Surfaces and Depths

The Magnificent Ambersons

Surfaces and Depths

On Film / Essays — Nov 27, 2018

Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons follows a template established by Honoré de Balzac nearly a century earlier. That is to say, it presents itself explicitly as a case study illustrating a broad socioeconomic phenomenon. Its first chapter, accordingly, is an essay that slides the story’s individual human subjects in sideways. The Ambersons may have been the first family of their town, it argues, but that by no means exempted them from social trends. To the contrary, and despite their lofty pretensions, they were creatures of such trends at least as much as they were creators of them. Orson Welles’s 1942 adaptation, remarkably faithful to the novel for most of its course, begins with a cinematic essay that sets the scene in exactly the same way, incorporating large, verbatim chunks of Tarkington’s chapter. Such was Welles’s confidence—that he could make the film entirely his own even while hewing closely to its source, and that he could extend a literary work audiovisually without betraying its sensibility. He won the bet.

That opening sequence is narrated by Welles in his lightly insinuating, conversational voice, often seeming to suppress a sigh, sometimes murmuring the prose and sometimes pronouncing it, like an epitaph. Vignettes illustrating his points roll by—conveyances come and go (“The faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare”); Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan appears in a mirror sporting various hats and coats—and now and then the narration gives way to commentary by local citizens, shot from a low angle, often against a blank sky like heroic proletarians in a photo by Aleksandr Rodchenko. Their remarks, also taken directly from the book, merge into Welles’s narration as if they were italicized passages. Welles’s hypnotic voice and the lightly ironic distance of Tarkington’s prose impart gravity to the ostensible nostalgia and dignity to the rare burst of low comedy. Together, they become the voice of time itself, shepherding viewers through the irregular procession of years. 

Time is also expressed by means of a number of other rhetorical devices, whether literary—the stiff wind (which is not in the book) that accompanies revelers through the doors of the Amberson mansion  on the night of the grand ball, “the last of the great, long-remembered dances that everybody talked about”—or purely cinematic. The most ostentatious of these is the iris-out that concludes the sequence in which the Amberson sleigh is bested by the Morgan automobile. The iris having by unspoken accord been relegated to the silent cinema, in particular that of D. W. Griffith, its native function as an ellipsis is here less usurped than enhanced by its association with a specific historical period—the decade or two before the First World War, shimmering like a prelapsarian dream by the time of the Second. Welles employs the device in much the same way that he has the characters in that scene sing “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” a British music-hall number from 1892, in contrast to the novel’s use of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, among other things, lacks period specificity. The matte paintings of the Amberson mansion also function this way. In the scene in which George Minafer, dressed as Bonnie Prince Charlie, is called before his reproving mother and amused grandfather, the obviously two-dimensional house behind them appears as if it were a backdrop in a photographer’s studio, an apt setting for Georgie’s theatrical poses.

But the film offers a lesson to anyone undertaking to make a period picture: the historical signifiers should be lightly deployed, lest costuming and set dressing squeeze the life out of the movie, leaving a beautiful surface with a hollow core, as has happened many times with even the best-intentioned motion pictures. In The Magnificent Ambersons, by contrast, what you primarily recall are the faces. The most significant matters seem to largely occur in the faces of those experiencing them. Isabel’s tragic sacrifice is written in Dolores Costello’s countenance, Fanny’s festering heartbreak in Agnes Moorehead’s, Eugene’s forbearance and irony in Cotten’s, George’s arrogance and eventual comeuppance in Tim Holt’s—and, of course, Major Amberson’s decline takes place in Richard Bennett’s face, flickering in the firelight, as you watch. Welles here as elsewhere seldom isolates his faces but likes to display them in theatrical context, often positioned in front of the camera while the business of life carries on behind them. 

The film approaches but doesn’t quite equal the deep-focus magic of Citizen Kane. Gregg Toland, the earlier film’s nonpareil cinematographer, was under contract to MGM, so the shooting of The Magnificent Ambersons was done primarily by Stanley Cortez, who was certainly able enough, although Welles’s later verdict was that he was “so slow that we took longer to shoot than any picture I’ve ever done.” The picture itself isn’t slow, but it is deliberately paced; it is, after all, about the crushing relentlessness of time in its passing. The story takes place within the intersections among a collection of personalities, some of whom are more connected to actuality than others. It presents itself as an objective record of a reality that is largely subjective, although the world outside eventually crashes through. It can feel as if an Edwardian photo album has come to life, page after page of faces and decorous amusements that pretend all is well while bleeding subtext—and then it all goes to hell at the end, as the beautifully printed cartes de visite give way to tawdry fairground snapshots and photo-booth strips.  

If the outside world can seem like a fragile construct, the Amberson house’s interior is massively physical. For all its Victorian fripperies—flocked velvet wallpaper, stained glass, bronze statuettes on plinths—the house is above all a gigantic armature, its bones the beams and pillars and the extraordinary three-story open staircase, all of it dark-stained hardwood, baronial to all appearances but seemingly inspired by industrial scaffolding. (It comes as no surprise to learn that the set was later employed for producer Val Lewton’s horror movies.) The house is the inside of an enormous head—that of the Amberson family, which it represents better than any single human member, all of them weakened by their flaws. The house has no flaws; it is impregnable, until it isn’t. The staircase, its central nervous system, is a conveyance to the private sanctums as well as the third-story grand ballroom, and it is also the setting for the contretemps between George and Fanny Minafer during which she employs her envy to fuel his catastrophic hubris. That is when the disease—his, but in a larger way the family’s—metastasizes, leading to the eventual death of the house of Amberson. 

The surrounding city of Indianapolis and its many changes over the decades appear as hints. The clapboard downtown, shot on RKO’s Gower Street lot in Los Angeles, appears to fill out and become less rural, and then, when Isabel Amberson Minafer returns from Europe and is startled by the changes, we are given a fleeting glimpse of brick walls. The landscape becomes truly material only when George takes his final walk back to the Amberson house. The slums and factories we see then are incontrovertible: they were shot by Welles himself with a handheld camera in the streets of Los Angeles. The sequence, brief as it is, is a cold shower of social actuality—it suggests the sorts of urban subjects that Farm Security Administration photographers were shooting at the time the picture was being filmed—quite distinct from the view of life that has preceded it, filtered through the Ambersons’ wealth. George can see this reality only when he has lost everything. We’ll never be able to see exactly how Welles meant to employ this sudden reality in full context, since almost everything that follows it in the picture as we know it was shot by others, under orders from RKO management.

Given the protracted butchery to which the original film was subjected, the tacked-on final scene is appropriate in its own curdled way, since its happy march down a hospital corridor is redolent—in its lighting and decor no less than in its sentiments and their expression—of any number of B-movie finales of the time; we’ve undoubtedly seen that corridor before.

Rather like a runner winning a race on a broken ankle, The Magnificent Ambersons has managed to achieve and retain the status of a classic despite its mutilation. Viewers may make it all the way through—and have done so—without knowing or noticing any of it, because Welles’s rhythms are so powerful that they survive attempts at sabotage. By means of his deliberate pacing, his recurrent narration, his august surfaces, his extraordinary actors with their measured language and rigorous protocol, he situates the viewer in a time, a place, and a condition of life, managing the kind of deep immersion that is more often accomplished by the slow accretion of prose than by the staccato dynamism of cinema. He steeps us in a culture—beyond our reach but subcutaneously familiar—out of which a story arises, and each illuminates the other. It is “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with its gothic effects sublimated into set dressing, as if recounted by Anne Baxter’s Lucy Morgan with her mysterious smile, at once wise and feline.