Those Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is in some ways the cinematic equivalent of Byron’s diaries. Of course the analogy is not too exact, as not all of the film was consigned to the flames, and we do have a remaining movie which might be described as a semi-masterpiece. But what the film would be like had Welles been allowed to complete it according to his own design will never be known. The exact sequence of events which led to the butchery is described in some detail in an extra accompanying this particular DVD release, but I cannot say that I felt very much the wiser at the end. I think it would be fair to say that Welles did play some small part in the events and that it became an important part of his legend. But even with these minor caveats one only has to watch the film to realise that, even with the restored footage, there is some crucial imbalance, something that goes awry and is never corrected. This does not detract from the brilliance of some of the scenes in the early part of the film – the introduction, the ball, the sleigh ride. In all of these and more Welles’ technical brilliance is well to the fore, and there is that soaring pleasure which comes from some of the camera-work and visual imagination.

What especially struck me on this particular viewing however was how Trollopian certain aspects of the film’s themes are. No doubt my attention was drawn to this by the fact that I am reading The Way We Live Now. In both cases we have at the centre grossly excessive mother-love heaped on the head of a worthless young man. Now Welles’ account is in several ways different to Trollope’s, arguably softer (those who see Trollope as soft can never have read TWWLN – actually they can’t have read much Trollope at all!) but because of this it is more emotionally involving, more tragic for the viewer. George (Tim Holt) is just as nasty as Felix Carbury, but his nastiness takes a very different form. Felix Carbury is a wholly selfish, rotten and vicious man who cares for nobody and nothing other than his own immediate creature comforts (a form of existence which was the worst of all kinds for Trollope). George on the other hand does care for other people : he is genuinely in love with Lucy (Anne Baxter) and in a perverse way he loves his mother. But above all he cares about what other people think and possesses a warped set of moral standards. It is because of this that he refuses to allow his mother to remarry and therefore ultimately causes her death. Felix would not give a fig if his mother remarried; indeed if she did so to a rich man he would be delighted, because it would be one more person to sponge off. George’s warped puritanism is, one suspects, Welles’ idea of the worst kind of vice. So it might be suggested that both Trollope and Welles in their anti-heroes, in Felix and George, create characters who embody the worst traits they can imagine. But when it comes to the mothers Welles’ view is much more sentimental. Isabel (Dolores Costello) hardly emerges as a character in her own right at all, where Lady Carbury is a motive force in Trollope. A problem with The Magnificent Ambersons, which one cannot see how even a fully realised version would have resolved, is that it is hard to understand exactly why Isabel inspires this great love from the hero (Eugene, played by Joseph Cotten). She is something of a device, and if she has brought about her own downfall (by rejecting Eugene and then by her over-indulgence of George) she is above all a victim. If however our sympathies are not fully engaged by Isabel this is partly because for Welles the film’s emotional centre is intended in some ways to be Fanny (Agnes Moorhead – a brilliant performance). She is at the film’s dark heart and in Welles intended ending the film ends on her in a state of poverty and madness. This of course would have completed the trajectory – from magnificence to complete decay – and given the whole a grandiose integrity which the studio-imposed happy ending (which is emotionally moving) denies it.

Agnes Moorehead as Fanny

The other central theme of The Magnificent Ambersons is the march of history. This of course is also a Trollopian theme. Once again a comparison of the two is interesting. In the film there is a curious dichotomy in that while it could be argued that the film is in some ways nostalgic for some simpler, more elegant, more picturesque bygone era, the human representative of that era – the Ambersons – are a pretty dismal and decayed bunch, whereas the human representative of modernity, destructive in so many ways, is the film’s most decent and intelligent man, Eugene. All this is conveyed in the dinner-table scene where George’s rude, personal attack on Eugene leads to the latter making a keynote speech in which he admits that mankind may well come to regret the invention, in which he has played some considerable part, of the automobile. And certainly the shots – clearly cobbled together – of the changed town, now a thing of grime and noise and ugliness, through which George, unseen, trudges near the end would seem to suggest that the march of ‘progress’ has been retrogressive. But set against this is the fact that the old order, as exemplified by the Ambersons, is seen, when exposed, to be dysfunctional and rotten. In a way this balanced view, with much to be said against both sides, is also to be found in Trollope, although the proportions vary and by TWWLN his face is more firmly set against modernity, or its most dominant aspects anyway. But we should not forget that many of his portrayals of old style aristocrats can be equally, if differently, damning. In both cases what perhaps needs to be emphasised is the complexity of attitude involved.

Even the remnant of a film which we possess is full of Welles’ genius but somehow this makes all the more poignant the sense of loss which is the film’s keynote. It as though we are mourning not only the loss of those magical sleigh rides but of Welles’ own precocious talent.

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