Lost in the Movies: The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons

"The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the 'girl' what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare."
One of the most remarkable facets of The Magnificent Ambersons is how closely the movie's flaws reflect those of its subject. Seldom has disastrous studio interference (which in this case destroyed the film's final act) yielded such unintentionally and poignantly metatextual fruit. Today, the story of The Magnificent Ambersons' butchery is well-known. Orson Welles completed his second film, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's elegaic novel, on the eve of World War II; he would later ruefully call it "a much better picture than Kane—if they'd just left it as it was." But of course, RKO did not leave it as it was. With Welles out of town, shooting a wartime propaganda film in South America, the studio stepped in and massacred his boy, and the resultant film makes an unfortunate corpse. Yet in that wreckage lies a bizarre sort of virtue, since the movie itself is about a lost golden age, a past that slips out of one's hands until all that remains are shallow, paltry reminders of former glory. Hence it is weirdly appropriate that the bulk of the lost movie must lie in our imagination, and also that the film itself undergoes a dramatic decline over the course of its ninety minutes, mirroring the decline of its antihero and his bygone era. Magnificent Ambersons is a film which fails while one's watching it, yet endures afterward in the imagination, wrapped in a kind of reborn glory.

The movie begins with one of Welles' warmest, most glowing set pieces. The narration quoted above begins to convey this mood quite evocatively (imagine Welles' rich baritone savoring each syllable and you'll get the idea). Welles, a filmmaker who capitalized on the possibilities of sound, was especially attuned to the infinite capacities of the human voice. But he was also a grand visual stylist, and the shots which open Ambersons fire off in a soft volley of delicate yet robust missiles - a hail of half-remembered trinkets and hazy memories, softened at the edges like some 19th century daguerreotype. The first act of Ambersons is certainly one of the finest nostalgic immersions in all of cinema's history - and the cinema is an inherently nostalgic art to begin with. Later Welles will arrange sleighrides through pristine winter wonderlands, lovingly revealing the snowscaped childhood which Charles Foster Kane longed for all his life. Yet like Kane, the Ambersons will one day be left only with idealized memories, as frustratingly oblique as a child's snowglobe.

The central figure is one George Minafer (Tim Holt), the son of Isabel Minafer (Dolores Costello), she of the storied Amberson clan. George, by lineage one of the magnificent Ambersons, does not share his grandfather's illustrious name, a revealing conceit. Already the family glory is becoming diluted, the magnificence imperceptibly dwindling, and young George is weakened by more than just the "Minafer." He is a spoiled brat, a whiny man-child whose misplaced sense of privilege will ironically contribute to his family's decline, stripping away the privilege he so jealously guards. Yet the early passages show him in his element, presiding over family balls, lounging on his estate, flirting with Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter). Lucy is the pretty daughter of Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), an automobile inventor representing the wave of the future, that wave which will wash over "the Midland town, [darkening it] into a city."

However, Eugene is no villain. He is a kind man although once he's spurned by Isabel Amberson in favor of a sturdy but unexciting Minafer, his exploits constitute a kind of subconscious revenge on the comfortable brood. Eugene's automobile destroys the genteel world that the Ambersons value and which, ironically, he himself is fond of. That's Eugene whom we see demonstrating the latest fashions and frolicking in the Victorian set pieces of the film's opening. He hops in a proto-auto and leaves town only after he has been rejected by this world he seemed to love, and later, when George offers a scathing critique of the automobile's social impact, Eugene regretfully acknowledges that he may be correct. "With all their speed forward," he concedes, "they may be a step backward in civilization... But automobiles have come and almost all outward things will be different because of what they bring." According to Welles' personal belief, Booth Tarkington based Eugene Morgan on Welles' own father, a telling anecdote. Because even as Orson celebrates the world of the Ambersons, its scion is portrayed as a pathetic and vindictive fool, the modernizing Eugene engenders the sympathy of the director, and the story that unfolds is one of the town's - and the family's - decline. Welles comes to praise, but also to bury the Ambersons.

Ultimately it is this weird hybrid film which buries not only the Ambersons but Welles too - as if he dug the grave for his characters and was then pushed in on top of them, mid-eulogy. Somehow it is fitting that the movie represents not only the Ambersons' swan song, but Welles' too - never again would he be given the keys to the kingdom; like young George, he was a golden boy cast to the wind. Ambersons starts to get weird about two-thirds of the way through. For whatever reason, the first half of the movie does not seem to have encountered much studio interference. Ambersons flows smoothly, conveys the sense of Welles' personal touch, and achieves greatness with magisterial ease. Dark shadows and silhouetted profiles haunt the Amberson estate, and Welles shoots in long, elegant takes which slowly explore his massive sets. Then the family begins to disintegrate, facilitated by George's selfish possession of his mother (who wants to marry Eugene) and by George's aunt Fanny (a great Agnes Moorehead), whose envy and loneliness spread like a cancer, betraying the family her brother married into. And suddenly, unexpectedly, the movie itself begins to disintegrate too.

Gradually, we begin to suspect that entire sequences are missing. Events are elided, great changes happen over the course of a few scenes, and the structure takes on a choppy quality that was not evident before. Yet still there are sequences of grace and power, as if the movie is struggling for its life against some unseen virus. Finally, in its rushed third act, the Ambersons and their story both implode. Without warning, Ambersons die, others go bankrupt, and their entire edifice crumbles into dust. Likewise, the movie suddenly becomes sloppy in its editing, undistinguished in its camerawork, and incredibly trite in its dialogue. We find it hard to believe this is the same movie we were watching earlier, and in a very real sense, it is not. That the studio changes take increasing effect over the course of the movie, progressing along with its storyline, allows us to see just how much damage was really done.

Only briefly in the film's rushed, botched conclusion does Welles rear his head and bellow one last roar. When George has reached his emotional and financial nadir, he trudges home through an unrecognizable, industrialized town. He has one last surging, romantic burst of consciousness, which Welles, as the narrator, conveys for us in brutal, unsparing detail:

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.
And with that, Orson Welles' masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons sputters its last gasp and dies. The film proper continues for another five minutes or so, in a poorly executed conclusion: Eugene and Fanny walk along a plainly shot hospital corridor and offer up a chipper, incredibly glib coda. George, supposedly recovering from an auto injury, is left offscreen, but we're meant to understand that all is okey-dokey. Then, finally, the plug is pulled on the already braindead film.

This is obviously very dissatisfying while it's unfolding. But as I noted earlier, the mess lingers in the imagination with a certain added poignancy because we realize that as the Ambersons' grandeur slowly slips away, the film itself follows suit. In a peculiar sense there could be no better way to dramatize the loss of a certain richness and beauty than to destroy the richness and beauty of the world onscreen. What's startling is how closely the film's ups and downs reflect those of its characters, its last gasp of grandeur arriving at the exact moment when George experiences one last melancholy burst of nostalgia, before the romantic aftertaste of his decline would fade into chalky residue and lose its bittersweet flavor. The Ambersons descend from magnificence not into a glorious tragedy, but into mundane reality. And so does The Magnificent Ambersons, at a rapid clip, leaving us nostalgic for that world Welles so masterfully evoked, his words echoing in our imagination as the film rushes to its own deathbed:

"Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare."

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The Film Doctor said...

Nice post.

I find it interesting how you sort of make the botched latter third fit the sense of loss built into the storyline. I remember watching The Magnificent Ambersons in film class years ago. I was appalled at what the studio did to Welles as he partied down south, and my outrage over the violation of his genius tended to obliterate any appreciation of the stately early scenes or anything else. The Magnificent Ambersons strikes me as an ironic monument to the philistinism of studio interference with enough good footage to make the great waste of Welles' talent that much more poignant.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, it's the silver lining in the cloud I suppose. Interesting theretically (and very interesting to write about) but not so much when you're watching - certainly Welles' version would have been preferable. But, like Kane, there are so many harbingers of the Boy Genius' future in its own story (and, in this case, the execution) that it definitely adds to the tragic grandeur of the Welles myth.

Erich Kuersten said...

What do you mean Amateur Hour? What's going on over here? Anyway, as my paranoid mind goes through all the ways in which to interpret your cryptic comment, I am catching up on your site and thanks for posting your own favorites amongst your writing. A novel idea I may steal in the future.

I still haven't been able to see Ambersons all the way through in one sitting. Like Film Dr, I find it just too painful, but you may have supplied the metatextual "hook" with which to do so, for which I thank you. Plus, your prose style here does some excellent mirroring of its subject, Excellent Werke!

Joel Bocko said...

Amateur Hour is my nascent idea for a blog which celebrates roughly-defined-amateur work; I'll kick it off and then hopefully open it up for anyone who wants to discuss "amateur" films (ranging from certified art like Breathless to movies found stuck to the gum on the floor of a seedy run-down theater and the VHS/DVD equivalents thereof). The idea is more properly defined in my recent post "The New Year." Glad you enjoyed the piece - I did try to make the language plainer and more expedient as I described the film's decline, but hopefully I didn't come too close to matching the final minutes' extremely poor quality!

Dean Treadway said...

I must echo the favorable comments made about your inventive adoption of the film's final slide into oblivion as a mirror to George's own demise. When I eagerly watch AMBERSONS again, and deign to write about it, I will surely have this reading in mind. May I quote you?

Joel Bocko said...

Only if I get a cut of your profits, Dean.

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