then spending a lifetime frittering them away. It's an ancient story, yet a forever timely one. It's perhaps erroneous but simultaneously so tempting to observe that in the immediate aftermath of "Citizen Kane", its remarkable auteur might have already seen his future.

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