Blog Directory CineVerse: Ambersons aims high, despite its shortcomings

Ambersons aims high, despite its shortcomings

Monday, August 15, 2022

Eighty years ago, RKO Pictures released the follow up to Citizen Kane, Orsons Welles’s debut work that many consider the finest film ever made. Welles’ ambition was to top Kane by creating a picture that would visually astound, achieve new dramatic heights, and exceed the lofty expectations many had for his sophomore effort. But mixed reception from audiences during test previews propelled the studio to make drastic changes to the film while Welles was away in Brazil. Consequently, a shortened and thematically compromised version was released that flopped at the box office and damaged Welles’ standing in Hollywood. But despite its abbreviated runtime and deviation from the director’s intent, Ambersons has come to be regarded as among the greatest movies of all time.

Our CineVerse club convened last week to watch and discuss this flawed classic, and the highlights of our discussion are summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Why does The Magnificent Ambersons still matter 80 years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why is this movie worth celebrating?

  • It could be Orson Welles’ best work, or at least might have been if not tampered with by RKO. Even in its altered form and with its tacked-on happy ending (which, by the way, approximates the finale in Booth Tarkington’s novel), it remains an incredible picture.
    • Welles’ intended finale featured Eugene visiting a diminished Fanny in a boarding house, which we learn in the final shot is actually the Amberson mansion. Tonally, this would have been a much more somber and elegiac denouement than the conclusion we currently have, in which Eugene and a healthier Fanny visit George recovering in the hospital where Lucy is by his side, the two men reconcile their differences, and it’s suggested that Eugene will financially provide for George and Fanny.
  • It has stood the test of time because it isn’t afraid to be dark and downbeat.
    • It’s prescient in its cautionary messages about how technological progress cannot be stopped and how industrial innovation and a faster-paced modern world has significant cultural and societal repercussions.
    • This is one of the first Hollywood motion pictures to tackle the topic of the rapid industrialization of early 20th century America and the replacement of the privileged aristocracy with the bourgeoisie, or upper middle class.
  • Ambersons further matters because many of the characters and performances are superb, especially Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny. Some regard her portrayal as one of the first contemporary cinematic representations of a neurotic, hysterical woman.
  • Perhaps most of all it’s worth celebrating for the elite filmmaking craft involved, especially for 1942. Welles continued to experiment with the innovative approaches he and his collaborators first adopted in Citizen Kane, including:
    • Deep focus photography: Welles and company create striking compositions in which the frame is often carefully designed to feature multiple planes of focus and interest, such as in an early shot of the gossiping townspeople that layers them across the foreground, middle ground, and background.
    • Chiaroscuro lighting: The shadow-heavy cinematography is quite distinctive, with silhouettes and half-lit figures occasionally used to great dramatic effect.
    • Grandiose camera movement via elaborate crane shots and fluid tracking shots; a fine example of the latter is in the Ambersons ball sequence, where the camera seamlessly weaves between dancing and walking characters.
    • Long, unbroken shots: These keep the audience intently focused on the characters and the acting without breaking the rhythm of the scene or their performance, such as the four-minute sequence in the kitchen where Fanny feeds George, or Lucy and George’s carriage ride through town.
    • A sophisticated sound design: This is evidenced by the overlapping dialogue, variations in volume based on the speaker’s location to the camera, and echo effects.
    • Silent cinema techniques: In keeping with the nostalgic tone of the narrative, Welles employs antique effects like an iris closing and, in the prologue, a gauzy lens with blurred corners of the frame, harkening back to the look of silent movies and vintage photographs.
    • Creative end credits: Instead of using traditional text, Welles verbally recognizes the cast and crew and presents shots of the actors’ faces looking at the camera. I can’t recall another film that closes in this manner, can you?

How was Ambersons similar to and different from Welles’s previous film, Citizen Kane? What uniquely Wellesian qualities are imbued in this picture?

  • Besides the posthumously released Other Side of the Wind, this is the sole movie Welles helmed in which he doesn’t appear onscreen; only his narrating voice can be heard. His famously booming baritone takes a back seat here to a more subdued vocalization in which his cadence, timbre, and tone combine to convey a pensive and restrained omniscience.
  • Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote: “The film language is more fluid and adept than Kane‘s, the expressionist lighting is more rigorously modulated. The astonishingly choreographed Christmas ball that serves to introduce the major characters is arguably the greatest set piece of Welles’s career. The highly rehearsed ensemble…is sensational… not even Kane made more effective use of dramatic sound. Again, and with greater subtlety, there are Welles’s trademark overlapping dialogue and his construction of aural “deep space,” a brooding Bernard Herrmann score, and the clever deployment of a naturalistic Greek chorus. Most remarkable, however, is the voice…The movie is haunted by Welles’s voice, by his youth, and by a sense of a lost America that he would never again visit—and mainly by its own lost possibilities.”
  • While it’s a trifling point, this is an early example of a “meta” film in how it shares the same universe as Citizen Kane; if you pay close attention, you can spot how George’s automobile injury is reported in a newspaper story written by Jed Leland, Kane’s theatrical critic also played by Joseph Cotton.

Can you cite any films or filmmakers that you believe were influenced by The Magnificent Ambersons?

  • It’s possible that Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, released a year later, took a thematic cue or two from Ambersons in how it depicts the dark truths that fester inside a beloved small town.
  • Some cite Luchino Visconti’s equally nostalgic The Leopard as a work inspired by Ambersons.
  • Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums was influenced, to some degree, by this film’s characters and story and even its title.
  • There was a three-hour cable version of this tale shown in 2002 that followed Welles’ shooting script—a testament to the allure of the lost cut of the film.
  • Welles himself revisited Ambersons’ class conflict and glory-fading themes in his later Chimes at Midnight.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in Ambersons?

  • Time and progress cannot be halted. Most of the movie suggests that the Ambersons are doomed to financial failure, ignominy, and irrelevance because they cannot adapt to modernization and changing economic, social, and cultural paradigms. They can’t move forward, as Eugene symbolically does on the dance floor, whisking Isabel out of frame; instead, the Ambersons move backward, as George literally does when he dances with Lucy.
    • This implies that living in the past and ignoring what’s to come is dangerous. David Alexander of The Guardian wrote: “As modernity surrounds the Amberson mansion, Welles brings the film’s focus ever more tightly into the big old house. Soon we find we’re trapped there, entombed in an architectural anachronism. The last third of the film keeps the action largely in this setting, as it puts the Amberson family through a final round of humiliation.”
  • The negative consequences of innovation and technological progress.
    • This intimates that focusing only on the future while forgetting the past is dangerous, a concept contrary to the previously posited theme.
    • Remember how the narrator comments in the film’s opening, how “In those days, they had time for everything,” and how the streetcar is “too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare.” These remarks are prophetic, because nowadays, despite all our high-tech, rapid advancements designed to make life more efficient and easy, we seem to have less time than ever.
    • Also, recall what Eugene says after George’s insult about automobiles being a useless nuisance: “I'm not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of men's souls…It may be that in 10 or 20 years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George: that automobiles had no business to be invented.”
  • Nostalgia and wistfulness for a bygone time. Much of Ambersons is infused with a melancholic longing for a faded era, but the irony here is that staying wedded to the past keeps you blinded to the inevitable future and your ability to adjust to it.
    • Recall how Eugene says: “When times are gone, they are not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.”
    • The problem for the Amberson clan is that they are solely focused on old times and past glories, which can be interpreted as the likely reason why, at least figuratively, Isabel dies prematurely, Jack is forced to leave town and look for work, Fanny faces financial ruin, and George is brought down several pegs.
  • Tragedy and misfortune. This is the tale of the downfall of a respected blue blood American family, as well as the unsettling transformation of a location from a beloved quaint hometown to an unsightly modern and mechanized city where past cherished charms have been swept away. It’s also a story of romantic catastrophe, in which a good man is prevented from marrying his true love, a spoiled offspring is jilted by the woman of his affection, and a meddling spinster doesn’t get the man of her dreams. And like a classic Greek tragedy, there is a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of the gossiping townsfolk we see.
  • Redemption and forgiveness. George is finally humbled in the end, forced to work for a living and found kneeling in prayer for forgiveness for his actions, which makes him a more sympathetic character. Poetic justice has been served in the form of an automobile accident that sends him to the hospital. This cosmic reprimand, combined with his mea culpa, means he is now worthy of being absolved by Eugene and loved by Lucy. And Eugene comes to pardon George for meddling in his affair with Isabel.
  • Complex familial dynamics and intergenerational struggles. There are three generations of Ambersons who face challenges in coexisting together. The naivete, rudeness, and stubborn nature of George—embodying the youngest generation—insinuates that the “magnificence” of the Amberson line is passing. However, his “comeuppance” and peacemaking with Eugene at the conclusion imply that George can redeem himself and his family’s name.
  • Class conflict. The Magnificent Ambersons is a study of the clash between gentry elites, represented by the Amberson family, and the upwardly mobile middle class that will replace them, exemplified by Eugene and his daughter.
  • Interesting romantic and familial dynamics.
    • Ambersons presents two unusual love triangles, the first between Isabel, Eugene, and George, and the second involving Lucy, Eugene, and George. The narrative centerpiece of this tale concerns the competition between George and Eugene for Isabel’s affection, but there’s also a thinly veiled Oedipal relationship between George and Isabel, who spoils her son. Likewise, Lucy has a close, if not Elektra-like, relationship with her father.
    • There’s an intriguing symmetry between several groups of characters, too. Ponder that Isabel is a widow with a son, just as Eugene is a widower with a child of his own. The widow and the widower are drawn to each other, as are their adult children. Two secondary characters include George’s paternal aunt and maternal uncle, helping to expand the intergenerational dynamics of this family story, with Fanny and Jack each getting roughly equal screen time.
  • Grievances, resentments, and unrequited love. Much of the plot and character motivations are propelled by emotional motives, such as the desire by many to see George get his just deserts; George’s umbrage against Eugene for the attention he gives to his mother and possibly because Lucy has rejected his affections; the jealousy Fanny harbors about Eugene and Isabel’s relationship; and the heartbreak Eugene endures multiple times when he is thwarted from being with Isabel.

What is The Magnificent Ambersons’ greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of the film’s greatest gift is that it demonstrates, even 80 years later, that tremendous talent, creativity, ingenuity, and artistry cannot be denied. Is Ambersons a blemished magnum opus because roughly one-third of its footage is missing? Yes. Would the narrative flow better and the character arcs feel more complete if Welles’s intended cut survived? Almost certainly. Would many of us regard Ambersons as a work equal to or greater than Kane if the missing 43 minutes were put back? Quite possibly. But as it stands, the uneven existing version remains a monumental achievement because of the undeniable quality permeating every frame. Even in this compromised form, the movie is simply too good to fail, thanks to the exceptional skills of its collaborators. The 88-minute version that survives isn’t merely “better than no version at all”; it’s better than the vast majority of motion pictures, period.

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