An insufferable movie snob wanders off the beaten track, comes back and talks about what he has seen.
The Magnificent Ambersons
May 6, 2015
Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is a film about crossroads. It is about many subjects at once: wealth vs poverty, tradition vs progress, and old love vs new. It’s not insignificant that the period in which the movie occurs – Late 19th century to beginning of 20th – was one in which the United States underwent a sea change in commerce, culture, and industry which affected every facet of life. Welles takes the fissures created by these pressures, and illuminates them for us through the stories of two very different men.
The Ambersons are a prototypical old-money family. Everyone in town knows the name, and knows who the family members are. They are renowned for their lavish home and lifestyle, so much so that they live on a street named for them. Welles employs a ”greek chorus” type device, by having townspeople and neighbours gossip about the Ambersons, thus filling in bits of detail, like cost, number of bathrooms, etc. These local busybodies help move the story along, but since it is gossip, they also give off the faint whiff of unreliability. That is not a bad thing, in telling the story of a family that is larger than life.
If the Amberson family is old money, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) is the shape of things to come. Morgan is an early and persistent suitor of Isabel Amberson (Delores Costello), and although he is not in their social strata, he’s plainly a man with an eye to the future. Morgan is an inventor who is working on early prototypes of the automobile, and although his early efforts are comical to the horse and buggy set, he is never swayed from his vision.
Morgans’s vision also includes marriage to Isabel , but an ill-advised drunken escapade spells the end of the relationship, and results in Isabel marrying the decent, but boring Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). The greek chorus opines that this marriage is going to be a loveless one, and that since Isabel doesn’t really love Wilbur, “All the love will go to the children”.
The suggestion that the Minafer children are going to be spoiled monsters is borne out when we flash forward to meet young George Amberson Minifer, first as a child, then as a young man. (played by Tim Holt). George is a textbook rich snob, and his emergence as an adult sets up the conflict around which the film revolves; the idea of the traditional old guard (George) trying to hang on, versus the new world order (Eugene) which is gaining quickly.
Welles sets things in motion at a ball thrown by the Ambersons, which Eugene and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) attend. With the shy Wilbur hiding away in his study, Eugene reconnects with Isabel, and there is an obvious spark that is still evident between the onetime lovers. The attention lavished on his mother is not lost on George, either, and he begins to develop a mistrust of this mysterious new man. This ball culminates in a sequence which is my favorite thing ever put on film by Orson Welles. As the guests leave, and as George sets up a date with Lucy in the background, Isabel shows Eugene out the door, and then gazes after him as he leaves. Shot with Isabel completely in silhouette in the foreground, the scene is a marvelous evocation of lost love and of memories roiled back to the surface. (Video at end of commentary)
There is another character in the background of TMA, one that the other characters in the film don’t really notice. That would be Wilbur’s sister Fanny, played by the great Agnes Moorehead. Fanny is a now an old maid, but harbours a deep yearning for Eugene, who she has secretly loved for years. Fanny is the most tragic figure in the film; she knows she is an afterthought to almost everyone else, including Eugene. There is a scene where Eugene shows Isabel and Fanny around his factory, and it is apparent that all his attention is for Isabel. Watch Moorehead during this sequence, and you will see someone whose passion is tamped down by frustration and resignation. It is a fantastic performance by a great character actress.
When Wilbur Minafer dies, things become a lot more complicated. Eugene comforts Isabel at the funeral with Fanny watching nearby. She knows that the obstacle that kept Eugene and Isabel apart is now gone, as are her chances for happiness. It’s a crushingly sad scene, made more so by the fact that nobody else is aware of Fanny’s anguish. She suffers alone, as she always does.
The events of TMA take place over several years, and Welles employs the method of dropping in, and having characters explain what we have missed. One subtle technique he uses is the evolution of Eugene’s automobiles. From his first unwieldy versions, we start to see it being refined and perfected, which underscores the fact that they are here to stay. George, being the traditionalist that he is, scoffs at the car, and initiates a confrontation at a dinner table with Eugene when he suggests that the contraption should have never been invented. Eugene responds with a great monologue about how he isn’t sure how the future will look, but that the automobile will change it.
“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.”
That speech distills brilliantly what Ambersons is all about; Things change. Change can’t be stopped, and it can’t always be predicted. Eugene knows this, but George will only learn it the hard way.
George Minafer first appears onscreen as a petulant, spoiled child, and everyone says they look forward to his comeuppance. As an adult, he is haughty and superior, and it never enters his mind that there is such a thing as being poor. There’s a telling conversation with Lucy in which she asks him what he wants to do in life, and he looks at her like she has two heads. His ambition is to continue to be rich – nothing more. The film has given us hints about the Ambersons, specifically that Georges father was likely driven to his grave by looming financial troubles, but George doesn’t seem to see that. He is too smug and cloistered to see the real world.
It’s inevitable that Eugene and Isabel find themselves drawn to one another, and the relationship sets off alarm bells for George - and for Fanny. There is a pivotal scene in the Amberson kitchen where Fanny pumps George for information on what is going on with Eugene and Isabel. This is so well-written and subtle that is just a joy to watch, especially as delivered by Moorehead. She begins to maneuver George against Eugene by insinuating that people in town are starting to talk about Isabel, knowing full well that that is the one thing that George cannot allow.
Fanny’s machinations ultimately work, as Isabel bows to Georges objections, and decides that she can’t marry Eugene. The problem is, they work too well, and the resulting trauma drives Isabel into a deep depression which ultimately takes her life. Late in the film, Eugene comes to see her, and is met by George who tries to dissuade him. Eugene starts to barge past him, but when a shaken Fanny says “you really shouldn’t”, he relents and goes away. At this point, the end is very near for her, and Eugene can’t help but pick up on the melancholy of Isabel’s family. George visits her in her room, where she asks if Eugene has been to see her. We might have expected George to lie, but now, in what would ultimately be his last time seeing her alive, he says, yes, he was here. As Isabel weakly says “I’d liked to have seen him – Just once”, Welles has a shadow fall across her bed, and the scene fades out. The shadow, caused by a nurse pulling a curtain, is also a metaphor for the final collapse of the Amberson dynasty.
After Isabel’s death, there is a macabre scene in the mansion between George and Fanny, as they try to plan what their lives will be as they try to go forward in poverty. The mansion is washed in shadow, the odd ray of light displaying furniture covered with sheets. This is the comeuppance that was spoken about at the film’s beginning, but it doesn’t feel like a divine retribution anymore. George came too late to realize that his hubris contributed to the death of his beloved mother, and in the film’s final few passages, he is repentant and becomes a figure of sympathy.
The Magnificent Ambersons might be the only film ever made that is more famous for what isn’t in it than what is. Welles famously lost control of the film, and close to an hour was cut out, never to be seen again. That’s a shame, but what is left is still a brilliant motion picture. The technical innovations that marked Citizen Kane, are in Ambersons as well, and are even more impressive. Welles’ use of moving camera, his deployment of shadow and light, and deep focus photography made Ambersons a joy to look at, even today.
Early in the film, at the aforementioned ball, Eugene Morgan states that “Old times aren’t gone – they’re dead”. Eugene was being somewhat flippant when he said that – He was still in love with Isabel, after all – But it somewhat reflected the way he would see the world. To Eugene, the future’s the thing; it is nothing but possibilities. The sad irony of that simple statement is that when he desperately needed not to be, he was correct.
*Confession – When I began writing this commentary, I was completely unaware that I would be posting it on May 6, 2015, which marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles. That, my friends, is just an eerie co-incidence.