“The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) at Film Forum (Oct 26-7)

by on October 25, 2011Posted in: Essay


“I can remember everything. That’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race, memory.”

– Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland in Citizen Kane (1941)

 
“Old times? Not a bit. There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.”

– Cotten again as Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

 

CITIZEN KANE MAY BE classical Hollywood’s most commemorated monument, but Orson Welles’ somewhat hard-to-see and undervalued follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, remains one of the cinema’s greatest memory-movies. In both Welles’ film and the Booth Tarkington Pulitzer Prize-winner from which it’s adapted, the romantic automobile inventor and entrepreneur Eugene Morgan (Jospeh Cotton) keeps his sights trained on the future, for better and for worse. But Eugene is wrong about the “old times,” at least for his friends the Ambersons and the Minafers. For them, the present and future are ruled by their past, or their faulty illusions of it–until time itself rolls right over them and leaves them in the dust.

 

For in The Magnificent Ambersons, there are no times but old times, and that’s true from the first frame. Everything to come is present in the prologue, a prism through which all that follows is refracted. So, before we take in the long view of Ambersons’ overall concerns, let’s start with a detailed, close-up look at the densely packed nine-minute opening sequence.
 

 

PART ONE: PROLOGUE

 

Welles begins (and ends) the picture with his own resonant voice-over, in a tone both elegiac and gently ironic–less sardonic than Michael Hordern’s narration in Barry Lyndon, but sometimes to similar effect–setting the movie both in the past and the past-tense:

 

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.

 

Initially, the narrator speaks over a black screen. Bernard Herrmann’s charming adaptation of an Emil Waldteufel waltz enters after the first sentence. With the words “In that town in those days…,” Welles conjures the first image out of the darkness: a soft-bordered picture-postcard view of a Midwestern, Gothic-style brick house, in front of which all the rest of the action described takes place in real time, illustrating the Tarkington-Welles Theory of General Relativity. A woman hails a mule-drawn trolley from the upstairs window, and in the time it takes for her to emerge from the front gate, and for the narrator to describe her doing so, the passengers on the car get out to help lift the derailed carriage back onto the tracks.

 

 

The next passage, a comic montage covering the transient fashions of the age, begins with a sea of identical top hats glimpsed over a saloon door. Though no one is explicitly identified in this segment, we are rapidly introduced to many of the faces we’ll come to know. The narrator begins to comment on the tall, black gentleman’s hat “known to impudence as a ‘stove-pipe’” over the image of such a behatted man, Wilbur Minafer, on a courtly rowboat-outing with a parasol-twirling companion, Isabel Amberson, but by the time the narrator lands on “stove-pipe,” the image track cuts to a snowball knocking a similar hat off the head of an old man, hurtling us, with a single, simple cut, into both a different season and a different phase of life. The now bareheaded man who turns to confront his impudent assailant quickly breaks into a smile; though we don’t know it yet, this is the grandfatherly patriarch Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), whom we’ll soon learn is rather indulgent of childish rambunctiousness in many forms.

 

 

The smiling countenance of Major Amberson is soon replaced by one of young Eugene trying on bowlers, goofily mugging in the mirror. “But the long contagion of the derby had arrived…” explains the narrator, who proceeds to describe, as Eugene models, various hats, boots, shoes, jackets, and overcoats, all illustrating the passing of society’s seasons. Implicit in the prologue so far has been the idea of self-conscious appearances, whether in mirrors or through windows or out on public thoroughfares. Social propriety was paramount in such a world, and one’s presentation (including one’s dress and grooming) was noted, and judged, by the good (as well as the not-so-good) citizens of the town.

 

 

Here we return to the house of the opening shot, but now in winter, with one-horse open sleighs dashing merrily past, children throwing snowballs and sliding on the icy sidewalks, and visitors stopping by for open house. The narrator wistfully intones:

 

In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year’s, and all-day picnics in the woods… And even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade. Of a summer night, young men would bring an orchestra under a pretty girl’s window, and flute, harp, fiddle, cello, coronet, bass viol, would presently release their melodies to the dulcet stars.

 

With “all-day picnics in the woods…”, a slow dissolve seems to melt the snow; a full moon and strings of glowing lanterns emerge as the wintry scene seamlessly fades to a warm summer night. At the mention of the serenade, a band of young men comes into the frame, running toward the camera. The one in front, carrying the bass viol, trips and falls into the foreground, smashing his instrument. It is Eugene Morgan. He looks up. The shot cuts to a close-up of Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), mortified, gazing down from her window. She closes the lace curtains and turns away…

 

Thus concludes one of the most subtly extraordinary passages in all of cinema, even more extraordinary in its now lost original cut, a version which Welles assembled before leaving Hollywood for a South American location shoot–but more about that later. At first, Cotton’s pratfall seems like just another nostalgia-puncturing gag, like the cartoonish fashion jokes, contrasting what was once considered romantic and stylish with the perspective of time. But like many of the particulars in this sequence, it will find echoes in later scenes that invest the offhand comedy with a profound sense of pathos. Not until later do we come to realize that this very incident had life-shaping repercussions in the lives of the Ambersons, the Minafers and the Morgans, the next generation of whom would most likely have been born of different parents without it. This light bit of slapstick — keyed to the inexorable acceleration of time and industrial progress — precipitates all the tragedy and heartache to come.

 

This is also the moment we learn that we have been looking not at the Ambersons’ residence, but at the house across the street, belonging to one Mrs. Johnson–a telling bit of misdirection from Hollywood’s most irrepressible trickster.

 

Orson Welles (left) pulls a rabbit out of Joseph Cotten’s hat as Dolores Costello look on.
 

PERHAPS NOW is the time to acknowledge the legendary elephant in the room: the version of Ambersons we have today, and which RKO released in 1942, is an extensively re-edited and partially re-shot version of Welles’ rough cut, brutally reduced to 88 minutes following devastating previews in Pomona (about 120 minutes) and Pasadena (117 minutes).

 

Welles had left behind a 132-minute work-in-progress when he went to Brazil to shoot Carnaval scenes for the ill-fated Good Neighbor documentary It’s All True (which RKO later pulled the plug on, cancelling Orson’s contract and thereby dooming his standing as one of Hollywood’s A-list commercial directors.) Welles approved some cuts and changes during his absence, but the footage that was not included in the released version appears to be forever lost. (According to the critical biography of Welles by Joseph McBride, a workprint had been sent to Welles in Rio de Janiero, and though that’s never been found, it’s since become a Holy Grail of cinephilia.) A continuity script from March 12, 1942 shows what was added, eliminated and rearranged, along with a few stills from Welles’ missing scenes — including, most dramatically, the original boarding-house ending.

 

In the March 12th version, the opening shot of the house and the trolley dissolves into the later views of the seasons changing, ending with Eugene falling on his bass viol. So, the narration at one point apparently went from “… the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare…” straight to “In those days, they had time for everything…” The effect of the camera remaining stationary on the house through these consecutive dissolves gives the illusion of seasons passing in the course of what appears to be a single shot, ending with the “punchline” of Eugene and the bass viol, so that the “second shot,” and first close-up, is that of Isabel witnessing his pratfall and turning away. In essence, the world of the Ambersons is summoned from the past, and its future destruction set in motion, in the first two “shots” of the movie.

 

In the extant Ambersons, though, Isabel’s horrified withdrawal from the window is followed by a shot of Eugene, dressed in white hat and carrying a bamboo cane and a box of candy. (We’ve actually already seen him in this outfit, leaving his house, at the end of the gentlemen’s fashion montage.) He approaches the Amberson mansion on foot to offer an apology to his beloved.

 

 

“Against so homespun a background,” the narrator continues, “the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.” And how tasteful is a brass band at a funeral, unless it’s in New Orleans? Eugene tips his hat as if to acknowledge the citizens’ chorus, a cluster of townspeople who are heard before they are seen, as they extoll the marvelous, extravagant, expensive features of the local residential masterpiece: “The pride of the town!” “Sixty thousand dollars for the woodwork alone!” “Hot and cold running water!” “Upstairs and down!”

 

Ah, there’s so much going on here…roughly three minutes into the movie! As we shall see, the presence of this Indianapolis Greek chorus (some of whom will become significant players in the Ambersons’ saga) is another reminder of public opinion — the community’s arbiter of acceptable behavior. To Georgie Minafer, both as a child (Bobby Cooper) and a young man (Tim Holt), they are also the gossiping “riff-raff” he will so deplore. It is George, above all, who stubbornly insists that the Amberson family name be kept above reproach, although is also he who does the most to besmirch it.

 

In this small town, everybody is intimately familiar with everyone else’s business. Or at least pretends to be. As Tarkington wrote in the second paragraph of his novel: “For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.”

 

 

So, the chorus witnesses Eugene being turned away from the Ambersons’ front door, once and then again:

 

Woman #1: “I guess she’s still mad at him.”
Man #1: “Who?”
Woman #2: “Isabel!”
Woman #1: “Major Amberson’s daughter!”
Man #2: “Eugene Morgan’s her best beau. Took bit too much to drink the other night right out here… and stepped clean through the bass fiddle serenadin’ her!”

 

This time we see the rejected Eugene climb aboard a shining, clattering, smoking, four-wheeled contraption known as an “automobile,” and drive off. To us, it appears rather quaint and comical, but we are reminded of the opening narration, that as its numbers multiplied, the automobile was part of what eclipsed the world of the Ambersons: “Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city.” And speaking of darkening: It’s mentioned, but not dramatized, in the release version that Aunt Fanny (Minafer) and Uncle Jack (Amberson) lost a great deal of money they put into a company that made headlights, an investment encouraged by a lawyer and family friend, Roger Bronson (Erskine Sanford, Mr. Carter the newspaper editor in Kane), whom we are soon to meet.

 

 

In the next few shots, Eugene is spurned yet again (and in broad daylight — outside Marsh’s ice cream shop!) by Isabel and her new beau, Wilbur Minafer, whom the townspeople deem a surprisingly lackluster prospect for her, especially compared to Eugene. Uncle Jack (Ray Collins), at the barber shop, turns in mid-shave to the other men (reflected behind him in the mirror — the chorus is ever-present in public spaces) and tries to muster some enthusiasm for his sister’s choice: “Well, Wilbur may not be any Appolo, as it were, but he’s a steady young businessman.”

 

And then, the key shot in Mrs. Johnson’s dress shop: a filigreed interior with a wire mannequin of a woman’s torso in the middle and more reflections than you’ll see in any Welles’ sequence outside the Hall of Mirrors climax in The Lady from Shanghai. With all these tilted reflections, the ladies’ discussion seems to be coming from all sides. We imagine similar conversations taking place in shops and homes and on streetcorners across the town:

 

Woman A (shaking her head): “Wilbur Minafer!”

Mrs. Johnson: “Looks like Isabel’s pretty sensible for such a showy girl.”

Woman A: “To think of her taking him!”

Woman B: “Yes, just because a man any woman would like a thousand times better

was a little wild one night at a serenade!”

Mrs. Foster (Anne O’Neal, uncredited): “What she minds is him making a clown of himself in her own front yard. Made her think he didn’t care much about her. She’s probably mistaken but it’s too late for her to think anything else now. The wedding will be a big, Ambersons-style thing: raw oysters floating in scooped-out blocks of ice, the band from out of town.”

(Woman C hands Mrs. Foster a china cup and saucer of tea from screen left.)

Mrs. Foster (continued): “Then Wilbur will take Isabel on the carefullest little wedding trip he can manage. And she’ll be a good wife to him, but they’ll have the worst spoiled lot of children this town will ever see.”

Woman C: “How on earth do you figure that out, Mrs. Foster?”

Mrs. Foster: “She couldn’t love Wilbur, could she? Well, it’ll all go to her children. And she’ll ruin them.”

 

And there you have the premise for the rest of the film. Before we get to the introduction of the abominable Georgie Minafer, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the oracular vision of Mrs. Foster, her keen insights into human behavior, and her comical disapproval of Ambersons-style decadence: raw oysters and out-of-town band. She encapsulates the fates of several of the story’s characters with a single line: “She’s probably mistaken but it’s too late for her to think anything else now.” The movie is deeply concerned with the ways we redirect our feelings for one person inappropriately onto another, and the self-justifying lies we tell ourselves to keep living, even after we’ve discovered we’re telling ourselves lies.

 

 

THE OMNISCIENT NARRATOR engages in a direct exchange with Mrs. Foster (and, remember, this precedes “Arrested Development” by several decades!):

 

Narrator: The prophetess proved to be mistaken in a single detail merely. Wilbur and Isabel did not have children; they had only one –

Mrs. Foster (off-screen): “Only one, but I’d like to know if he isn’t spoiled enough for a whole carload!”

Narrator: Again, she found none to challenge her. George Amberson Minafer, the Major’s one grandchild… was a princely terror.

 

You hate the imp the moment you see him, approaching out of the distance, riding up the street (his street, he would insist) in his little kiddie buggy, drawn by a white pony (George is always associated with horses; Eugene, his rival for his mother’s affections, as he comes to see it, with automobiles), in a frilly Blue Boy outfit, his blond curls flowing from beneath a white bonnet. After he nearly runs over a man for sport (“Hey! Why, golly, I guess you think you own this town!”), we see the brat ride past the ice cream shop and cigar store where his yet-to-be-married parents once snubbed Eugene.

 

The narrator continues: “There were people — grown people they were — who expressed themselves longingly: they did hope to live to see the day, they said, when that boy would get his comeuppance.” As if responding to the narrator, a woman standing by the side of the road asks, “His what?” A telegraph pole, sign of encroaching modernity, looms behind her. “His comeuppance,” answers the man next to her. “Something’s bound to take him down someday. I only want to be there!”

 

 

The images are still shadowed around the edges to indicate their place in the past. Just about all the pieces of the film are now in place, six and a half minutes into the prologue.

 

In the next mini-scene Georgie is taunted by another boy, jumps a picket fence and brawls with him. Turns out the boy, and the yard, belong to Roger Bronson, who tries to break up the fight and tells Georgie he’s a disgrace to his mother. Whereupon Georgie punches him and calls him an old billygoat and tells him to go to — Georgie plants himself center-screen in front of the Amberson mansion, while his ineffectual parents read a letter from Mr. Bronson and the boy denies everything. With Major Amberson seated behind him, he asserts (shrewdly): “Wellll, grandpa wouldn’t wipe his shoe on that old storyteller. I mean, none of us Ambersons wouldn’t have anything to do with him…. I’ll bet if he wanted to see any of us, he’d have to go around to the side door!” Grandpa Amberson lets out a delighted guffaw.

 

Eventually, Georgie goes away to college, but when he returns in the winter of his sophomore year, he’s the same old brat, just a little older and a lot larger, riding through town with horse and buggy, snapping his whip at people on the street, showing no sign that he has received his comeuppance.

 


 

PART TWO: THE PAST

 

And now we leave the prologue, the shadings disappear from the edges of the frame, and we step into a different realm of memory, a conditional present informed by the past that the first part of the film has sketched for us, as we enter the Amberson mansion for the first time. The narrator, speaking from a future in which this magnificence has long since vanished, speaks these words and then, for a while, gently recedes:

 

Cards were out for a ball in his honor, and this pageant of the tenantry was the last of the great, long-remembered dances that everybody talked about…

 

The camera sweeps along in the wake of a man and a young lady, Eugene and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), through the front doors of the Amberson manor, greeted by the butler we saw twice turn Eugene away from these same doors years earlier (and at which George will later deny Eugene access to Isabel again). In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris described a pivotal shot on a stairway in Max Ophuls’ Letter From and Unknown Woman as “the definitive memory-image of love.” (And Ambersons is Welles at his most Ophulsian.) This movement into the house — the whoosh of the wind ruffling the couple’s winter collars, the tinkling of the chandelier — is, for me, the movies’ definitive memory-image of memory. As they enter, the warmth of the familiar past embraces them, offering the comfort and joy of old friends and the promise of renewed acquaintance. (And then there’s George, stiffly receiving guests with a handshake and the rote greeting: “Remember you very well indeed,” when he has no more memory of those he’s met before than those he’s never heard of.)

 

“I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production.”

– Orson Welles in the spoken closing credits of The Magnificent Ambersons

 
“Don’t be so theatrical!”

– Uncle Jack to George, in the Ambersons’ bath scene

 
RADIO, THEATER, CINEMA

 
In 1939, Welles produced an hour-long radio version of Ambersons for The Campbell Playhouse, the same program on which his famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast had been featured a year earlier. Welles took the parts of both narrator and George Amberson (adopting a high, slightly nasal voice), headlining a cast of Mercury players that included Walter Huston as Eugene Morgan, Nan Sunderland as Isabel, Ray Collins as Uncle Fred (Jack, in the movie), Marion Barnes as Lucy, and Bea Benadaret as a neighbor.

 

In one of his less perceptive reviews, critic Manny Farber panned Ambersons (he wasn’t all that crazy about the “exciting but hammy” “Citizen Kane,” either), writing: “It stutters and stumbles as Welles submerges Tarkington’s story in a mess of radio and stage technique.” To Farber, this over-budgeted, million-dollar (!) super-production–featuring the tallest indoor set ever built: the ostentatious, vertiginous stairways of the Amberson mansion–was no doubt “White Elephant Art,” and he was a termite fellow. Farber didn’t understand the movie’s contrapuntal style and structure (it’s not about getting the story moving; it’s about the layering of images, sounds, information and emotion), but, as is often the case with good critics, he picked up on something crucial without realizing its significance.

 

The Magnificent Ambersons IS shot through with “radio and stage” techniques: dialog delivered with the rhythms and precision of music performance; sound effects, score and speech woven together in exquisite counterpoint; blocking of actors and camera (moving or stationary) so finely choreographed that the effect is like dance. And the film is all the more cinematic for it. The ball scene is a dazzling cotillion, in which the characters fluidly dance and converse with one another, engaging with the ever-recomposing camera and then slipping out of frame so that others can enter. The lens is the third partner in every coupling, and it floats, promiscuously and flirtatiously, from one swirling pair to another. The long, fluid takes and deliberately artificial blocking may have their roots in Welles’ radio and theatrical backgrounds, but the director, cinematographer (Stanley Cortez, Since You Went Away, Night of the Hunter) and sound engineers expand and enhance them for the movies.

 

 

In his book of interviews with Welles, This is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich asked if the remarkable, single-shot scene in the kitchen between George, Fanny and Uncle Jack had been improvised. “In a way it was — the rhythm of it was all set. The precise words weren’t,” Welles said. “It takes rehearsal. The actors have to be used to working together, and it gets to be great fun if you do it right.” Again, it’s about capturing the music, the poetry, of the language and performances.

 

The rest of the film is no less marvelously choreographed: the Last Good Time automobile ride in the snow, with George and Lucy whizzing by in their horse-drawn sleigh (“Get a horse!”), rolling down a “feather bed” snowbank (the closest to a consummation they will ever come); another buggy ride through the town, now growing cluttered with overhead wires and streetcar tracks, as Lucy and George spar over their conflicting conceptions of the past and the future; the various conversations, in urgent whispers and defiant shouts, up and down and around the landings and levels of the Ambersons dizzying master staircase; the single shot that traces Aunt Fanny’s terrifying hysterical breakdown, from the boiler through the rooms of the empty mansion…

 

 

MIRRORS AND WINDOWS

 

In a film so riddled with multi-faceted perceptions, suspicions, misdirected passions, harsh and often mistaken judgments (personal and social), it’s no wonder that it should be so full of tilted reflections and superimpositions, multiple frames-within-frames. Characters look down on others from balustrades and upper-floor windows, their perceptions visually, aurally and psychologically determined or constricted by their views from those vantage points. But the deep-focus photography of Ambersons, and Welles’ arrangement of bodies, faces and architecture in compositions, allow us to see who’s looking at whom in the background, and to read the secondary reactions of those whose emotions underscore whatever conversation is taking place: Fanny at the automobile factory (or just about any scene); George at the ball trying to figure out the identity of that brazen “queer-looking duck” (Eugene); Isabel whenever she’s around Eugene…

 

Like all of us, the characters in The Magnificent Ambersons are forever poised in that space between the past and the future. But unlike us, they exist in a work of art that is vibrantly, expressively aware of this in every moment. The future is reflected in the past, and vice-versa, so that the characters seem to be situated between two facing mirrors, creating (metaphorically) that endlessly receding pattern of ghost images we remember from Citizen Kane.

 

 

The projections and re-directions of emotion are so complicated: George is horrified that Eugene has loved Isabel since before his father married her. After Wilbur’s death, Eugene becomes an Oedipal rival once-removed, and George does everything he can to keep Isabel and Eugene apart — even though it destroys his mother’s happiness and alienates him from Lucy, Eugene’s daughter. What Lucy sees in George is anyone’s guess, but she doesn’t act on it out of love and respect for her father; both men know it, and each resents the other for it. Fanny has long pined for Eugene (perhaps she had something to do with encouraging her brother Wilbur to peruse Isabel?), although it’s clear he fancies her sister-in-law. George and Jack kid her cruelly about her (nonexistent) prospects for marriage and her long-nurtured crush on Eugene, although Jack at least comes to realize (when she, always overemotional and self-dramatizing, is driven to tears) that “I think maybe we’ve been teasing her about the wrong things. Fanny hasn’t got much in her life. You know George, just being an Aunt isn’t really the great career it may sometimes seem to be. I really don’t know of anything much Fanny has got, except her feeling about Eugene.”

 

Let’s pause once more, to acknowledge that in a film of splendidly complex performances (excepting Anne Baxter’s slightly stiff turn as Lucy), Agnes Moorehead, nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for Ambersons, towers above all. Her Aunt Fanny — petty, spiteful, whiny, self-pitying, deliriously unhinged at times — is one of the great pieces of acting in American movies. The dry despair cracking her voice as she slumps against the water heater, the awareness that brings on her breakdown — “It’s not hot! It’s cold!” (remember the chorus: “Hot and cold running water!” “Upstairs and down!”) — still gives me chills as cold as the disconnected boiler.

 

 

But Moorehead was just too much for the preview audiences in Pamona and Pasadena who turned up to see either James Cagney as a bush pilot in Captain of the Clouds or Dorothy Lamour and William Holden in the Paramount musical The Fleet’s In, but were treated to a bonus preview of a two-hour Magnificent Ambersons. Editor Robert Wise, late in his life, told Mike Thomas: “The [preview] audience disliked it, they walked out, they were laughing at Aggie Moorehead’s character and it was an absolute disaster. So what were we going to do with it? We went back and cut out the scenes with Aggie Moorehead where they were laughing at her over-the-top performance.” What remains is magnificent, and won Moorehead the New York Film Critics Cirle award for best actress, but as Welles told Bogdanovich, the boiler scene is “only half of what it was because people laughed when it was previewed. Some lumpen Saturday night audience… The whole distance would have flayed you alive — Aggie was that good.”

 


 

LOSS, MEMORY, REGRET

 

One of the most famous moments in Ambersons is the single close-up of Major Amberson, his face illuminated only by firelight, as he appears to quietly let slip his grip on sanity and memory before our eyes. The film traces the decay, dissolution, slow collapse of lives and ways of life. What was once of great import and seriousness is now revealed to be wasted and trivial. And that goes for the Ambersons, and their once-prominent name, as well.

 

There is no more profound and moving expression of loss and regret in movies than the last time we see George Amberson Minafer, in silhouette, kneeling by his dead mother’s bed and praying for her forgiveness. It begins with his long walk home from Bronson’s law office, after he’s decided to take a dangerous job handling explosives in order to support his Aunt Fanny, perhaps the first selfless act of his young life. We don’t see him, just a bleak, slow-motion Dziga Vertov montage of industrial structures, bearing down on the camera from above.

 

Narrator:

George Amberson Minafer walked homeward slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city. The town was growing and 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 sky. This was the last walk home he was ever to take up National Avenue to Amberson addition, and the big old house at the foot of Amberson Boulevard. Tomorrow, they were to move out. Tomorrow, everything would be gone.

 

Something had happened, a thing which years ago had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town. And now it came at last: George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He’d got it three times filled and running over. But those who had 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.

 

 

As the Ambersons are forgotten, and the name becomes a meaningless relic, George’s world falls apart, and no one cares or even notices. We never see George again after that silhouette of him kneeling at his mother’s empty bed. He just vanishes into anonymity. The next we hear, he has been injured in an automobile accident, identified in a newspaper item as an employee of Akers Chemical Company.

 

There’s a solemn speech by Eugene earlier, after George has assailed him at a family dinner for his association with the de-civilizing influence of the automobile, that acts as something of a counterpart to this moment. Of course, George finds any excuse to denigrate Eugene in front of his mother; this indirect assault just happens to be framed in moral and professional terms. But Eugene responds with characteristic modesty and sincerity:

 

“I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. 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 automobiles have come and almost all outwards things will be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. May be that in ten to twenty years from now that if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but agree with George — that automobiles had no business to be invented.”

 

 

The last two shots/scenes of the film are, obviously, not shot by Orson Welles and Stanley Cortez. They are flat, oddly gray and lifeless, as if the movie were saying: “OK, it’s time to wrap this up” — which is exactly what it’s saying. Anne Baxter lifts her eyes inspirationally and looks like she’s about to spring out of the frame as she leaves to visit George in the hospital, a hackneyed melodramatic touch Welles would not have endorsed. The final scene, between Eugene and Fanny, though much of the language is taken straight from the novel (and the movie’s original ending), it feels drained of resonance and nuance. We could use some of Welles radio and theatrical touches here! It’s interesting that, once again, Eugene is talking to Fanny (mostly about Isabel) as if she isn’t even present, which is pretty much the story of Fanny’s life. But in this two-shot down the hospital corridor, she smiles stoically and seems to accept her — and everyone’s — fate in what is surely the best of all possible worlds.

 

Contrast this with Welles’ final scene, in the dingy boarding house where Fanny has insisted she wants to live, and George has been scraping together the money for room and board by working at Akers Chemical Company. Some of the dialog is the same, but Eugene has come from the hospital to visit out of concern for Fanny, and to bring her the news about how George is doing. The prognosis is good, but the ambience of the scene, underscored by the creaking of Fanny’s chair, is bleak. It’s clear she’s never quite recovered from the boiler breakdown. Sometimes she doesn’t seem to be quite sure who Eugene is talking about: “Georgie?” The last part of the concluding scene, according to “Appendix I: The Original ‘Ambersons’” in Welles and Bogdanovich’s book, once existed as follows (click to enlarge):

 

 

And so, the original Ambersons ends as it should: as a ghost story, packed with shards of memories and reflections and shadows and hints of times that are old… and dead. The chorus still exists, but now they are old men and women playing cards and listening to the phonograph in a boarding house. And Fanny, who (though not an Amberson) may be the main character of The Magnificent Ambersons nonetheless, lives among them, a ghost in her own lifetime…which may have been how she felt all along.

 

PART THREE: EPILOGUE

 

I have always thought that The Magnificent Ambersons gets a bum rap. Although it consistently ranks in the top half of the Sight & Sound critics poll, decade after decade (while Citizen Kane has occupied the top spot since 1962), it’s not often screened in the U.S. today and has never been available on Region 1 DVD — until, recently, as an Amazon-only extra with the 70th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Citizen Kane. (It occasionally shows up on TCM, though.)

 

Ambersons is sometimes dismissed because… well, because it’s not Kane, and it’s used by Welles-haters to suggest that its unhappy fate was the comeuppance the Boy Wonder deserved. There’s no arguing: Ambersons is not Kane. It’s not as much zippy fun (no great movie is more fun than Citizen Kane), but it’s arguably more mature and reflective and heartfelt. (After all, Welles was all of 26 when he made this one!) And the films are not without similarities: George Amberson Minafer and Charles Foster Kane are both arrogant, infuriating upstarts brought low by bad luck and hubris. Character as destiny.

 

I think a good argument could be made for The Magnificent Ambersons, even in its wounded version (which is the only one that exists in a form that can be seen, not just imagined), is as astonishingly alive and accomplished as any of Welles’ masterpieces, from Kane to Chimes at Midnight to Touch of Evil (which suffered from studio interference as well).

 

Movies are memories. They live on the screen, but also in our hearts and minds. Once you read even that excerpt of the last scene as Welles envisioned it, it becomes incorporated into your experience of the film. And in that sense, the magnificence of the Ambersons does not fade.

 

Jim Emerson is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen. He is the founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com and author of the blog Scanners.

 

The Magnificent Ambersons is playing at Film Forum October 26th and 27th, as part of the program “Bernard Hermann,” a selective retrospective of the Hollywood composer.

 

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