Welles, In Order #2 – The Magnificent Ambersons
Despite Hearst’s attempts to block Kane, among them refusing to advertise it in his papers, siccing gossip columnist Louella Parson’s on RKO’s president George Schaefer, and, according to Welles, hiring an underage girl and a troop of photographers to personally set him up, the film was moderately successful at the box office. Both Look magazine and the New York Film Critics’ circle chose it as the best film of 1941, and Welles and Mankiewicz won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but lost to How Green Was My Valley.
Welles’ career was not over, but neither were his troubles. Although he had final say over Kane, his contract with RKO gave him control of only the first rough cut of his next film. The project he choose was an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 book about a family of distinction falling from prominence and security amid the rise of industrialization. More than any other Welles’ film, Ambersons is cited as an example of “What could have been.”,Welles’ original cut ran 148 minutes. and soon after filming completed in January 1942, he was flown down to Rio de Janeiro to begin production on It’s All True, an anthology film depicting life and culture in South America, made for the U.S. war effort as a show of good faith. That film had its own problems: Again according to Welles, it was cursed, and one morning, upon finding the script pierced by a needle tied with red string, production ceased.
While shooting one film, Welles was editing another. Editor Robert Wise would regularly send prints of Ambersons to Welles, who would respond either through cable or telephone. In March, Wise informed Welles that Schaefer had held a screening of the film for himself and Charles Koerner, who, by most accounts I’ve read, intensely disliked Welles. They in turn held a sneak preview in Pomona, generating a mixed, if not mostly negative response.
Cuts were ordered, contracts were disputed, and further screenings were negative. Welles agreed to add a slightly more uplifting ending, but the studio rejected his concession and ultimately excised nearly an hour of footage in addition to altering Bernard Herrmann’s score enough that he threatened legal action if his name appeared among the credits.
What was left is the film as it appears today, which, despite its tumultuous construction, is still acclaimed mightily. Like Kane, it received a flurry of Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture (losing to Casablanca); Agnes Moorehead was nominated by the Academy for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, won a Best Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle and both she and Tim Holt won a Best Acting Award from the National Board of Review; in 1972, and again in 1982, Sight and Sound voted it among the ten best movies ever made; and in 1991 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. As good as it is, however, Ambersons to me is a misfire.
That’s an easy thing to say because everyone’s already said it. Since Welles didn’t have total control over the film, it’s regarded as this deformed child, ripped from the womb too early nevertheless growing up to be an idiot savant. Even the DVD case describes it as “a tantalizing what if?” and goes on to make the argument that, had the studio not interfered, it could have been better than Kane.
Peter Bogdanovich, introducing the film for Turner Movie Classics, said that Welles told him it was a more personal project than Kane, and, accidentally flipping to a television channel showing it years later, relates that Welles became infuriated with how it was cut and what he saw. “But it’s in the past.” he said. And Welles had dramatized it before in 1939 on the radio, taking the part of George. In the film that role is taken by Tim Holt (whose resemblance to Heath Ledger is distracting), with Welles providing the narration.
But I wonder what it was that Welles felt so personal a connection to the story. He was an admirer of the 1890s, despite not having lived during them, but even more than that, I think Welles noticed the parallels between himself and George (the film itself is full of paralleling shots and sequences). Both came from well-off mid-western cities, in this case a wealthy suburb of Indiana, in Welles’ case a wealthy suburb of Chicago; both lost their fathers and mothers at an early age; and both were regarded as brazen upstarts in need of a good thrashing, in George’s case by the residents of his town, in Welles’ case by the studio heads. Welles wasn’t as nasty as George, but I think he did identify with George’s nostalgia, resistance to change, and even, to an extent, pride. And he would have taken the role had he not felt too old to play it. There’s also in-jokes directly referencing Welles’ own life, the bicycle lamps being the most noticeable. Maybe the film is Welles’ own “What if,” like Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge — what if I hadn’t done something with myself, taken some chance or made some change. How would it have turned out? We’ll see how it would have turned out, and it’s an idea to keep in mind when we get to the film’s final scene, but for now…
The opening narration is taken directly from the book, with some phrases are repeated verbatim, such as, “In that town, in those days, all women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by.” The derby hats are similarly mentioned, as well as the parties, discussion on architecture, and the serenade, which plays over Eugene’s misguided attempt at performing one while drunk.
The reminisces are layered with darkened borders on each shot, evoking memory. It wasn’t a new trick even at the time, and it lingers for so long you wonder if it’ll be used for the rest of the movie. But the opening is a good way to get exposition across, introducing Eugene and Isabel’s romance as well as the town itself — and the town busybodies. Whenever we see them, it’s always in a cutaway, from the chest up, and divorced from the main characters. They’re a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and never taking any direct part in it.
And then we’re introduced to George. You may not like it, but George will be the protagonist of the film. He’s spoiled, he’s bratty, and neither his parents nor the rest of the Ambersons show any inclination toward disciplining him. He dodges outside reprimands simply because of his name and has no recognizable talents or aptitudes. When we first meet him as a grown man at the ball, he’s doing the 1880’s equivalent of “Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, Damn Glad to Meet You,” though he shakes each hand firmly and makes eye contact, lying to every man he meets, straight in their face. In short, he’s the worst kind of aristocrat.
And yet he’s a representation of the time Welles is eulogizing. George wants things to remain the same: He wants his family to remain the town’s powerbrokers and make its money through name alone. He mentions that one of his relatives is a senator, remarking that, “It’s always good to have one of us in the Senate.” When he meets Lucy Morgan, daughter of his mother’s former suitor, he’s instantly smitten and stops feigning familiarity, asking her who all these people are. George wants to rule the town, but he has no interest in knowing any of his subjects — unless they’re potential sexual conquests. But even then, he barely attempts courtship and asks her flat-out whether she’s engaged and wonders why Lucy isn’t immediately taken with him.
His antagonist is Lucy’s father, Eugene (whose name, ironically, literally means “good breeding”; and the last name “Morgan” is self explanatory), and Eugene is everything George isn’t — beloved, hard-working, innovative, forgiving, genial and genuine. Though he represents the coming shift of power and wealth brought on through industrialization, he’s not the cruel, whip-wielding foreman industrial tycoons are often portrayed as (that’s, clearly, George).
The ball sequence is the most impressive set piece of the film. Originally it was shot as one long take with the camera focusing on one pair then jumping to the next as well as moving up stairs and even floors. Portions of this can be seen in the final version, especially George’s talk with Lucy on the staircase and when Eugene dances with Isabel and then the focus switches to George and Lucy. It nevertheless works, but reading what Welles originally intended and seeing the fluidity of the camera as it moves in and out, tilts and pans and becomes its own personality at the party, accompanied by Herrmann’s upbeat score loses you in what it could have been. I think a good representation of what Welles wished to do is the extended shot of the House of Blue Leaves in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1.
Although Welles didn’t rehire Kane‘s cinematographer Gregg Toland, his “replacement” Stanley Cortez, who had come from making B pictures, continued the Welles’ trademark of deep focus. Here it adds to the “partygoer” effect of shifting focuses. It’s further emphasized by another touch, as Cortez was told by Welles to use low lighting to give each scene the look of an old photograph.
As the dance winds down and the guests leave, there’s an ominous shot as George and Lucy say their goodbyes. Though they’ve just met, their on-again/off-again relationship is one of the most important arcs in the film and Welles frames it in a shot that will be repeated many times later. Cortez and Welles extensively use high contrast to emphasize the separation between George and Lucy and even physical barriers, such as the staricase pole and, adding some foreshadowing, Isabel’s profile. It’s interesting that, considering what will happen, Welles didn’t choose Eugene instead of Isabel as the barrier. George, being the protagonist, sees Eugene as the major obstacle to his courtship of Lucy and later of the preservation of his family name. But the fault isn’t Eugene’s; it’s Isabel’s, because George’s biggest problem is himself, and had Isabel not been so tolerant in raising George, this could all have been avoided. But then we wouldn’t have a movie.
By the end of the ball, George has met Lucy and her farther Eugene. Naturally, being ensconced in the past, George dismisses Eugene’s automobile as a noisy plaything. Of course George rejects any form of work and when Lucy asks him what he’s studying in school, he dodges the question by correcting her that he’s in “college” and launches into a speech about the phoniness of bankers, lawyers, and anyone who has to sweat for their money. His intended profession is “yachtsman.”
The dance concludes along with the evening as George speaks with his Aunt Fanny. This is an exposition dump,intended to tell us that George doesn’t know about the relationship between his mother and Eugene and that his family is keeping it from him, as well as hint at Fanny’s own feelings for Eugene. Welles plays it for laughs, having George initiate the teasing and mock his aunt’s voice, then flipping it by having her do the same to him. And then the whole house yells at them to shut up
Following up the ball is the sleigh-ride scene, showing again the contrast between the coming Industrial Age and the Old Aristocracy. Eugene is attempting to get his Morgan Invincible started while George and Lucy whiz by in a horse-drawn carriage. George snidely shouts to Eugene that he should get a horse and promptly crashes his sleigh, which tosses he and Lucy down a snowbank. George and Lucy share a kiss that Eugene unintentionally oversees. He’s delighted, but the tenderness switches to comedy as George helps start Eugene’s car. Funny as George is asphyxiating, it doesn’t endear him to Eugene or automobiles, and his alienation from everyone else made clear from his awkwardly rousing rendition of “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
The sleigh scene was shot in a refrigerated warehouse instead of a sound stage and has the idyllic look of almost a shadowbox. Ambersons, even more than Kane is a melodrama, and though this type of theatrical direction was not uncommon for the time (and certainly not uncommon for Welles’), even this looks highly stylized. But it’s entirely consistent with Welles’ style, which revels in its locations and wants to explore every angle of them. He once referred to his RKO contract as “the biggest sandbox a boy could have,” and that’s perfectly reflected in his curious and creative camera (the scene opens with the reflection of the sleigh in a stream). There’s a sense of wonder to his sets and I think one of the reasons he so often used deep focus, aside from giving the scene a real-world feel, was to convey that sense. Even the snow, which was similarly used in Kane to evoke innocence, brings out the playfulness of the characters here — though both carry a darker undertone, and we follow this light-hearted sequence with the subsequent contrast of Wilbur’s funeral.
We barely know Wilbur, who, if you don’t know him at all, is George’s father. Wilbur doesn’t get much screen time, but his importance is that he’s the guy Isabel married instead of Eugene, and, based on how Lucy turned out and George didn’t, Eugene would have probably made a better father. It’s a short scene, but it does serve as a good bumper between the sleigh and the next big scene between George and Fanny.
It’s a short while after the funeral, and George is stuffing himself with sweets in the kitchen as his Aunt Fanny sits in profile, emphasizing her sharp chin and hard nose and deep black hair. Even though she’s prepared the food for George, she scolds him about overeating. What she really wants to know is anything she can about Eugene, making eye contact only when his name is mentioned. George senses his Aunt’s love for Eugene but still doesn’t know about his mother and Mr. Morgan (which sounds like a comedy starring Don Knotts). He thinks Fanny’s interest in Eugene is purely financial, and it gives Welles the chance to sneak in the first hint that the Ambersons’ fortunes are on the decline — George’s father didn’t have an estate to leave, but left Fanny his life-insurance policy.
Dour as this scene is, it’s my favorite in the entire film. Welles keeps the camera steady and lets the actors talk. Ambersons is replete with long takes, and every time they’re used, there’s a tonal shift for a least one of the characters. And Welles being Welles, gradually widens that shift each time it’s used. Here the shift is Fanny’s, who’s prepared this spread with the intent of subtly interrogating George and will end up storming off it in tears. Even though the major character arc of the film is George’s, the most interesting one is Fanny’s, and much of that comes from Moorehead’s performance. I can see why test audiences laughed at her in the movie’s later scenes, when her role is to basically be hysterical, but here her body language is so perfectly, vibrantly pitiful. Look at her as she shrugs and averts her eyes, and even though it’s Isabel’s husband who’s died, Fanny’s the one dressed in black. Moorehead was the strongest female in Welles’ acting troop, yet she never received top billing (despite having more screen time here than Dolores Costello), but she did get the best and best because they were the most complex roles. Her performance as the mother in Kane is so short and poignant that every minute she’s on screen is like a grain of sand escaping from a fist.
Uncle Jack enters and the two rib Fanny further, causing her to storm off. Fanny will later refer to herself as the family punching bag or backside (which is also suggested in her name), and you can’t really blame her. For all his musings about teasing Fanny, Jack never actually apologizes to her or attempts to make amends. Of course, it’s important to get across the idea that Fanny is put upon by the entire Amberson family (not being an Amberson herself, and, now that her brother has died, she’s more of a parasite), whether they mean it or not, but I think it also shows how much Jack is like an older George, probably the reason that all their exchanges are either violent arguments, expressions of dislike, or, as here, ignorances. Jack has his own short tonal shift, going from jocular to regretful and contemplative, and what started out as an innocent enough scene ends on another sad note. Jack takes a moment for his reflection as George moves left to the window. This led in to another cut scene where George was to see large sections of the Ambersons’ backyard being sold off — another clear hint that the family finances are in danger.
And on that note we cut to another with a lighter, also contrasting, tone, as the Amberson girls and George visit Eugene and Lucy at the Morgan auto plant. Nowhere else in the film is the theme of changing times more apparent than here. Fanny and Isabel’s black and formal dresses clash wildly with the sparse yet practical clothes of the workers; they may as well be mourning the passing of their era (practicality vs entitlement is another important them later). They stop to admire the original Morgan Invincible, now a museum exhibit, a monument to another time. Even Isabel’s speech, where she refers to “Brother Jack” and joins hands with Eugene and Fanny feels overly dramatic and outdated. And it ends with Isabel remarking that had Jack been there, Eugene’s oldest and best friends would all be there — but Jack has refused to come. I’m not entirely sure what that “it” refers to when Isabel says, “We all know what Jack thinks about it,” whether it’s Eugene’s desire to pursue Isabel or his automobile or simply being in a dirty factory, but all three represent a refusal to adapt with the times and in another parallel to Jack, the only reason George is there is because of Lucy .
The factory is another long take that sets up Eugene’s renewed courtship of Isabel, but the character to watch, though she spends the entirety of the scene on the fringe of the frame, is again Fanny. She makes pleasantries and tries half-heartedly to present herself to Eugene, but she knows he’ll never love anyone other than Isabel. Her gaze and sometimes her whole body retreat whenever Eugene looks at Isabel or Isabel speaks to Eugene, and when Eugene speaks of once more attempting to write verse, she looks away, and again when Eugene declares this a “celebration.” George is present but not significant; he’s been relegated to the background so that we can spend more time with the other three
Of course she’s right to do so. The only thing that holds Isabel and Eugene back is George. And when Eugene and Isabel get their quiet moment together, Eugene, a man of action, looks to the future and comments that Isabel needs to tell George about them, but Isabel, mired in the past, says she will soon with the conviction of a college student writing a weekend paper. Their exchange is contrasted with the following scene of George and Lucy. George, like his mother, has no prospects nor any plans for the future but is ready to jump into marriage regardless, almost without any concern for Lucy. The male and female roles are reversed, with Lucy being the forward-thinking one and George’s dislike of Eugene is amplified with his suspicion that Eugene is holding his relationship with Lucy back (which is in turn another parallel). And I don’t need to remark on the significance of the horse’s name.
There’s a short scene in the carriage between Jack and Major Amberson that again brings up the fact that George spends too much of what the Ambersons can’t afford and sets the scene for the following dinner party, which nicely ties in how the rise of the Morgans and industrialization will bring on the fall of Ambersons and the old order. The dinner scene is fairly straight forward: Fanny gets back at George by pointing out that he’s said nothing about Lucy’s departure, and the rest of the family joins in gently ribbing George’s lackadaisical approach to romance. Jack worries about the effect of automobile driving business from town (which may explain why he didn’t join the rest of the family in visiting the factory), and George, a younger and more hotheaded version of his Uncle Jack directly confronts Eugene with an impassioned attack on automobiles.
What George is saying isn’t really any different than Jack, and yet Jack is the one who attacks George for saying it. Another parallel that’s brought home by the shot of George sitting at the table with Jack in the background, echoing the scene previous in the kitchen where their positions were reversed. Regardless, none of the Ambersons save for Major Amberson reprimand George for saying so. The fatal flaws of the family, perhaps even more than pride, are their resistance to change and unwillingness to react, and here that point is emphasized. Nice as the Ambersons are, none of them have had to work for a living, and their entitlement is passed on and culminates in George, as he’s an embodiment of each one’s weaknesses — Major Amberson’s complacency, Jack’s stubbornness, Isabel’s insouciance and all of the Ambersons’ pride. Even from Fanny, again not an Amberson but of a similarly “Old-Money” family, he inherits her hysterics and scheming.
Fanny, after Eugene has left, praises George for his outburst. She, like George, wants to keep things the way they are, but has the buried motive of destroying Isabel and Eugene’s relationship. Welles has already set up Fanny’s discontent with the preceding scenes, under the guise of establishing Isabel’s romance with Eugene, and now we see the importance of her role. Fanny is such a Shakespearean character — the scorned schemer — that I wonder if Welles didn’t consider playing it himself in drag. After all, he played essentially the same role in blackface later on, would it be too much of a stretch?
This is yet another long take and similarly signifies another character change, in this case a major one, as George goes from generally disliking Eugene to outright despising him. Teasing Fanny about her crush on Eugene was fun, after all, she’s not as direct a relative as his mother and she’s never been anything more than a pincushion for him to jab with needles, as Fanny points out, but the idea of this upstart industrialist schtupping his mother and besmirching the family name is too much for George’s pride — just as Eugene’s drunken slip-up years ago was too much for Isabel’s. Fanny gets her jabs in further by commenting on how the whole town is talking about Eugene and Isabel. Pride and the family name is what she appeals to and what ultimately makes George reject Eugene (and every other onset of change), which is ironic, because all of George’s financial problems could have been solved had Eugene married Isabel.
Welles, like he did in Kane and earlier in the ballroom sequence, uses staircases to reflect the drama of the scene. Here it’s Fanny’s manipulation of George, and her elevation reflects the power she holds over him. And the more aggressive George becomes, the farther forward he moves, decreasing Fanny’s control of the situation until they’re standing almost nose to nose. I should also note that, as they walk up the stairs, in the background, in painted glass, are represented the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, though their significance in this scene is lost on me, other than the fact the Ambersons go from dispensing these to receiving them.
Incensed, George straightaway goes on a rampage, gunning down women and children, flinging his own feces like a common circus chimp, and sponsoring death matches between horses and the local transients. This, too, was cut from the film, and what we’re left with is a visit to one of the town busybody’s and an awkward cut to his fight with uncle Jack. Since George is wearing the same clothes in all three scenes, I believe this is all happening in one night. Welles doesn’t give us any hints as to the passage of time — no titles saying “fifteen days later” or “later that day” — which is ironic since the whole film is about the passing of time, but he does give us clues like these when he can’t link scenes together visually.
George’s bloodless rampage ends with an argument with Jack, who is, oddly, taking a bath, and Welles pulls a visual trick by stationing George in front of a mirror with Jack, again, in the background. If the parallel blocking in the kitchen and dining room scenes didn’t make it clear, the mirror image is screaming it: George and Jack are basically the same person. But the key difference is that Jack has mellowed with age and at least sees nothing wrong with Isabel marrying Eugene. George tries to appeal to Jack the same way Fanny appealed to George: by invoking the family name, and though Jack is in the right, neither one really has an argument to convince the other — George repeats what was said to him and thinks that should be convincing enough and Jack’s response is “Well, why shouldn’t they?” And like all great debaters, when their logic and reasoning isn’t firm, they make their point by shouting.
George refuses Eugene at the door, and while we never see Isabel’s reaction to this, Fanny immediately has her doubts. Welles goes back to the staircase, starting on the first floor where Jack is talking with Isabel, tilting up to George overhearing and ready to interrupt them, and then farther up to Fanny listening on the third floor. Fanny stops George and regrets trying to break up Eugene and Isabel.
The continuously tilting shot is wonderful, but I think the quick change from Fanny is one of the weaknesses of the film. It’s her scheming that escalates George’s hatred of Eugene and causes the downfall of his family, and, impulsive as Fanny is, her subtle ways of manipulation show more foresight than this. In the excised version we have now, from that scene to this one is only a few minutes between. And it’s here that the studio cuts are most obvious. Originally there was a scene after George’s argument with Jack in which Isabel, unaware of how George felt, tried talking to him as he stood with her back to her, ignoring. And there were two sequences on the Amberson porch between Fanny and Isabel and Fanny and Major Amberson where they discuss the changing town and Fanny’s poor investments, respectively. That would at least have put some time between the two scenes.
Nevertheless, the dramatic change from Fanny isn’t very convincing, and she’s scarce in the film from here on until the end. Eugene writes his letter to Isabel cementing his love but acknowledging that George will never let them be together, and Isabel reads it with a heap of tears and suggests that she and George take a trip. It’s not as rushed as Fanny’s arc, but it also feels rushed. This is the most important development in the film and deserves more weight than the quick succession it’s given. Similarly, there’s noticeable cuts — George and Isabel had a longer discussion about Eugene in Isabel’s bedroom, and the scene in the final cut with this is not Welles’, but a reshoot by Robert Wise. Still another had Isabel apologize to George for seeing Eugene and promising to do so no more.
The swifter pace of this middle section finally settles on George and Lucy, having their last conversation before George and Isabel leave. Finally, we’re back in Welles’ film, and it’s a welcome return with some more subtle dialogue and the mother of all tonal shifts. On the surface George is flirting, and as the scene goes on, his true feelings become more and more exposed as he attempts to coax a plea from Lucy not to go.
In addition to the long-take-tonal shift, Welles also echoes the shot from the end of the ball, with Lucy again placed on the left side of the frame and George, again on the right. In the background is the physical barrier of the pharmacy dividing them, instead of Isabel in the foreground previously — there’s a barrier, but it’s (appropriately, as we’ll find out) not as imposing as before. There’s also a similar use of contrast, with the light source again coming from behind Lucy and shining on George, which may not be as direct a visual cue as naked Uncle Jack, but still works to emphasize that George’s true feelings are utterly transparent while Lucy’s are guarded. Even their clothes reflect the contrast, with Lucy’s dark coat and George’s lightly tanned jacket. George is heartbroken that Lucy doesn’t seem to care that they’ll never see each other again, and the cut comes with a closeup of a tearful Lucy, her real emotions showing through with the left side of her face lit, the right in shadow. She rushes into the pharmacy, and in a wise move, Welles chooses to show the clerk’s reaction to Lucy fainting rather than the faint itself. Good advice for every director.
As more time passes, Isabel becomes ill overseas, and Jack visits the Morgans to discuss her health. George refuses to come home, and it’s a quick cut from there to unloading her from the train and on to Eugene’s visit to the Amberson home. The visit, if it’s not already noticeable, is another reshoot, this one done by Assistant Director Freddie Fleck, with the original being a longer scene between George and Fanny, George angrily telling Fanny to get rid of him and Fanny in turn telling Eugene angrily to go. The reshoot is much more tame, and the quick pan to Jack on the landing, asking Eugene to leave is more awkward than the fluid camera movements we’ve seen so far.
Isabel’s deathbed is another break in the swift pacing of the latter half and another heavy use of contrast. Isabel’s dressed in angelic white with the circular loop of the cast-iron bed directly above her acting as a halo. That may be more my imagination, but Welles would later meld backgrounds into his characters in Touch of Evil, and I don’t think it’s total speculation to believe he’s doing it intentionally now. George is dressed in black and again in the right side of the frame. Both are covered in the shadows of the bedframe. And again this may be speculation, but on Isabel they look distinctly like spiderwebs, after all, Isabel is the victim of George’s machinations and he has, to be fair, been caught in his own web. But I think the shadows on George more resemble tears.
Though Isabel’s lost all feeling, her eyes brighten when she hears of Eugene. She leaves with a declaration of love to Jack which her body language would suggest otherwise. I don’t have much to say about Dolores Costello because, for all her importance in the story, she really doesn’t have that big of a role, despite having second billing on the poster, and while this is her longest scene, it’s tough to understand what Eugene saw in her — she’s certainly not very pretty her, though that’s understandable here, but I don’t know if her cut scenes would help. And similarly, Major Amberson’s reflection was part of a longer scene that was to transition into his gravestone beside Isabel’s. This was another thing the test audience had a negative reaction to and hence another cut from the studio. What we get is the Major in front of a fire, reflecting on life and all the trivialities of his money as Jack tries to find the deed to the Amberson Manor off screen. The poor old Major even gets his speech cropped.
And we move to the final conversation between Jack and George. Jack tells George off, in a ramble that first professes some love but ends with Jack telling George he should have been hanged and then twists again with him telling George that he should go see Lucy, since she’s the only person left who cares about him. We never get to see the reunion, however, and then it’s on to the garden scene with Lucy and Eugene. Lucy, unprovoked, tells the story of Chief “Rides Down Everything” which bashes the character of George over everyone’s heads and among the trees. There’s some slight subtlety to the moment, but coming after Jack’s upbraid, it feels superfluous. This is another studio decision, as the scene was originally to come after George’s “comeuppance” speech, and that scene was to come after his final conversation with Fanny and that one after Isabel’s deathbed.
In the final cut, the garden leads into George’s final conversation with Fanny, which itself is another, albeit partial, reshoot by Jack Moss. Fanny has no money left and George can’t make more than eight dollars at the lawyer’s office. Fanny references putting everything into the best LED headlights company possible, referencing the cut scene mentioned previously where Fanny discussed finances with Major Amberson (and for the Welles hounds, Welles’ father made his money from inventing just such a thing). As mentioned earlier, test audiences laughed at Agnes Moorehead’s hysterical Fanny, which is a bit over the top, but I think is earned. At least it’s appropriate that her character would think only of herself until the end — demanding that she be put in an expensive boarding house then wailing that she wouldn’t care if the boiler burned her.
But the character beat in the scene is George’s, who has, as the narrator and everyone else predicted, finally received his comeuppance. As they walk through the abandoned Amberson mansion, he and Fanny are in shadow so we can see the remnants of the once-great monument to the past. Again the scene ends with George facing a window, but this time, instead of an (intended) storm, a symbol of change, it’s light streaming in despite the blinds’ best attempt to keep it out. This and the scene of George by the bed, where the narrator gives his “comeuppance” speech is shot from far away, with George’s back to us both times. We don’t see George’s reaction, because I think the “change” is supposed to be ours — ours if we refuse to adapt. The narrator emphasizes the point that, “Those who said it were never there to see it. No one cared or was alive” — that change has to come from within us, and the choice to or not to is ultimately our own. It’s a weighty beat and wholly deliberate. I mentioned before about how this was a deeply personal project for Welles, and I think he may as well be asking the question of himself, reflecting himself on the changes and choices he’s made. You want to see George’s reaction? Look in the mirror.
And now we’re at the end, where Eugene and Fanny walk down the hallway and Eugene reconciles with George and says he’s been true to his one true love.” This, once more, is a reshoot by Fleck. Originally Eugene was to visit George in the hospital and then meet with Fanny in the boarding house. Eugene says that he sensed Isabel when talking to George and Fanny largely ignores him. It’s a sadder ending then the relatively upbeat on we get, but it is truer to the characters, Fanny resisting change until the very end. The test audiences, according to the studio, wanted something more cheerful, seeing as how the film opened soon after the U.S. entered World War II, and Welles’ response was to have the characters smiling in the end credits. He also planned to shoot another ending twenty years later with the surviving actors to give a further sense of closure (and tying in the Kill Bill parallels, too!).
It’s a good story, maybe even a great one, but it moves too fast. The complexity of the characters, particularly George and Eugene and especially Isabel, Lucy, and Fanny, is never fully realized as the film rushes its plot. And the technical achievements cannot fill those spaces, either. This isn’t Welles’ fault, but that doesn’t help the film either.I can’t say for certain that this was mangled beyond repair by the studio, since I haven’t seen the cut scenes, but from what I understand and have read, I think the missing footage would certainly have helped.
Still, even if we were able to recover or restore Welles’ original cut, I don’t think it would reconcile the fact that Welles is romanticizing an era which is represented by an extremely unlikeable character. If I were offered the choice between an automobile and getting whipped by a six-year-old with curly, long locks, I’d opt for mowing the little bastard down with my car. Welles may have thought of the 1890s as a better time, but George isn’t the best ambassador to those times, and I don’t think it’s consistent with the major theme of clashing eras in Tarkington’s book. It’s no coincidence that George’s accident is the result of an automobile — which now makes him a physical victim of the new era, and though Eugene may regret some of the changes brought on by the automobile, he’s at best uncertain. As with George, the choice, regardless of generation, is ours to use each age’s advancements to pursue peace or war — it’s unfortunate that with the timing of The Magnificent Amberson’s release, that choice was already made.
Next Time – THE STRANGER (1946)