Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I flipped the channel back to American Movie Classics and watched Orson Welles’ almost-masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, for the umpteenth time. I remain convinced that, had Ambersons been released in its original form instead of the 88-minute version that remains (two-thirds of Welles’ original conception), it would be considered Welles’ masterpiece, a far deeper and richer film than Citizen Kane, if only because it touches the emotions as well as the intellect. As director John Frankenheimer put it in The Celluloid Muse, “From the photographic point of view [Welles] made just about the perfect film in Citizen Kane. The only problem with it is you really don’t care about anybody in it.”

That is not a problem with Ambersons, even though the dual nature of the story, so evident and pervasive in Booth Tarkington’s novel — the emotional traumas of the characters played out against the social and physical changes of the town, ultimately coming together when the outside changes destroy the Ambersons’ fortune and social position — got lost when the film was re-edited. What remains is an intensely romantic drama, on the thin edge of soap opera (and, in the horrible, non-Welles-directed ending, finally going over) but saved from sentimentality and bathos by the richness of Welles’ directing, the subtle, nuanced performances he got from all the actors (even people like Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter and Tim Holt, who rarely if ever performed this well again) and the haunting atmospherics of Mark-Lee Kirk’s sets and Stanley Cortez’ camerawork. — 9/19/93


Moving on to an acknowledged classic … this morning I finished (re-)reading Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, a fascinating novel in its own right as well as a source for Orson Welles’ magnificent (if truncated) film version. Tarkington’s style — witty, ironic, detached — is just right for the tale he has to tell (indeed, I kept wondering if the lilt of Tarkington’s prose might have been an influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald [according to Fitzgerald’s biographers, it was], who shared his Midwestern background and whose stories begin at the precise moment in the evolution of urban America and its lifestyles where Ambersons ends); and the social commentary in the novel is at once liberal and conservative, lamenting the loss of the old aristocratic ways and celebrating the triumphs of a democracy that buries anyone who comes along with a large fortune and pretensions to aristocracy.

The message of Ambersons is not only about the inevitability of social change — good and ill — but also about the true “aristocratic” spirit being no respecter of “families” or how long one has held on to a fortune, but in terms of personal values of elegance and civility. (One point in the book that the movie misses is that, by its end, Eugene Morgan has attained the same kind of position in the city, in terms of being looked up to and having his name become a part of civic affairs, that Major Amberson had at the beginning of the story.) I remember reading Ambersons for the first time in the 1970’s and being struck at how visual the novel was — it was an extraordinary tour de force, but at the same time the long passages of physical description of the town and its surroundings made one long for the visual immediacy of the film medium and its capability of making us see for ourselves rather than forcing us to rely on our imaginations (a social change, like the invention of the automobile — on which much of the plot of Ambersons turns — that has had both good and ill aspects); ironically, much of the material in Welles’ film dealing with the physical evolution of the town ended up on RKO’s cutting-room floor.

Still, Ambersons the movie is an astonishingly close adaptation of Ambersons the book, with virtually all the film’s dialogue lifted straight from Tarkington’s pages (much the way the dialogue of the 1941 Huston/Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon came from the pages of Hammett’s novel) and the cinematographic style of Stanley Cortez a worthy and apt visualization of the book (though one suspects a more conventional director would have shot it differently — much brighter, less half-lit, with few if any deep-focus effects and a lot more match-cutting in the dialogue scenes). Ambersons would make a good subject for a movie even now — especially if Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (also a remake of an RKO movie!) does well; properly used and controlled color would add a lot of nuance to the piece, and casting would be tricky but not impossible. — 9/26/93


I first saw The Magnificent Ambersons on a double bill with Citizen Kane at the old Surf Theatre in San Francisco in 1970 (I remember it as a day of entertainment overload because that night I went to see Herbie Hancock and John Mayall at the Fillmore West) and it was hard absorbing Ambersons after the overwhelming impact of Kane. The theatre’s program notes had no doubt explained that the Ambersons we have is only about two-thirds of the one Welles intended, though as things turned out the first half of the film is relatively close to Welles’ conception and the cuts came mostly in the second half (what would have been the second two-thirds in Welles’ original design).

I’ve often referred to Ambersons as the best F. Scott Fitzgerald movie ever made — which might seem like a facetious comment at first, because Fitzgerald didn’t write the source novel on which Ambersons was based; but the person who did write it, Booth Tarkington, was Fitzgerald’s early influence and role model as a novelist and there’s such a striking parallel between George Amberson Minafer, the young, spoiled-rotten boy-man who matures as a human being only after the loss of his family’s money gives him his long-awaited “comeuppance,” and Amory Blaine, the similarly spoiled protagonist of Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, that one might almost conceive of Paradise as a sort of “interquel” to Ambersons, with Fitzgerald filling in a part of George’s story Tarkington didn’t write: the years he went away to college.

We know what is missing from Ambersons since a cutting continuity of Welles’ final cut survives (and so do some of the production stills), and we know also that the final scene in the hospital room after George’s accident (announced on screen in an elaborate in-joke reference to Citizen Kane: the paper in which it is covered is the Inquirer and a review by Jed Leland — Joseph Cotten’s character in Kane — appears on the front page) was directed not by Welles but either by assistant director Freddie Fleck or editor (and future director) Robert Wise. Welles’ directorial career never recovered from the double whammy of being called away from the post-production of Ambersons to shoot the documentary It’s All True in Brazil — the person who called him away was Nelson Rockefeller, who was a major stockholder in RKO and wanted the studio’s two most prestigious filmmakers, Welles and Walt Disney (who had his own company but still released through RKO), to make movies to propagandize for the Good Neighbor Policy — which later was canceled without even remotely reaching a releasable stage. (At least Disney, ever the businessman, finished his Good Neighbor film, Saludos Amigos.)

Because he was in South America on what turned out to be a useless debacle (all RKO got out of it was a handful of cool-looking clips that ended up as stock footage in movies like The Falcon in Mexico), Welles wasn’t around to supervise the editing of Ambersons past his first cut, and Mark Robson, who worked with Wise on the editing and also later became a director himself, recalled, “Bob [Wise] and I took it out to preview, and I guess in one fell swoop about a quarter of the theatre audience got up and left. Then about five minutes later another quarter left, and finally the last half of the audience left, until there were about two or three people remaining in the theatre and many angry patrons waiting for us outside. So we figured we had quite a lot to do. We took the picture back and continued re-editing it through maybe 10 or 15 previews. … Finally the picture was played so that nobody left the theatre.” Just why Ambersons evoked such audience hostility is a mystery when watching the current version, which is every bit the masterpiece the critical consensus says it is even though one almost has to watch the film as an archaeologist, piecing together the now-lost original version from what’s left (as one has to watch such other truncated films as Stroheim’s Greed, Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva Mexico!, or John Ford’s Three Bad Men).

My appreciation of Ambersons took a major leap forward when, after already having seen it several times, I found a copy of the Tarkington novel (ironically, one published by Avon, an imprint of the Hearst Corporation: besides blurbing the book, the back cover mentioned that in 1942 Orson Welles made a movie of it that was now considered a classic in its own right — possibly the only favorable thing about Welles that has ever made it to Hearst-owned print) and felt as if the lost world of this movie was opening up for me: in my mind’s eye I could see not only the life Tarkington was describing but the charming bits of dialogue Welles had copied but had been left on the cutting-room floor (like the party scene in which the Ambersons serve olives, a delicacy previously unknown in the unnamed city — based on Indianapolis — in which both book and film are set — and one of the guests says, “I hear you gotta eat nine of them, and then you like ’em”) and, most importantly, the passages describing the physical transformation of the town as it grows and darkens into a major city (a phrase from the book Welles incorporates almost verbatim into the film’s narration).

As I read pages and pages of descriptions of buildings lost, old streets plowed over, new streets platted and huge constructions — factories and apartments — taking the place of small homes and workshops, and “Amberson Boulevard” being renamed “Tenth Street” as the family’s fortunes and influence faded — it was with a sense of regret because the film medium can do this sort of thing so much more effectively than the written word, and the parallel essential to the book’s structure — the fall of the Ambersons and the rise of the city (and of Eugene Morgan and his automobile business) — is almost lost in the version of the film we have, in which the physical world appears, conventionally, only as background for the principals. I’ve long been convinced that if Welles’ version of Ambersons existed it, not Citizen Kane, would be hailed by critical consensus as his masterpiece. It’s a warmer, subtler film than Kane, the open virtuosity tamed by a desire to show more emotion and compassion for its characters. Indeed, it was born out of the shared belief of Welles and RKO production head George Schaefer that Kane had flopped at the box-office because it was too off-putting and didn’t allow the audience any characters they could relate to — though frankly Ambersons really doesn’t either.

Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) are the only truly sympathetic characters — which may at least in part be a reflection of a part of Tarkington’s novel that didn’t make it even into Welles’ original conception. Though the opening lines of narration closely follow the first paragraphs of the book, they leave out one important detail: contrary to the impression you get in the film that the Ambersons have held their fortune for several generations, old Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) actually earned his money during the Panic (what they called depressions in the 19th century) of 1873, buying when everybody else was selling. Essentially he was a financial speculator who built the Amberson fortune on the misery of others, and Tarkington clearly intended a contrast between the illegitimate wealth of the Ambersons (a fortune made on financial speculation) and the legitimate wealth of the Morgans (a fortune built on inventing, developing and selling a genuinely useful product, the automobile) that got lost even in Welles’ conception of the film, let alone the one we have now.

Welles cast his movie quite effectively, though rather eccentrically, tapping many performers who had familial or marital connections to names more “major” than themselves: Richard Bennett, who played Major Amberson, was the father of Constance and Joan Bennett; Tim Holt, who played Isabel Amberson’s spoiled-rotten son George Amberson Minafer, was the son of 1920’s and 1930’s action star Jack Holt (and Tim had one of the weirdest career trajectories in film history: two great roles in two of the best movies ever made, Ambersons and John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and otherwise almost exclusively leads in cheap “B” Westerns at RKO!); and Dolores Costello, who gives a marvelously nuanced performance as Isabel, was the ex-wife of John Barrymore. The film shows Isabel being courted by Eugene Morgan and him falling through a double bass belonging to one of the musicians he’d hired to accompany his serenade to her — whereupon, hating being made to look ridiculous on her own property, she dumps him and marries colorless Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), leading to the townspeople’s prediction that since she can’t possibly love Wilbur, she’ll express her love by spoiling her kids rotten … which narrator Welles tells us was wrong in only one particular: she and Wilbur didn’t have “children,” they had only one, but she did spoil him rotten.

Holt’s performance has been criticized — Dwight Macdonald called it one of the three worst acting jobs in a Welles film (along with Robert Arden in Confidential Report a.k.a. Mr. Arkadin and Anthony Perkins in The Trial) — but I think he’s just fine, perfectly bringing to life the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement, in a whole film that seems virtually real even despite (or maybe because of) Welles’ stylization: the woodcut-like closeups of otherwise unidentified townspeople commenting on the action by gossiping about the characters, the almost perfectly realized vision of the Amberson mansion (copied almost verbatim from Tarkington’s description and later reused by Val Lewton’s crew in The Seventh Victim and The Curse of the Cat People as well as in just about every other RKO movie where a Victorian-era mansion was needed — RKO may have turned a profit on Ambersons just with the money they saved by reusing the set!) and even the charming iris-out at the end of the scene in which George Amberson Minafer reluctantly accepts a ride home in Eugene Morgan’s automobile after his horse-drawn sleigh has overturned, the horse has run away and left him and Morgan’s daughter Lucy stranded. (Why almost no sound directors used the iris, when it was a basic transition device in the silent era, is a mystery to me.)

The Magnificent Ambersons is a film that grows in richness and stature every time I see it. It’s a film rich in innovative visual and technical devices — including that astonishing shot in which the camera moves up and down an elevator crane and catches simultaneous action on three stories of the Amberson home — and it seems hauntingly lit and framed, as if Welles and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who got the job after Welles watched the 1941 Universal film The Black Cat, an old-dark-house thriller in which Cortez’s visual pyrotechnics bolstered a pretty straightforward and clichéd plot) wanted it to look more like the surviving photographs and woodcuts from the late 19th century than a standard-issue movie nominally set in that period. Perhaps since I’m in the middle of reading Mark Griffin’s biography of Vincente Minnelli, I couldn’t help thinking of Meet Me in St. Louis and its comparably effective, though thematically different, re-creation of that past era (and wondering why and how Minnelli’s film was a hit while Welles’ was a flop).

Certainly one can see both Kane and Ambersons and have at least some idea what put 1941-42 audiences off these movies: Welles wore his techniques on his sleeve while most mainstream films of the day worked hard to conceal from the audience that they were watching a film. Most movies back then moved in a pretty stately fashion, resolutely cutting back and forth in a dialogue scene so the camera showed the person talking rather than the person (or people) listening, keeping us at a distance from the action and using close-ups to highlight the big emotional moments and climax each scene. Welles boldly cut in close-ups of peripheral characters, told stories from several points of view, and in Ambersons unified his film with a device that remains relatively rare in movies — third-person narration — even though it was basic to radio drama, a form in which Welles had not only cut his teeth but achieved his first national fame (with the infamous 1938 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as its story would have been covered by radio newscasters as if it were actually happening).

It’s how Ambersons can get away with being the only film Welles ever directed (aside from his unfinished Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind) in which he didn’t play a principal role (he was once asked by an intellectual critic if there was a reason he almost always acted in the films he directed; the critic, expecting an intellectual answer about how his presence on screen was thematically important, was taken aback when Welles said, “It’s because, if I take a part myself, that’s one less actor I have to pay”); though he’s not present on screen, his voice is, serving as the moral arbiter of the story and interpreting it for us as he wants us to see it — and at least one important plot juncture, when Welles explains that George Amberson Minafer had finally got his “comeuppance” but those who had wished for it so long ago were either dead or had forgotten all about it, and about him, is conveyed in the narration in a moving and economical (artistically and financially) way that would have been impossible without it.

There are plenty of marvelous stories about the production of Ambersons — like Joseph Cotten’s reaction, when he got the script and found that he’d be playing most of his part in makeup that would make him look middle-aged, that he’d already played most of his part in Citizen Kane in age makeup and people would think of him as middle-aged, and then when he actually got to be middle-aged they’d say, “My, how well Joseph Cotten has aged; he hasn’t changed a bit!” There’s also the story of how Richard Bennett couldn’t remember the deathbed monologue he had to deliver, so Welles prompted him off-screen, then erased his own voice from the soundtrack — with the result that the long pauses, which were really the parts where Welles had prompted Bennett, sounded like the hesitations of an old man fighting memory loss while audibly reminiscing about his past.

There are also fascinating scenes like the one in which George is wolfing down plate after plate of strawberry shortcake, being fed to him by his Aunt Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead, stylistically midway between her touching vignette as Charles Foster Kane’s mother and her best-known role as the mother-in-law literally from hell on the TV series Bewitched), and Welles daringly has him talk with his mouth full — the point being that the significant issue is the rotten attitude George has that leads him to talk with his mouth full, not the content of what he says (which can be unintelligible because it’s really not important). I mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald at the start and in some ways Ambersons, book as well as film, is a sort of précis for Fitzgerald’s career (when I mentioned it as a possible influence on Fitzgerald, Charles — who likes Fitzgerald considerably less than I do — said, “Which of Fitzgerald’s stories aren’t about spoiled rich boys?”) and what I’ve found missing from all the films I’ve seen actually based on Fitzgerald is the imagination with which Welles transmuted Tarkington’s prose into visual imagery, which is what makes Ambersons unforgettable and riveting even though we’re only watching — as Mark Robson admitted — “a chopped-down version of Orson’s original conception.” It was still good enough to win ninth place in the 1982 Sight and Sound poll naming the ten greatest films of all time — Sight and Sound did those polls every 10 years and in 1982 Citizen Kane placed first, making Welles the first director to have two films on their all-time 10 best list at once. — 7/15/10