The Magnificent Ambersons

“I don’t think he’ll change. At 21 or 22, so many things appear solid, permanent and terrible, which 40 sees as nothing but disappearing miasma. 40 can’t tell 20 about this; 20 can only find out by getting to be 40.” (Eugene’s letter to Isabelle in The Magnificent Ambersons)

“Nobody knows whether the world is old or young.” (G.K. Chesterton)

In Billy Wilder’s scintillating portrait of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950), there is a moment where a former star of the silent screen (Gloria Swanson) is outlining the plot of her comeback film Salome to a cynical young screenwriter (William Holden). “The princess in love with a holy man,” she says. “He rejects her. She dances the dance of the seven veils. She demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.” Comments the screenwriter sardonically: “They’ll love it in Pomona.” It is a vicious reference. On March 17, 1942, the Fox Theatre in Pomona, California was the scene of one of the most notorious previews in film history, that of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The derisive response of the audience was to trigger a chain of events which was to lead to the cutting of the film by about a third from its original length of 131 minutes. It was an act of aesthetic vandalism whose severity had not been seen in Hollywood since the savaging of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923) nearly twenty years earlier. Welles’s relationship with Hollywood never recovered.

The blow to Welles’s career and possibly his self-esteem was acute. He had gone into the project full of confidence, having adapted Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a screenplay in just nine days on King Vidor’s private yacht. He was familiar with the material, always claiming that his father, who was a friend of the novelist, was the model for the novel’s inventor-hero, Eugene Morgan, played in the film by Joseph Cotten. Welles had already done a radio adaptation in 1938, with himself in the role of the pampered son, George Minafer of a wealthy Indiana family who is to get his “come-uppance”. In the film, this part was played by Tim Holt, and Welles was to reflect later on whether this had been a strategic mistake; although his voice is heard as narrator, this was the only time when he did not appear in his own film. It is an aspect of the film which has prompted some speculation. Did Welles genuinely feel he might have seemed a little too old and forceful for the part, as he originally argued, or was the role of the spoilt son being doted on by a glamorous mother a little too close to home? Tim Holt’s uncompromising performance was perceived at the time as being a major impediment to audience identification: as the review in Variety put it, the movie “devotes 9000 feet of film to a spoiled brat who grows up as a spoiled spiteful young man”. There are others, however – this writer included – who feel Holt’s performance is superb, an unflinching, courageously conceived characterisation of an arrogant, unsympathetic yet ultimately pitiable human being.

Welles had insisted on a period of five weeks rehearsal before filming began. When his remarkable cameraman from Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland proved unavailable, he turned to the more painstaking Stanley Cortez, with whom he occasionally fought but who turned in a quite exceptional piece of work. (Cortez was later to be the cameraman on another of the most beautifully photographed of all black-and-white movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.) Sometimes the circumstances of shooting were difficult. For example, Welles insisted on shooting the snow scene in an ice plant in Los Angeles, not so much for authenticity of performance but because he wanted a clear visible contrast between the cold pure breath issuing from the characters’ mouths and the acrid smoke coming from Eugene’s new-fangled automobile. Towards the end of the filming Welles had been commissioned to make a documentary in Brazil called It’s All True as part of a government initiative to foster good relations between North and South America; and because he needed to be in Brazil in time for the carnival in Rio, this necessitated his dictating his instructions on the final cut of Ambersons to his editor Robert Wise, often by phone or by cable. Although this arrangement was complicated, there is no indication at this stage that Welles anticipated any major problems. He firmly believed he had made a better film than Citizen Kane: less showy, more thoughtful.

There have been many different accounts since of what went wrong and who was to blame. The most graphic account of the preview was given in a letter to Welles by the then President of RKO, George Schaefer, who had been one of his most steadfast allies during the attempts to suppress Citizen Kane. Schaefer described the preview experience as “like getting one sock in the jaw after another for two hours.” The audience laughed in the wrong places, particularly at Agnes Moorehead’s titanic performance as Aunt Fanny, stewing in frustration at her unrequited love for Eugene, a performance incidentally that went on to win the award for best actress from the New York Film Critics and was to be described by the great drama critic Kenneth Tynan as the best performance of its kind (the gnawing of unrequited love) in the English-speaking cinema. (Welles described her simply as “the best actor I’ve ever known”.) The downbeat nature of the film had also been criticised, not surprisingly perhaps since the audience, prior to Ambersons, had been sitting through a cheery Dorothy Lamour musical, The Fleet’s In (1942). Still it was hardly fair of RKO executives to blame Welles for the pessimistic thrust of the narrative: if they had cared to read the novel, they would have seen that he was only being true to his source. (Although full of imaginative touches, the adaptation is essentially a faithful one.) Also it is worth remembering that not all of the preview cards were hostile. 53 of the 125 were positive and 10 said it was the best film they had ever seen, a judgment shared by future director Cy Endfield who had seen the complete cut. Schaefer’s hypersensitive response was undoubtedly influenced not only by the audible disapproval of certain sections of the audience but by the fact that the fate of Welles’s film was intimately tied up with that of his own future at RKO, Schaefer being entangled in the middle of a power struggle at a studio now looking to showmanship rather than genius to recover its fortunes.

A preview at Pasadena two days later went much better, only 10 cards out of 85 being overtly negative, but executive confidence in the film had been badly shaken. The film had gone over budget and was thought to be too long. Indeed, sensing that the length of the film might be a problem, Welles had apparently suggested cutting a substantial portion out of the film prior to the Pomona preview – roughly 20 minutes from the section where Isabelle reads Eugene’s letter to her collapse – which one of his most knowledgeable commentators, Robert Carringer has argued might well have contributed to the film’s poor reception there. “I was bargaining,” Welles said, arguing (I think rightly) that if the film were thought to be overlong and needed trimming, it was better to take out a single section than tamper with the whole thing and destroy the rhythm; and feeling that this concession of his would lead to the rest of the film being untouched. In fact, Wise and Welles’s assistant, Jack Moss restored the section that Welles suggested they cut but then took out another 15 minutes for the Pasadena preview. RKO were still not satisfied and by now had adopted a policy of showing double-features in its programmes. The sections of the film dealing with the social context and material relating to the Ambersons’ economic downfall were jettisoned; a new, “happy” ending was shot by the film’s assistant director, Freddy Fleck; and the film finally came in at 88 minutes, to be released in a double-bill with Mexican Spitfire sees a Ghost (1942) starring Lupe Velez.

“If only you’d seen how Moorehead wrapped up the whole story at the end,” Welles was to tell Peter Bogdanovich. “Joe Cotten goes to see her after all these years in a cheap boarding-house and there’s nothing left between them at all. Everything is over – her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That’s what it was all about – the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age… But without question it was much the best scene in the movie.” The whole structure was dependent on charming the audience by setting up the splendour of the Ambersons and then tearing it to shreds, but that was lost in the choppy continuity of the final version; and, stranded in Brazil, Welles was to say that “it was cut in my absence by the studio janitor.” There is no doubt he felt betrayed, both by the studio and by colleagues like Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten, who had participated in the re-cutting and the re-shooting. In fairness, Robert Wise in his own defence said that the film is still considered a classic so he can’t have done that bad a job; and Joseph Cotten was to argue that, if he had not collaborated on the re-shooting, the film might not have been released at all. Incidentally there was one person who did take a stand against the whole process of revision: the clue is in the final credits. When Welles is intoning them at the end (“I wrote the picture and directed it. My name is Orson Welles”), it is noticeable that there is no mention of the film’s composer. That most irascible and idealistic of film composers, Bernard Herrmann refused to allow his name on a film where his music had been cut and, in his view, the integrity of the whole enterprise compromised by philistines.

So The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the great ‘Might-Have-Beens’ of film history, and all the more poignant because what is left is intermittently (and there is no other word for it) magnificent. It is a chronicle of the changing social and emotional fabric of American life as the nineteenth century moves towards its close. Like Citizen Kane, it is about dynastic decline and about the bond between a spoilt son and adoring mother that will ruin both their lives and their chance of happiness. In the first ten minutes, in which the story advances twenty years, Welles calmly establishes the society and the fashions of the period; comically depicts the clumsy action of Eugene Morgan which causes him to lose the hand of his sweetheart Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) to Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway); and briskly evokes the insufferable nature of the Minafers’ son George, who is the emotionally warped product, one feels, of an essentially loveless marriage. Everything has been steadily building to the first of the film’s great set-pieces, the Amberson ball in honour of George’s homecoming as a young man of 20, a sequence that is not only a marvel of cinematic virtuosity in itself but adumbrates all the key themes and relationships that are to be developed later.

In his affectionate but ironic narration at this point – the amused slight pause before the word “pageant” to describe the ball in George’s honour is particularly telling – Welles is careful to establish that this occasion will be the last of its kind the Ambersons will hold. The sequence has an elegiac air almost before we know it. It will show off the house in all its grandeur before its later decay, and the flowing and graceful camera movement around the setting suggests a kind of aristocratic languor whilst also hinting that things cannot stand still The winds of change are about to blow into that house-almost literally, because when the camera follows Eugene and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) as they enter, one notices a slight wind behind them that rustles through the chandeliers. When Eugene introduces himself to Isabel and George as they are greeting the guests, there is an almost imperceptible but immediate shift in the balance of relationship between mother and son, Isabel’s slight change of posture as she greets Eugene pushing George a little to the background of the frame: it is an arrangement that not only suggests Isabel’s delight at seeing Eugene again but the threat Eugene will pose to George in being the central figure in his mother’s life. George takes charge of Lucy, not immediately picking up the information that she is Eugene’s daughter (it shows how much he has been attending when introduced to his guests) and there will be some comedy at his expense before Lucy lets him in on his mistake. For all the smooth elegance and understated humour of the scene, it is actually also full of misunderstandings, occasional rudeness, pin-pricks of embarrassment (Isabel blushes when she is reminded that if Eugene had not fallen drunkenly on his fiddle, she might not have married Minafer) that are omens of future discord.

The subtle range of mood is heightened by Welles’s (and Herrmann’s) extraordinary use of the soundtrack. The different musical styles (romantic, brash, modern, old-fashioned) provide variations on the theme of old times and new times that runs through many of the conversations. The overlapping dialogue creates a fascinating sound texture where the young people are heard as quick and loud whereas the older generation tend to be slower and more intimate. The sequence builds to a superb final section where George and Lucy converse on the stairs whilst Eugene and Isabel dance to one of Welles’s favourite waltzes, Waldteufel’s ‘Toujours ou Jamais’. Suddenly it is time to say goodnight, the camera lingering on Isabel in shadowy silhouette in the foreground of the frame after bidding farewell to Eugene whilst in the background of the shot George is boorishly trying to set up a date with Lucy which she at first declines and then accepts, as if determined to keep him off balance. All the future themes are there: parents and children; past and present; old and new; and the sudden shadow that is to fall across the Amberson household with the return of Eugene. After that night the Ambersons are never to be quite that magnificent again.

There are at least three other great scenes in the film: the single-take strawberry shortcake scene, in which Aunt Fanny’s emotional agony will cut through the domestic teasing like a sharp knife; the dinner scene, when Eugene has to make a dignified response to an outburst by George (‘Automobiles are a useless nuisance’) that seems to come suddenly out of nowhere to dash the tranquil mood; and Uncle Jack’s quiet revelation to Eugene and Lucy, without looking either of them in the eye, about Isabelle’s fading health and the reasons for it. (Ray Collins as Uncle Jack never did anything finer on film: he brings to the part such sensitivity and vigour.) The critic V. F. Perkins has claimed with some justification that the film ‘has as many marvellous shots, scenes, ideas, performances as most film-makers could hope to achieve in an entire career.’ Yet, in contradiction to the Alfred Hitchcock canard that if you have four good scenes you have a movie, Ambersons never quite hangs together. The Variety review thought that one of the problems was that “it hadn’t a single moment of contrast; it piles on and on a tale of woe”, though the more I see the film, the more it seems to me the most richly varied in mood of all Welles’s work and undoubtedly his most tender. Like other grand American film epics that failed to find an audience – from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) – it might just have been the wrong film at the wrong time, a film about societal and familial breakdown appearing in a post-Pearl Harbour era where audiences were looking for family and social cohesion. What Kenneth Tynan called the film’s “naked emotional intimacy” did not offer the reassurance sought.

Even now the lamentation over the film’s fate might just be premature. If missing sequences from Metropolis (1926) can turn up in Argentina eighty years after the film’s premiere, might there still be some hope that somewhere someone could unearth the missing footage that would restore Ambersons to its pre-Pomona glory? Even as late as the 1960s, Welles was considering whether it would be possible to re-shoot the final scenes with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead who, after all, were now much closer to the actual age of the characters they played; but he really wanted to move his career forward rather than re-visit and revise painful memories. After Ambersons, however, rather in the manner of Eugene’s visits to the Amberson house, doors which had formerly been open to him were now firmly closed. George Orson Welles had got his “come-uppance”; and like George Amberson Minafer whose fate he intones so movingly, “when it came, he would get it three times filled and running over…”

“Orson Welles has got to do something commercial,” wrote George Schaefer at the end of his fateful letter to Welles after the Pomona preview. “We have got to get away from ‘arty’ pictures and get back to earth. Educating the public is expensive.” Welles was never able to deliver what Hollywood wanted just as Hollywood was never able to accept the gifts that Welles offered. With Ambersons, what he was offering was something comparable in theme and stature to a masterpiece like James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’: a meditation on love and loss from a twenty-odd-year old who seemed blessed with the wisdom and compassion of a man of 40. For anyone who cared to notice amidst his ribbon of broken dreams, this precocious boy wonder had matured into an artist of awesome profundity.

Neil Sinyard

Leave a Reply