What Is and What Might Have Been

The Magnificent Ambersons

What Is and What Might Have Been

On Film / Essays — Nov 26, 2018

Watching The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) this time around, I was struck afresh by its paradox: never was such a grim film so buoyant. The fate-determining catastrophe occurs within the first five minutes, and essentially it’s all downhill from there. Yet Orson Welles so deftly manages rhythm and tone—a complex blend of irony and empathy—and the intertwining of aural and visual effects that, even as time rolls relentlessly on and bitter memories accumulate, we constantly feel the exhilaration of virtuoso storytelling. Though less flashy than Citizen Kane, Welles’s astonishing debut of the year before, Ambersons cuts deeper, and without the magnetizing hulk of Welles at its center, it is more genuinely polyphonic.

Of course, we have to consider the problematic ending of this “mutilated masterpiece” (François Truffaut’s term), a tacked-on happy resolution overseen by assistant director Freddie Fleck under orders from RKO after Welles had gone to South America, and following a disastrous studio preview. It isn’t even close to the ending of Welles’s own bleak design, shot by the director and thought by him to be the best scene in the film. (Though the studio version is arguably a little closer to the brush-with-the-supernatural conclusion of the Booth Tarkington novel.) But I’m not thinking of those, or of the other damage done to Welles’s film by the studio—more on which later. For me, the true ending can be found just before the inane coda, with Georgie kneeling beside his now dead mother’s empty bed, asking for forgiveness, having finally got his “comeuppance,” a conclusion that brings both retribution and a measure of redemption. This moment of unexpected penitence rounds out the drama of the Ambersons—their pride, their selfishness, their loss, but also, for Georgie, a sliver of hope—and in the mixed feelings thus induced in the spectator suggests what is so powerful about the film, even in its truncated form.

“As obviously personal as Citizen Kane is, Ambersons seems to me the film that draws on the richer veins of feeling.”

The mythic 131-minute long version of The Magnificent Ambersons is the lost film par excellence, even more of a holy grail than Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 Greed—an epic whose lost footage has long kept scholars scurrying and speculating—attracting Welles devotees from the ranks of filmmakers and critics alike since the beginning. But before we get into this shadow version of Ambersons, we should look at the film we have, a work of cinematic art that has only grown in reputation over the years and that, despite the loss of some forty-three minutes, still has the epic feel that Welles desired. 

In the movie’s marvelously compressed opening, we are introduced to the world of the Ambersons, a fashion show of charm and pretense that is vanishing even as we gaze at it. The master of ceremonies is, of course, Welles himself. We picture his round, cherubic face with lips curling in a sardonic smile as he narrates: “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.” But already in the first pictures we’re shown, the splendor seems slightly tattered, the airs of the Ambersons slightly absurd. The black-and-white images are blurry at the corners, suggesting faded sepia photographs or silent film; the grand Victorian structure we see at first—not yet the Amberson mansion, but their neighbor’s—with its spindly trees and battered hauteur, looms with a faintly Gothic air over the proceedings. 

A horse-driven streetcar stops to pick up a passenger, waiting patiently as she slowly makes her way out of the house, stopping to give instructions to a servant. In a few years, the automobile will arrive and change the tempo irreversibly. “In those days, they had time for everything,” continues the narration, yet the sense of infinite time is belied even as it is asserted, undercut by the swift, magical transition from summer to winter. In the blink of an eye, the seasons usurp one another. In another blink, young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) commits a faux pas that will reverberate through the movie. 

Exemplifying one of the town’s quaint traditions, the dandy and sometimes poet Eugene arrives on the Amberson front lawn with an orchestra, to serenade his ladylove. But before the ardent but drunken suitor can even begin warbling, he crashes onto his bass viol, instantly becoming a laughingstock and thereby losing her hand. Eugene’s mishap beneath the window of the ravishing Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) at first seems like just a bit of tomfoolery, a chivalric gesture gone awry. So brief is its duration, so breezily light the tone of its telling, that we could almost miss or underestimate the fateful event. Yet it prefigures all the misery and disappointment that follows. 

As obviously personal as Kane is, Ambersons seems to me the film that draws on the richer veins of feeling, perhaps precisely because Welles doesn’t get in the way of our relationship to the characters. He lives through all of them—through Eugene, an innovator but one who is ambivalent toward his innovation; through George (Tim Holt), who thinks “anybody that really is anybody ought to be able to do about as they like in their own town”; through urbane Uncle Jack (Ray Collins, like Cotten and Agnes Moorehead a veteran of Kane); through Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), presiding over his family’s decline. Even the women—played by Costello, Moorehead, and Anne Baxter—have an independent interest rare for the director. 

The tensions within the film are those within Welles himself: Orson, the child prodigy and show-off, doing magic tricks for the grown-ups, desperate to keep them interested. And the Welles who was an old man the day he was born—always looking backward, at a disappearing world, or anticipating his own irrelevance in a world that has outlived him. He liked putting on old-age makeup and would constantly cast himself as men older than he was (he was twenty-five when he played Kane, who ages to a man in his late seventies, and fifty-two playing seventy in The Immortal Story), or, like Falstaff (whom he played in 1966’s Chimes at Midnight) or the dying Major Amberson (played by Bennett), as men out of joint with their times, almost luxuriating in the idea of his own demise. Some of the exhilaration that infects The Magnificent Ambersons comes from this liberating embrace of death. Like Montaigne, Welles preferred not to fear the end but to face it head-on, thus taking away its advantage.

In discussing Welles’s Othello (1952), Joseph McBride has noted that the director loved to start with the main character’s death and work backward, tracing the strands of life that precipitate the tragedy. Citizen Kane is the prime example of this, but in Ambersons we also feel a sense of death foretold in the elegiac opening, the death not of a great personage but of a way of life, along with the collapse of romantic hope. Love rarely survives the twistings of fate and character in a Welles film, and this is no exception. But if the film at first seems to follow the contours of Shakespearean tragedy—the decline in fortune of a wealthy family, the observing and lamenting chorus (ingeniously transformed by Welles into gossiping townspeople)—it soon becomes apparent that the Johnny-come-lately Ambersons are far from those awe-inspiring kings and queens whose downfalls elicit fear and terror. This is not ancient Greece or Elizabethan England but the industrial American Midwest, and the Ambersons’ wealth seems to have come from financial speculation, at least in the novel—Welles elides that hint. They may excite pity, even awe, but it is heavily laced with schadenfreude. For the thrifty midwestern townspeople, descendants of rugged pioneers, their mansion is as “conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.” The mock-heroic note is struck in the itemization of its furnishings, its hot and cold running water. In the novel, Tarkington achieves the same effect by placing in quotation marks those supernumerary appurtenances of the status-conscious: “sitting room,” “library,” “front porch,” “back porch,” “parlour.” 

As someone given to retrospection, Welles loved the period of the Ambersons, and Tarkington’s 1918 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel was especially close to his heart. Filmmaker and novelist hailed from the same region, and Tarkington was a friend of Welles’s father, like Eugene Morgan an inventor of sorts. In addition, the senior Welles’s relationship with Orson’s mother was very like that between Eugene and Isabel—Welles senior being something of a reprobate and dandy, the mother a socialite who devoted herself to Welles’s cultural education—and the Oedipal implications of a mother’s protective overattention to a spoiled and entitled son certainly hit close to home as well. 

The townsfolk prophesy the future with Freudian acuity: Because Isabel can’t possibly love Wilbur Minafer, the businessman she hurriedly marries, all that thwarted love will be diverted to her children. To make matters worse, there will be only one child, George, a hellion of monumental proportions. As he tears through the town in his horse and buggy, scattering animals and the citizens the Ambersons regard as their “tenantry” in his wake, we join them in wanting to see him get the “stuffin’ knocked out of him.” And what could show more acutely the foolish social ambitions of the Ambersons than a certain family-conference scene: After Georgie’s latest galloping rampage in town, he has gotten into a fight and lied about it, and he now faces possible censure at home. He appears, in ruffles and curls, amid his “royal family” in what might be a group portrait by Velázquez. The scene appears in the book, but the witty staging is pure Welles. The casting of Holt was a masterstroke, so uncannily does he resemble the director as a young brat, and so superbly does he capture the blindness and arrogance of adolescence. André Bazin suggested Georgie was the punishment for the hubris of Kane, but in fact Welles extends to him a tenderness that gives the troubled young man a claim on our sympathy even when he is most horrid.

Citizen Kane was not only Welles’s first feature but—almost unbelievably—the first time he had stepped onto a studio set. With it, he became an instant touchstone for filmmakers, even ones whose styles and concerns were utterly alien to his own. It was more about a kind of license: An outsider and only twenty-five! This is what one can do! This is what one can get away with! Kane infected American cinema with what Andrew Sarris called the virus of ambition.

The acclaim did not translate into box office, however, and Welles was already on shaky ground at RKO when he started his fateful Ambersons project. He had a producer-director contract to make three films a year for his executive ally, George Schaefer, but Schaefer was himself in trouble. He would approve Welles’s adaptation of Tarkington’s novel, in return for which Welles would act in and produce Journey into Fear, with Norman Foster directing. Near the end, Welles was acting in that film by night and shooting The Magnificent Ambersons by day. 

Production itself was fraught. After Gregg Toland, the masterful cinematographer of Citizen Kane, proved unavailable, Welles brought in the journeyman Stanley Cortez, who had a reputation for working fast, mostly from B pictures for Universal. But when Cortez, suddenly seized with his own artistic ambitions, became painstakingly slow, Welles replaced him with Harry J. Wild as principal cameraman. Bernard Herrmann was the (uncredited) composer, but not exclusively.

To complicate matters further, the U.S. had just entered World War II, and in late December 1941 Welles agreed to shoot a goodwill documentary in Brazil, to be part of an omnibus coproduction—It’s All True—between RKO and the U.S. government. Shooting had to happen immediately, during Carnival, so he recorded the narration for Ambersons quickly and worked with Robert Wise long-distance, via telephone and telegram, on the edit, until RKO, anxious to open in the spring, ordered that infamous sneak preview in Pomona, California. There were further cuts, and material added without Welles’s consent, until control was taken away from Welles—the beginning of the end of any hope for a finished film that would reflect his design. 

Its somber beauty and valedictory tone were out of sync with the upbeat, patriotic spirit of the war years.

Still, The Magnificent Ambersons had a respectable opening, and it was nominated for four Academy Awards: best picture, best supporting actress (Moorehead), best black-and-white cinematography, and best black-and-white art direction. But its somber beauty and valedictory tone were out of sync with the upbeat, patriotic spirit of the war years, and it was released quietly at the bottom of a double bill with the Lupe Velez comedy Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.

Critics, on the other hand, recognized the artistry of Ambersons as a worthy successor to Citizen  Kane and have embraced it ever since, both for itself and for the spectral film reconstructed in their minds. Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Robert L. Carringer, and James Naremore, among others, have examined surviving documents, including a cutting continuity script, assembling a plausible blueprint of what might have been. Unquestionably, the most extensive cuts were made to the final third. But scholars have also deplored the cuts to the great ball sequence that is the film’s centerpiece: there were to have been extended scenes of foreshadowing and further comic relief after an abruptly ended conversation between two guests at the punch bowl. One of the finest scenes in the finished film is in the kitchen. As rain batters the mansion, a frustrated Fanny Minafer (Moorehead), George’s aunt, plies her nephew with food and questions, with Jack arriving at the end. After this, a clash was to have occurred between uncle and nephew on the lawn at night, where bulldozers were already excavating land, and George angrily laments the Major’s decision to break up the plot. George’s walk home through the heaving, ugly town was to have been longer, taking in more of that landscape, the ghostly houses.

In Welles’s outline of the final scene, Eugene visits Fanny in her boardinghouse. They sit in a kind of entombed silence, talking—when they talk—past each other. There are hints that Fanny may be a little mad. As Welles would describe it to Peter Bogdanovich, “Everything is over.” Both of their worlds are “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.” 

There is no question that the studio ending in the hospital, with George and Eugene reconciled, is tinnily upbeat, or that the last third of the film is sometimes choppy and without smooth transitions. And who can watch the ballroom scene without yearning for those lost moments! But is it heretical to wonder whether some of the cut material, if restored, would really improve the film?

Many scenes from the cutting continuity script fill in blanks, and their loss is obvious, but some seem downright bizarre (Lucy appearing in a vision asking George’s forgiveness, for example). I’d like to have witnessed what was to have been more of a struggle on Isabel’s part before submitting to George’s demand that she cut off relations with Eugene, but a scene immediately following in which George looks at himself in the mirror and quotes Hamlet seems both heavy-handed and out of character. 

The longer, more fluid ending portraying social upheaval might have been aesthetically satisfying, or at least less jarring, but it’s an open question whether a prolongation of the misery inflicted on the characters would have played better with even the most devoted viewers. The tone of the beginning, with its gaiety and affection, has already been replaced by desolation: any longer and the film would be a dirge. As it is, until this point, the few moments of happiness are past, everything is memory, and the memories are unbearably painful. In his immensely moving death scene, Major Amberson is spared by dementia from the full knowledge of the impoverishment of his estate. Lucy seems to have accepted the finality of her separation from George. Fanny seems to spin into delusions of a happier outcome as a momentary escape from reality—and memory.

What I prefer to think of as the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons, showing George’s true contrition, follows his long walk home after his mother has died, through the bustling and no-longer-recognizable town. It pairs with an earlier scene in which he visited his dying mother: Eugene has come to see her and—agonizingly, once again—been shown the door. As Isabel lies against the pillow, struggling to talk, she asks dotingly about her boy’s health and whether he’s eaten, and then, to his utter astonishment, after he informs her that Eugene has been there: “Has he gone? . . . I’d like to have seen him . . . just once.” At that moment, and only then, does he realize the enormity of his cruelty; you feel it as a blow, a curse from on high. Now, on the eve of his and Fanny’s departure from the mansion, he goes to that same room, kneels beside her bed as the camera pulls slowly backward from his silhouette,   and prays, “Mother, forgive me. God, forgive me.” The camera retreats further until George’s massive back is dwarfed by the baroque room. 

“Amid the heavy Victorian furnishings and gargoyles, and in the subtle shifts of the score, many lives are hanging in the balance.”

Bazin’s early praise of Welles, and of Toland, applauding the principle of long takes and deep focus as a new kind of cinematic realism, has come to be modified—“realism” is, after all, a term whose meaning shifts with decades and fashion. There is nothing naturalistic or “neutral” in Welles’s films, nothing in the expressionistic sets, the complex compositions and startling angles, that resembles the way we sit in a room and idly take in its properties. He is deciding what we will see and how we will see it, deliberately creating a theatrical atmosphere. But the aspect of Bazin’s realism that remains is the psychological one—it resides, like Shakespeare’s, in the glorious ambiguity of character. Bazin points to the emotional suspense created in The Magnificent Ambersons’ kitchen scene by the immobility of the camera, and Welles’s refusal to cue the audience through cuts, underlining, close-ups. No one in Welles’s work is all good or all bad, and the putative villains are complex and fascinating, the heroes riddled with doubts or fatal weaknesses. His attraction to the variety of human nature, and the way character determines fate, has never been more evident than in this ensemble. 

A great deal of the book makes its way into the film version of The Magnificent Ambersons, including the tone of wry amusement. But the surgery practiced by Welles is what gives the movie its power. He trims, streamlines, darkens, and intensifies, reducing the number of characters so that the ones that remain acquire density and focus. His wizardry at conveying multiple points of view reaches a crescendo at the Amberson ball, “the last of the great, long-remembered dances that everybody talked about”—an ebullient, dazzling, multilayered set piece, bringing class and character together in sharp relief and creating the sense of a vast net in which the two couples are gracefully but ineluctably caught. Its memory really does live on, tantalizingly, like music, recalling a once-hopeful time, even as sorrows engulf the subjects. Here is Welles at his pyrotechnic best, leading us through that interior so expressive of both elegance and excess, and roving up and down that winding staircase that is host to so many breakdowns, arguments, eavesdroppings. Amid the heavy Victorian furnishings and gargoyles, and in the subtle shifts of the score, many lives are hanging in the balance, held aloft magically like a juggler’s balls. 

No one steals the show in this magnificent group effort, but Moorehead as Aunt Fanny casts the longest shadow, a scarecrow who both fascinates and repels, warped by frustrated passion, always on the verge of hysteria. Her scenes with Holt are savage and violent but also wildly, darkly comical, as the two characters mimic each other, scraping on each other’s nerves, she trying to dissemble and disguise, he to ferret out every truth about  Eugene’s place in the family. Two spinsters locked together to the bitter end. 

As Isabel, Costello—a silent star who came out of early retirement in the midthirties—is stunning and unreachable, striking just the right note of vague melancholy that conceals desperation. Isabel is what was once called a Great Beauty, with all the frailties that can attend that supposed social asset: complacency and lassitude, like one of those blonde zombies of the forties, the woman with no will of her own. By contrast, Anne Baxter’s Lucy Morgan is everything Isabel is not: smart, curious, with a sense of irony that gives her a saving detachment. She has a strong sense of identity and needs to respect as well as love the man to whom she gives herself, something George, isolated in his bubble of self-importance, can never understand. It is Lucy who shrewdly and poetically pinpoints the inevitability of George’s behavior by comparing him, in a scene with her father, to the bad Indian chief whose name means “rides down everything.” As for Cotten’s Eugene, he started out as a popular fellow, spoiled, a spendthrift without money of whom nothing much was expected. He might have lost out anyway, but the fall from grace that broke his heart spurred him to make something of himself.

Cotten captures Welles’s own ambivalence in the wonderful dinner scene where the relentlessly antagonistic George viciously insults him and his automobile, while Eugene responds not with understandable anger or resentment but with quiet affability, concession: he agrees with George, expressing his own reservations about the invention and what it will do to humanity. We never know what technology will do and how it will change us, he says, and he might be talking about the electronic inventions of a century later. 

With the film’s abundance of lovely vertical and horizontal movements, the times when the camera comes to rest are all the more memorable: on Isabel’s profile at the door at the end of the party, or on Fanny after her brother has died—her face upturned, with a stricken expression of more than grief, perhaps rage, terror. Who will protect Fanny Minafer now? And will she finally lose Eugene, her great passion, to her widowed sister-in-law? These haunting images seem to be telling us something, anticipating shadows, loss, darkness, we’re not sure what. The well-placed narration by Welles in the beginning and near the end seems almost uncannily right, and the dialogue is brilliant throughout. But equally eloquent, and even more ambiguous, are the silences of what’s not said. 

Because of all of Welles’s aborted, butchered, and unfinished films, not to mention the ones that survive in multiple and contradictory fragments, early biographers diagnosed him as having a “fear of completion.” This overly negative and clinical designation has been disputed by subsequent scholars—and rightly so. What Welles did have was a chronic, almost debilitating dissatisfaction that sprang from the very nature of his genius: an overabundance of ideas. Peter Brook, who directed him in a 1953 television adaptation of King Lear, has spoken admiringly of Welles’s habit, in the theater, of settling on one remarkable piece of business and immediately superseding it with another. He dreaded having to see his completed films (and avoided screenings all his life) because he would have to live with choices he’d made that would eventually and inevitably feel inferior to some new idea. Because he was a master of so many (too many?) of the facets of the cinema—cutting, staging, camera movement and framing, dialogue, sound, and performance—there was always some new angle to try. Every film contained many films, unrealized possibilities.

He was ornery and difficult but also a courageous and gallant soul, who would always be at odds with the moneyed world of Hollywood, men who thought in terms of speed and profit. He had his revenge, becoming the patron saint of independent cinema, and his work of both the finished and unfinished varieties has yielded a never-ending harvest of discovery and fresh interpretation. How lucky he was—he often said so—to achieve what he did, and how lucky are we, its beneficiaries.