Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Eugene: I'm not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. May be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of the men's souls, I'm not sure. But 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. ~The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington, chronicling the decline of an American dynasty, was the inspiration for Orson Welles's 1942 film. It is considered a cinematic masterpiece in spite of the fact that the film was wrested from Welles' control and did not conform to his original inspiration. According to Turner Classic Movies:
Director Orson Welles had long been interested in Booth Tarkington's novel The Magnificent Ambersons (which had been filmed as Pampered Youth in 1925). Apart from Welles' fascination with 1890s America he was also drawn to the novel's exploration of social illusions and the changes technology creates as it follows the fortunes of a Midwestern family over two decades....

With Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons introduced new approaches to narrative filmmaking via visuals and sound. Through his cinematographer, Welles used deep focus and visible ceilings to capture the worlds in which his characters moved as rarely before on screen. Aurally, he used radio tricks -- overlapping dialogue, volume levels related to the speaker's proximity to the camera, timbre affected by the size and physical makeup of the scene's setting -- to create some of the most innovative sound recording in film history. Many historians have referred to these effects as "Welles sound," though they certainly can be found, at least individually, in the work of other directors.
The film is quite faithful to the book as films go, capturing the grandeur of a wealthy American family who are about to fade into oblivion due to bad investments, overspending, and the rise of auto manufacturing. The opening lines describe the culture of the midwestern town over which the Ambersons preside:
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. In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the girl what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare....In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year's, and all-day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade. Of a summer night, young men would bring an orchestra under a pretty girl's window, and flute, harp, fiddle, cello, cornet, bass viol, would presently release their melodies to the dulcet stars. Against so home-spun a background, the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.
It was after one such aforementioned serenade that Isabelle Amberson (Delores Costello), humiliated by her drunken sweetheart Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), rejects his suit and marries Wilbur Minafer, a man she does not love. All her affection is lavished upon her only son, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), who grows to be a spoiled brat, despising the labor which had originally built up the family fortune. He refuses to learn a profession, but plans to be a gentleman of leisure. He hates the noisy motorcars as a symbol of all modern ways.

Meanwhile, Isabelle is left a widow, and after a respectable span of time, she is courted by Eugene again, who has returned to town. Eugene, who has made a fortune in the automobile industry, has become a widower with a lovely young daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). George falls in love with Lucy, who loves George but has reservations about his pursuit of aristocratic idleness. George is outraged by the idea of his mother marrying again, and is horrid to Eugene. To placate George, Isabelle sends Eugene away once more. Her heart is broken, her health fails and she dies.

Eventually George is left alone, except for his annoying Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). The legendary wealth of the Ambersons is gone, and George is forced to work for a living. To his credit, he does not abandon his aunt but makes personal sacrifices on her behalf, showing that he is capable of being the most magnificent of the Ambersons, a magnificence that ultimately has nothing to do with passing wealth. In the end, he is run over by one of the motorcars he hates. Eugene decides to help him for Isabelle's sake, and by doing so finds peace, knowing that in rescuing Isabelle's son he has been "true at last to his true love."

Another version of The Magnificent Ambersons was made in 2002, based on Welles' screenplay and his editing notes. It is also quite good and in some ways, better.

(Artwork courtesy of The Ambersons) Share

No comments: