The story of the tragic demise of the film, “The Magnificent Ambersons”, is indelibly intertwined with that of its director, whose career and reputation was fatally damaged by the events that unfolded in its making, and in its subsequent box-office failure. Orson Welles’ second film, while living in the shadow of its more famous predecessor and counterpart “Citizen Kane”, is nevertheless a unique and exquisitely beautiful film, wholly deserving of the critical accolades accorded it, in spite of any flaws and imperfections consequent to its having been taken from the director’s control.
Near to the film’s completion, “Ambersons” was mercilessly cut from 131 minutes to a mere 88 minutes, and as a result it was comprehensively refashioned to the whims of R.K.O film studio executives. It is therefore rather miraculous that the film still manages, in spite of these interventions, to be such an intensely personal valentine to the pre-industrial age in the American Midwest. It also memorably portrays the loss of simplicity, of community and of societal hierarchy that resulted from the advent of the automobile, which completely transformed life at the turn of the 20th Century.
To fully appreciate the reasons for the failure of “Ambersons”, it is important to firstly understand the storm of controversy that plagued Welles’ debut film, “Citizen Kane”. This was due in no small part to the film’s unflattering depiction of leviathan newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, which included personally embarrassing details and was scathing in its criticism of the personality flaws of the character based upon him. Hearst was therefore absolutely determined to sabotage its release, and used his not inconsiderable influence to block its general critical and popular acceptance. “Kane” was thus given entirely unflattering reviews by film critics in Hearst’s newspapers, and was then deliberately and systematically restricted in its theatrical run due to the tycoon’s interventions. “Citizen Kane” therefore barely recovered its costs at the box-office, in spite of its undeniable quality and groundbreaking technical attributes. With this precedent foremost in their minds, R.K.O executives were quite apprehensive about the potential success or failure of Welles’ second film project.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” was to be an adaptation of the well regarded, if somewhat downbeat and non-commercial Booth Tarkington novel. As filming neared completion, and with the inevitable budgetary over-runs adding fuel to the studio’s concerns, Welles was forced to relinquish the total artistic control as demanded in his initial contract, in return for allowing him to complete the film. Unfortunately, a disastrous preview to a young audience in Pomona, who failed to appreciate the film or its subtleties, only made matters worse and led to wholesale panic among R.K.O powerbrokers. They ordered the film be shortened drastically and completely re-edited, in the main by “Ambersons” principal film editor Robert Wise, who would later go on to fame and fortune as a well respected film director in his own right (The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.).
All of these behind the scenes machinations occurred whilst Welles was detained in South America shooting his next feature as part of a government goodwill mission, a film later called “Its All True”. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor intervened at around this time, which led to the implementation of travel restrictions associated with the onset of wartime (and no doubt exacerbated in no small measure by Welles’ over-confidence and procrastination). This led to the film being completely commandeered by the studio at this point, giving the unfortunate director little say in the final outcome. To make matters worse, a poorly scripted ending, with somewhat stilted dialogue and an inappropriately upbeat tone, was added which was completely inconsistent with the rest of the film. This new ending also negated important thematic connections, thereby deviating dramatically from the director’s original concept of the piece, and damaging the film’s intended impact on the viewer.
Not surprisingly given these series of events, the studio released “Ambersons” abruptly in a few minor theatres as a “B” movie double feature to cut their losses financially, which led to the film’s complete commercial failure at the box office, failing to recoup even a fraction of its budget and leaving Welles’ reputation in tatters. The remnants of the film as shot by Welles, which were removed in the editing process, were then summarily destroyed by the studio to prevent the director from resuming directorial control of the project, and to this date no known remnant of this footage remains extant to allow a reconstruction, as has often occurred in more recent times with other films modified in similar, if somewhat less exceptional circumstances.
Given these dramatic events, what is so remarkable is that this film, even in its truncated and bastardized form, remains a landmark of cinema art, and still retains most of its power and beauty as a poignant reminder of an era that has sadly passed into history. Though Welles doesn’t appear in the picture as an actor, his voice is used to maximum effect as narrator, particularly in the film’s opening sequence. He speaks with such affection of life in the late 19th Century, and with a modicum of wry humour, that the audience is immediately drawn into the picture.
Welles’ narration begins:
“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.”
So, with beautifully expressed simplicity, begins an examination of the slow and certain decline and fall of a once fabulously wealthy Indianapolis family, from the lofty heights of their vintage, due to the inexorable and merciless ravages of change wrought by the advent of the automobile. The Ambersons stubbornly refuse to be brought into the technological age, ensconced as they have become in their position as the pre-eminent family of their community. The narrator adds, with a mixture of affection and rueful irony:
“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.”
This was, it must be remembered, a gentler age when cars were still a mere nightmare of the future, and families like the Ambersons felt completely safe in their mansions on the edge of town, and complacent in their undoubted wealth and social status. The Ambersons’ failure to adapt to the times and stubborn resistance to change causes their ultimate downfall. The central theme of the film can therefore be seen to be the folly of intransigence, both in the human level of interpersonal relationships, and at a societal level in clinging to past glories in the face of an ever-changing world. The narrator elaborates on the changing fashions of the time, being a mere foretaste of a much greater, and less benign change to follow:
“During the earlier years of this period, while bangs and bustles were having their way with women, there were seen men of all ages to whom a hat meant only that rigid, tall silk thing known to impudence as a stovepipe. But the long contagion of the derby had arrived. One season, the crown of this hat would be a bucket; the next it would be a spoon. Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-top boots gave way to shoes and congress gaiters, and these were played through fashions that shaped them now with toes like box ends, and now with toes like the prows of racing shells. Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf and hence was ready-made. With evening dress, a gentleman wore a tan overcoat, so short that his black coattails hung visible five inches below the overcoat. But after a season or two, he lengthened his overcoat till it touched his heels. And he passed out of his tight trousers into trousers like great bags.”
In a final literary flourish, Welles as narrator returns to his wistful, and one might suggest regretful homage to the end of the gentility and formality of a bygone era:
“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.”
And so the story proper begins, with Isobel Amberson (Delores Costello), the town beauty courted by various beaux, one of whom is the brash and handsome Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton). Eugene plans, as the narrator foretold, to perform an elaborate serenade for Isabel in front of the Amberson mansion, but instead (in ironic counterpoint) he falls over onto his bass viol in a state of inebriation, smashing it to pieces and in the process laying the foundations for social ridicule that would sabotage any possibility of success with Isobel. Even though Isobel is in love with Eugene, the embarrassment caused by this one incident, and the social repercussions resulting from it, prohibit her from having anything further to do with him, given that she is the daughter of such a prominent and influential family. Isobel then foolishly chooses security over love, and marries a plain but financially secure businessman, Wilbur Minafer. Wilbur is rather bland and passionless compared with Eugene, but more “respectable” to the broader society- a “more suitable match” as those of that era would no doubt suggest. Nonetheless, Isobel doesn’t love Wilbur, and this has implications for the relationship she develops with their only child, George Amberson-Minafer. George becomes the object of Isobel’s displaced affection, and so is incessantly indulged and spoiled by her, thus growing to adulthood as an extremely arrogant, self-righteous and self-absorbed individual. George has developed an imperious air of entitlement purely because he is an Amberson, and has nothing but scorn for anyone who wishes to undertake anything as mundane as working for a living.
The Ambersons live in a rambling mansion that dominates the town, and is every bit as much a character in the story as any of the protagonists. It is a focal point of the town, and the townspeople are seen in the opening scene standing outside, commenting on its grandeur, and the various state of the art facilities found therein. It is clear that they are somewhat in awe, although their admiration is tempered by a vein of envy of the Ambersons, who epitomise wealth and status in Indianapolis society. The Amberson mansion is every bit as imposing a structure internally, consisting of massive ceilings, oppressive shadows, and within which resides an endless, winding staircase that rises ever upwards into the darkness.
The huge imposing staircase found within the mansion is no doubt a metaphor for the societal hierarchy, but also director Welles gives the impression with this elaborate set design that the massive staircase winds up story after story, hundreds of feet high into the rafters, and without so much as a window to be found, into a dark void that foretells the fate the family will soon confront.
Shortly after George’s father dies leaving Isobel widowed, Eugene Morgan returns after twenty years away, back to the town that rejected him and accompanied by his beautiful daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). He is now a widower himself and highly successful in his own right, having established himself as a prominent manufacturer and inventor of automobiles. Eugene hopes to rekindle his long-delayed romance with Isobel, now that he is a man of substantial means worthy of the Ambersons. But these efforts at reclaiming his lost opportunity are destined to be thwarted at every turn by George’s interventions, having taken it upon himself to defend his family’s archaic sense of honour by spurning Eugene’s attentions to his mother, in utter disregard for her feelings.
Young George’s misplaced and implicitly Oedipal protectiveness of his mother is fuelled all the while by the envious and bitter spinster Aunt Fanny, played with ferocious intensity by a brilliant Agnes Moorhead.
Unbeknownst to all, Fanny is also in love with the dashing Eugene, although even the hapless inventor certainly does not perceive this, let alone reciprocate Fanny’s love and affection. George, on the other hand, hates Eugene passionately, not just because of his chosen profession and his perceived lack of class and “breeding”, but also subconsciously because he would be forced to share his mother’s attention and affection for the first time. George rebukes Eugene’s invention by stating that automobiles had “no business being invented”. This is most telling in illuminating not only his disdain for Eugene, but also one of the main themes of the film, as the following quote suggests in Eugene’s response to this criticism:
“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. And it may be that George is right. May be that in ten to twenty years from now that if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but agree with George – that automobiles had no business to be invented.”
This hatred of Eugene is further reinforced when George learns that the townsfolk are gossiping about his apparent love for Isobel. George becomes suitably enraged by this supposed scandal, and does whatever he can to prevent Isobel and Eugene from marrying.
Eugene, now a wealthy industrialist in his own right, eventually builds a home in town to rival that of the Ambersons, while the Amberson fortunes falter due to bad investments made by George’s father prior to his death. Meanwhile, Lucy and George become increasingly involved romantically, in spite of George’s intense dislike for her father.
When it becomes clear to George that Eugene intends to propose marriage to his mother, George forces his mother to choose between her loyalty and love for him over the prospect of future happiness with Eugene.
On the pretext of avoiding scandalous rumours about his mother’s love for Eugene allegedly during her marriage to Wilbur Minafer, George takes his mother on a prolonged European sojourn, which in turn calls an end to any prospects of George’s love for Lucy reaching fruition. During the course of this trip, Isobel falls gravely ill and is forced to return home immediately.
Even as his mother lies on her deathbed, George continues to obstruct Eugene seeing her, thereby ensuring his mother is never able to fully reconcile with the only romantic love of her life.
When Isobel Amberson dies, her father Major Amberson rapidly loses grip on reality due to a combination of grief, his age and advancing dementia. Ultimately, with the Major’s death shortly thereafter, the family is left in financial ruin, with George being forced to take a series of jobs in order to maintain himself and Aunt Fanny financially. Fanny descends into a psychotic breakdown, while the family mansion falls into total disrepair, eventually forcing them to leave the home in which the family had resided for generations.
The narrator muses, as George sits alone in the dark in his dingy hotel room, no doubt in somber regret of his past mistakes and hubris that led him to this point of despair:
“Something had happened. A thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson-Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about him.”
The film ends with George wandering around a polluted city, confused and disoriented by the industrial society that has developed around him, and which has engulfed the “Golden Age” of privilege to which he was previously accustomed. Welles’ dulcet-toned voiceover delivers the final, sobering commentary on the fall of a once great American family:
“George Amberson-Minafer walked home through the strange streets of what seemed to be a strange city. For the town was growing… changing… it was heaving up in the middle, incredibly; it was spreading incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its skies. This was the last walk home he was ever to take up National Avenue, to Amberson Edition, and the big old house at the foot of Amberson Boulevard. Tomorrow they were to move out. Tomorrow everything would be gone.”
In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this is the point where “The Magnificent Ambersons” in its truncated form should have ended. This is especially because Welles’ original epilogue, at a boarding house where Aunt Fanny now resides, has been replaced with a completely different scene at a hospital, after George has been injured in an automobile accident. A superfluous theme of forgiveness and reconciliation is thereby arbitrarily introduced, emphasizing Eugene’s devotion to Isobel’s memory as a motivator, which seems completely at odds with the film’s overall tone, its cinematic techniques and indeed even its central message. The jarring affect of this somewhat artificial and hackneyed scene fatally reduces the film’s impact, and damages it as a whole artistic work. However, viewing the film without the scene in question gives “Ambersons” a greater cohesion, and is none the worse for an absence of over-elaboration as to the remaining family members’ ultimate fate.
To analyse “The Magnificent Ambersons” more deeply, one must first understand that the director, Orson Welles (whose first name, not coincidentally, is George), conceives of the character of George Amberson-Minafer as somewhat of a reflection or stereotypical version of himself. Much as the character of Charles Foster Kane was written with Welles’ own character flaws in mind, Welles also has no hesitation in depicting his alter ego in a negative light in this film. Possibly he does so as an oblique commentary on the public’s perception of him as an “enfant terrible”, with the press and other members of the Hollywood establishment viewing him as an arrogant young upstart from the Broadway stage, whose whirlwind entry into cinema (with a contract with unprecedented autonomy no less) was also greeted unfavourably by many of his more established peers.
In order to delve deeper into the subtext of the film, the director’s personal life and family background require some exposition to give further detail to flesh out its context in relation to the film’s narrative. George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin and into well to do family with some pretensions to social stature, not dissimilar to the Ambersons, albeit to a lesser extent in terms of their monetary wealth. His mother Beatrice, for example, is clearly mirrored in character of Isobel Amberson, being a woman of quiet beauty who has many admirers, although in Beatrice Welles’ case she marries a man who is not financially adept, and he is perceived to be not of a comparable social standing to herself. Just like the tragic Isobel, however, Beatrice Welles would die young, in her forties from hepatitis. Welles’ family was allegedly acquainted with Booth Tarkington, the author of “The Magnificent Ambersons”, and Welles contended (perhaps immodestly) that the Ambersons were in some ways modelled on aspects of his own family, where particularly the character of Eugene was modelled on his father, being an inventor of sorts who eventually succumbed to alcoholism. Whether this was truly the case or not, the similarities would no doubt have been apparent to Welles, and made the fate of the family, and especially the death of the mother even more poignant and personally relevant to him.
The central conceit of Welles’ life, however, has been living up to the prognostications of genius delivered to him in his earliest childhood, by a friend and confidant of his mother. The young Welles subsequently sought conspicuously to live up to this perception of genius by adopting a larger than life persona. Fresh from school, he travelled abroad only to be soon bluffing his way into a Shakespearean theatre company (Dublin’s Gate Theatre) at 16 years of age, where he proceeded to gather a reputation for his precocious acting talent. On return to the U.S, he in short order developed into a Broadway wunderkind by his early twenties, with idiosyncratic and imaginative staging of Shakespeare (a Voodoo “Macbeth” set in Haiti in the court of King Henri Christophe, “Julius Caesar” as modern fascist dictatorship modeled on Mussolini’s regime), and innovative presentations of various other classic plays, such as “The Cradle Will Rock”. He ferociously pursued an ambitious progression with his career by establishing the Mercury Theatre company (where he discovered many future cinematic and theatrical stars), while also engaging in extensive radio work with “Mercury Theatre of the Air” and by providing the voice of Lamont Cranston for popular program “The Shadow”, all of which was performed simultaneously with the breakneck pace of writing, acting and directing in his theatrical work. Eventually, this radio involvement culminated in his most famous adaptation, that of H.G.Wells’ “War of the Worlds”, which led to a mass panic across America among listeners, such was the realism of that broadcast.
As a result of this bewildering array of successes, R.K.O signed Welles to a lucrative contract with exclusive rights to direct and star in two major films for which he would have complete artistic control. The first of these, “Citizen Kane”, would come to be repeatedly voted by influential critics as the greatest film of all time. Welles’ force of personality, his brashness and his self-assured arrogance caused his detractors to hope that he too would receive his comeuppance, much as the townsfolk wished for the character of George Amberson-Minafer. Certainly, with the spectacular failure of “The Magnificent Ambersons”, he got it thrice over, brimming full and running over, much as his alter ego would receive within the film itself, a bitter irony that I’m sure was not lost on the director in his later years.
As with the iconic “Citizen Kane”, the sheer ambition of any Orson Welles project was always tantalising and exciting to witness, and “Ambersons” was certainly no exception with a slew of bold ideas. Visually, there are very few films as stunning on as many different levels as “Ambersons”. It has a unique artistic vision and was at the time just about as daring a film visually as had ever been made. The visual style Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland pioneered on Citizen Kane is every bit as integral to the piece, if not more so, courtesy of an equally brilliant cinematographer in the estimable Stanley Cortez. Welles’ use of light and shadow to set tone, and depth of field shots to draw connections between characters and action in the foreground and background simultaneously has been widely imitated, but still largely unmatched by those inspired by his techniques.
Indeed, Welles uses the full gamut of cinematic tricks and technical wizardry in “Ambersons”, with such techniques as iris shots, brilliant deep-focus photography (where all objects in the field of vision are simultaneously in focus), chiaroscuro lighting, fluid dolly shots, a brilliantly conceived ballroom sequence (later cut from the final film) in one take over the entire three-stories of the Amberson mansion, revolutionary camera angles and quick cutting, immaculate period reconstruction (with a style reminiscent of turn of the century photography), and bravura acting by a hand picked cast shot in long, elegant takes.
Tragically, in spite of the groundbreaking and brilliant nature of “The Magnificent Ambersons”, and its compelling story full of insightful commentary on a pivotal era in American history, it cannot entirely overcome the influence of the R.K.O studio and the extensive cutting and re-editing that they ultimately required. With the loss of many of its most ground-breaking scenes to the cutting room floor, the film lost at least some of its overall cohesiveness and thematic consistency, with pacing perhaps at times being more brisk than it would otherwise have been compared to the overall trajectory of the narrative, while inevitably perhaps this led to some crucial moments in the plot lacking sufficient emphasis. While this certainly causes some damage to the overall impact of the film, it doesn’t prevent “The Magnificent Ambersons”, even in its current form, from being a remarkable feat of cinematic prowess just the same.
In spite of such pervasive external interference, “Ambersons” remains the director’s most moving and personal film, and indeed it still succeeds magnificently as a heartfelt masterpiece of great scope and depth, and virtuoso tribute to a bygone era.