The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942 USA 88 mins)

Prod Co: Mercury Productions/RKO Pictures Prod, Dir: Orson Welles Scr: Orson Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington Phot: Stanley Cortez Ed: Robert Wise, Jack Moss, Mark Robson Art Dir: Mark-Lee Kirk Mus: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter, Ray Collins, Richard Bennett, Don Dillaway, Erskine Sanford, Orson Welles (narrator)

The Magnificent Ambersons is often cited as a great lost film. It was drastically re-cut and certain key scenes re-shot on the orders of RKO after it tested badly. Away in Brazil shooting what would be the unfinished documentary It’s All True (1942; 1993) as a part of the war effort, Orson Welles had no control over the way his film was finished. He later said: “They destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me”. And it is true that, with over 40-minutes of lost material and an ending that bears no relation to the rest of the film in tone or quality, The Magnificent Ambersons is not the film that Welles wanted to make. It is, however, the film that we are able to see. It seems to me that time is wasted lamenting a lost masterpiece – a film that could have been better than Citizen Kane (1941) – time better spent looking at the masterpiece available to us. Because, like the Ambersons, this film is magnificent.

It isn’t an obvious magnificence, despite the flamboyance of its visual style. It doesn’t surprise me that the film tested badly. I imagine that even as Welles intended it, it would still have failed commercially. Its darkness was out of step with the expectations of its audience and its subject was not commercial – this is not a film about a love story. Not a love story between George and Lucy nor one between Eugene and Isabel. It is not even the more complicated and dangerous love story between George and Isabel, mother and son. The real heart of the film lies beneath these more obvious subjects, addressing them where necessary in order to talk about and show other things – about the complex dynamics of family life, and about the unstoppable passage of time.

The family are the Ambersons and the scenes that show them with all their interdependence and sticky love are the real heart of the film. The ball scene is magnificent, but not nearly so strong as the scene that the follows it. Here the family retire, meandering through the endless halls of Amberson Mansion. Finally we really see them. The closeness between Isabel and George is here – as is his loss when she shuts the door on him to be with her husband. George’s obsessively jealous nature is also clear – directed no longer at Lucy’s suitors but at Eugene, who the clever boy senses at once to be the real threat. Wilbur’s disdain for his son is chilling and most splendidly, Fanny, Wilbur’s spinster sister, comes out of the shadows where she has been hidden till now to show the full force of a truly tragic character. She and George bicker like children, copying each other’s sentences. George teases, Fanny can’t quite retreat with dignity. Down the hall Isabel’s brother Jack complains that he will move to a hotel. The Ambersons may be magnificent but here, for the first time, they are human.

Such human moments are repeated throughout the film. Particularly striking is the scene in the kitchen where Fanny feeds George, and where she is teased about her feelings for Eugene. George gobbles his food like a greedy little boy. Fanny chides him, but keeps on feeding. She seems more a mother to him than Isabel, though they squabble like siblings. When Fanny cries and runs from the room, Jack and George certainly seem like children who realise their game has gone too far. They betray a touching concern for Fanny – for all the teasing they love her and care for her. Shot with a static camera that only pans slightly, this scene has none of the brio of the ball but twice its power – this is the real inside. In the final scene between Fanny and George in the boiler room, we see the family stripped bare – stripped of their assets financially (even the boiler has been turned off) but also of their outer social face. This is the moment when George, flayed, as it were, of the proud outer skin that was “being an Amberson”, is revealed not to be the spoiled, jealous and cruel boy he was, but a figure with a certain nobility. Fanny, hysterical, lost, spoilt, is not deserted, as one might expect, or mocked, as she has been. Instead she is loved, acknowledged, given space and respect.

A spoilt child, George is as much the responsibility of the spoilers as himself. When Fanny feeds George strawberry shortcakes she seems more of a mother to him than Isabel because we cannot imagine Isabel doing anything so plebeian as cooking or serving, much as she is a slave to her love for George. For all her grace, Isabel is foolish and weak. Her wilful marriage to Wilfred Minifer is the act of a silly girl who can’t see beyond the surface of things. Her love for George, an unhealthy replacement for the love she ought to feel for her husband, is often suffocating. When he and Lucy fall from the sled, Eugene smiles to see them kiss, and lets it go, while Isabel can’t stop herself fussing, infuriating George. She’s no fool though. Later she suggests that if she is, as Eugene describes, both delightful and ridiculous, then she must really be nothing. In this wise piece of self-knowledge, Isabel’s weakness and pride are split open to show a more complex woman than we might have imagined. Isabel knows herself, but not enough to save her own life. One senses that her own pride in her family, her foolishness and her weakness and failures in George’s upbringing have become a self spun spider’s web that traps her and sucks her of life. As she lies dying, the shadows of lace fall around her, appearing as imaginary gossamer threads that pin her to the bed.

It is in the decline of the Ambersons that we start to see that their pride doesn’t ultimately define them. The further they sink, the more we see a true magnificence, one not to do with oysters and champagne but with their unity and identity as a family. When their outward magnificence is of such import to them, the Ambersons love each other a little too much. In this light the shimmer of incestuous love between George and Isabel makes sense, the culmination of a family who worship only themselves. When they loose their sense of great worth the family begin to love each other sensibly. When they can see themselves reasonably, because the myopia of money and standing has been removed, their love can be adult – real. Ironically, it is in the way they take up this real, adult love, in the way they support each other, that the Ambersons touch on something close to real magnificence.

What brings the Ambersons down is not their pride; it is the onward movement of time. Their magnificence is too wonderful to brook any change, but change happens nonetheless, and they are left behind. It is Eugene Morgan, the rejected suitor whose fall through the bass viol put paid to his hopes with Isabel, who is the symbol of change. There is an extraordinary moment in the ball, when Jack comments that seeing Eugene dancing with Isabel is just like old times. Eugene replies, with the energy of true forward motion:

Old times? Not a bit! There aren’t old times. When times are gone they aren’t old – they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!

And he dances with Isabel, wild and alive, forward out of frame. Later on George takes Lucy, Eugene’s daughter, to dance. But unlike Eugene he dances her back into the frame. We see here with supreme visual elegance the reasons for the Ambersons’ downfall – they don’t move forward, they go backwards.

What makes Eugene so interesting is that he knows and understands the weight that progress carries. In one of the most cited scenes from the film, George insults Eugene at the dinner table, blurting out that automobiles are a useless nuisance, and that they had no business to be invented. Instead to taking offence, Eugene agrees with George. He speaks of the changes that cars will bring to men’s souls; to the way they will change time. This speech is more than an example of Eugene’s generous love for Isabel, it shows a man who knows the price of his own passions. Eugene knows that the cars he makes will destroy much that he loves, knows that one of his passions, automotive design, may run over and kill the other, Isabel. But he also understands that time cannot be stopped, and he moves with it.

While Eugene is something of a hero, the film itself is more ambiguous in its representation of the passage of time. The movement forward propelled by progress – industrial or social – always entails the death of what it replaces, and there is a deep sense of mourning for that loss that runs throughout this film – from the elegiac voiceover that opens the film, to the sense of the dirt and destruction that overtakes the town as it grows. The magnificence of the Ambersons, even if it carries with it foolish pride and abject snobbery, is magnificence nonetheless. What replaces it is not.

It is the automobile that is the symbol of time’s movement in this film – a clunky thing, whose dirty production and tendency to fail are in stark contrast to the beauty and elegance of the horse and carriage. The shooting of George and Lucy in the cutter in the snow is beautiful and romantic. The broken-down car seems so clumsy in comparison that even Lucy, the daughter on the inventor, calls out “Get a horse!” At the close of the scene there is an iris in, an optical effect used in the silent era but rare by 1942. As the car, moving at last, drives away it is isolated in a receding circle while the rest of the frame becomes black. The effect is to, literally, pinpoint the instrument of change.

The Magnificent Ambersons rides the balance between this lament for a lost past and the powerful excitement of progress. The automobile destroys a sense of time and decorum but the Ambersons only find grace and true stature when the progress that the automobile tows behind it arrives and flattens their midland town. They grow bigger as their world grows smaller. In his book The Magnificent Ambersons – A Reconstruction, Robert L. Carringer posits the theory that Welles saw in George a kind of alter ego and this is why he chose not to play him in the film. It seems to me that Welles isn’t so much George or Eugene (who Welles claimed was based on his father Richard Welles) but a combination of them both, a man longing for a lost past but entranced by the mechanical magnificence (in this case the filmic apparatus) of the future.

And Welles is present in the film – as present, if not more so, than he would have been playing George. It is his voice, on a black screen, that welcomes the viewers into the film, and it is his voice that ends it, naming those who worked with him with the authority of Adam naming the animals. Each collaborator gets an image, their face for the actors, the symbol of their profession for the technicians. The symbol Welles allows for himself is telling, a microphone on a long boom, trembling slightly with the vibrations of the sound of his voice. It’s such a beautiful voice.

About The Author

Tamara Tracz lives in London, where much of her time is spent in the care and company of three children. She can’t break the habit of thinking of herself as a filmmaker, and is currently collecting footage for a project titled Seven Years Watching Light Move. In 2013 she published a set of Artist Books, Three Books, an exploration of memory, trauma, loss and the use of text as image, extending over space and time. She writes on film for Senses of Cinema and is working on a novel.