ARCHIVE Take 11: The Magnificent Ambersons
Just to get this out of the way off the bat, The Magnificent Ambersons is both the fourth highest ranking movie that I’ve written about so far (#11), and my least favorite. I saw the movie as part of the Elements of Cinema series at the Brattle Theater, which meant it was free, included a short introduction from a film scholar (A. S. Hamrah), and a Q&A after the screening. All of those perks did help add context to what otherwise would have been a tough slog through the 1942 Orson Welles classic, but as much as I saw the valuable structure underlying the film, it’s difficult to honestly say it’s an enjoyable watch.
The Magnificent Ambersons was released in 1942, just a year after Orson Welles’ perennial king of the hill masterpiece Citizen Kane (#1). What I learned from Hamrah’s introduction was that the original cut of the film was so widely panned, RKO Productions cut out about 50 minutes of movie after its initial release. Welles, who was filming in South America at the time, was reportedly livid at the studio’s disregard for his artistic authority. The additional footage was destroyed, and therefore over 70 years later we’re left with a predicament of what if: is it possible the original cut of of the film would have exceeded the quality of the version we’re left with? Or, would an extra 50 minutes of an already tedious journey only bogged it down further? Either way, the critics respected the final version of the film enough to rank it just outside of the top ten, and I respect the critics enough to give them the benefit of the doubt. The experts at the Brattle screening insisted the film was a landmark development for 1940s cinema, unlike anything else that had been released up to that point, and while the plot itself was dull from my perspective, it’s impossible to deny that Welles directs with a deft and masterful hand.
Many of the stylistic elements that are used so effectively in Citizen Kane are present in TMA as well — from the cinematography, to the judicious use of light and shadow, to the set dressing. In a lot of ways, I felt like the lead character in TMA, George Amberson Minafer, was a mirror image of Charles Foster Kane. Kane is a self made magnate who on his deathbed longs for the simplicity of his childhood (spoiler alert I guess?). Georgie on the other hand was born into wealth, and has a streak of brattiness that made his neighbors long for a day he would be slapped with the full blow of the backlash. While Kane was affable in his youth and cantankerous in his elderly years, Georgie is a jerk from the very beginning who only comes face to face with his flaws as the riches around him begin to slip away. Kane built a media empire with limited resources, and was committed to telling the truth and staying on the brink of new developments in the industry. Georgie on the other hand considers selecting an occupation a nuisance, unnecessary to someone of his standing and means. He is steadfast in his belief that the “horseless carriage” is a useless invention, and he sticks to that assertion even when it’s clear that the momentum of history is heading the other way. When he is later killed by a car it is somewhat contrived poetic justice, proof of what damage an obstinate underestimation of people and their abilities can amount to. Time and time again, we see examples of Georgie’s lack of initiative and resistance to change, and those characteristics seem intrinsically tied to his downfall.
I was constantly reminded of Mad Men’s Pete Campbell while watching the film. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Pete Campbell is another little dweeb who is an heir to a fortune by way of his mother’s family. One major and important difference between the two characters though, is that Campbell has a nasty dose of ambition that pushes him to backstab and cheat in order to climb the ranks within the office. When viewed side by side against Georgie’s apathy, it’s difficult to say which is more irritating but it’s also obvious that both characteristics are symptoms of entitlement, which are in turn contrasted against a likeable, successful, self made, older man — Don Draper and Eugene Morgan respectively. It also seems significant to note that both are heirs to their mothers’ fortunes, and the fact that they don’t share the same last name of the lineage that is the source of their wealth hints at a feeling of ineptitude, and in Georgie’s case especially, suggests that his mother being at the helm of the house and wealth relegated his father as ineffectual, allowing her maternal influence to infect and spoil their son.
It may be fair to ask if Georgie’s behavior was part of his nature, or if his parents should be saddled with most of the blame. The star crossed love story between Eugene and Isabel Amberson is persistent throughout the film, but is far from a highlight. It did create an interesting Brady Bunch dynamic though, and the underlying Freudian tendencies of the lead characters are not far from a Greek tragedy. George hates Eugene, at first seemingly because he is the ingenious creator of his own fortune and George has a knee jerk rejection of his nouveau riche success. Later though, George’s ire only intensifies when he realizes that his mother and Eugene are in love. George’s petulance hits full force as he attempts to keep the two of them apart, like a possessive child throwing a tantrum. The threat of an incoming stepparent and merging families is both a tale as old as time, and a rich bed of fodder in the 1990’s during the peak of the divorce bubble. The relationship between George and Eugene is one that would be explored for decades to come, but what’s difficult is that George is so unlikable it’s hard to feel any sympathy for his plight.
I’m still left wondering why The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film, but as always, there’s no accounting for taste. Georgie was representative of the 1940’s 1% and when he is forced to reap what he sowed, leading him to ultimately repent for his wrongdoing, it’s a bittersweet victory for the beleaguered masses. Just like his predecessor Charles Kane, on his deathbed Georgie confronts his mistake of living life ignorant to the blessings he was granted. I can imagine though, for a country full of people that were just beginning to pull themselves out of the Great Depression and witnessing the start of a second great war, watching a man who had everything lose it all and finally get his comeuppance must have been both a gratifying spectacle and relatable debacle.
Originally published at cinemyth.com.