Monday, October 4, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons Or, the Week of Self-Involved Characters

The library came through and got me a copy of Welles' 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons last week. I also watched the 2002 A&E version that supposedly "restores" the Welles shooting script he couldn't be bothered to defend against RKO's demand for cheer after Pearl Harbor. And, I mentioned before, I've read the book. So this post will be a bit of an amalgamation of commentary on all three.

The Welles 1942 film is fairly close to the book. The narration over the film by Welles is taken almost word-for-word from the book and, interestingly, the chopped up ending is closer to the book's ending than Welles' very slightly extended version as seen in the A&E 2002 version.

What is intriguing, and for which I have no answer, is the fact that there are scenes in the 1942 Welles version that do not appear in the 2002 A&E version. The opening sequence about fashion is chopped from the newer edition as is a scene in which Georgie is told by Eugene to push the car in order to get it going. While the opening scene could be argued as froth, the latter scene is an important affront to Georgie who views Eugene as "riff-raff" but is being told to push a dirty machine he despises nonetheless.

The 1942 film is moodier. This may be the result of black and white film or Welles' particular form of melodrama and cinematography. The 2002 version is a cream puff in comparison--a ginormous cream puff at 2.5 hours. It is, of course, in color and is more glamorous in costume and setting but the melodrama is fluffy soap-opera melodrama. It also includes scenes like Isabel and Eugene dancing in the snow which is just gorgeous. The 2002 version takes the more P.C. approach to servants: they're all white as opposed to the 1942 film's black servants. While we're on casting, even though Jonathan Rhys Myers seems to have not known anything about acting in this film and the opening dvd menu caused me to say aloud "Is that Jennifer Tilly?," the A&E film is better cast. Madeleine Stowe makes a better Isabel in terms of physical appearance and acting and Jennifer Tilly is actually the better Aunt Fanny. I love Agnes Moorehead but Fanny was meant to be silly. And who doesn't love James Cromwell as Major Amberson? What is interesting about Welles' casting of Georgie and his direction of Tim Holt in that role might be that Welles supposedly always suspected Tarkington modeled Georgie after Welles himself--whose first name is George, not Orson.

The 2002 film restores the extended ending (which was really just a scene longer and actually shows the car wreck instead of being oblique about it) and it adds in more of the splendor before fall of the Ambersons but both remove a great deal from the novel, of course, For example, it would be amusing to see Eugene go to the psychic. But, where the 2002 film goes horribly wrong for me is the obvious and just plain icky sexual tension between Isabel and her son Georgie. I don't remember that being in the novel and it's not present in the Welles film or, if it is, it's so underlying as to be missed entirely. The 1942 mother-son relationship can be viewed as just that; the 2002 version cannot be brushed off as an overly-invested mother. It borders on The Pillars of the Earth's Regan and William Hamleigh.

So, why are we watching this movie? I'd argue largely because Welles' name is on it. Of Welles' 40 directing credits on imdb, six are included in 1001 Movies: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and Campanados a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight). There are only seven other full-length feature films in his directing credits--the rest are shorts and/or TV work or Welles is not credited as director (three instances)--and three of those seven are unfinished (one never released). To go a step further, two of the four remaining eligible films are Shakespeare: Othello and MacBeth. The list seems to disdain Shakespeare movies in that the only adaptation that I found on the list is the 1944 Henry V. So, we could say Welles' Shakespeare films were not really up for consideration and, thus, all but two of his films eligible for inclusion are on the list--six of eight is not so bad except that it makes the list look partial to Welles.

That is not to say I disliked the film. It was fine. But, do we need six Welles films to the exclusion of other films that may offer more diversity?

With two versions of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles' refusal to return for editing, Lan Samantha Chang's All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and the son's section of Franzen's Freedom, I've watched and read a lot about incredibly self-involved men this week.


  1. There's a car wreck??!! Dammit! It sounds exactly like the sort of anti-modernist anxiety flick that I adore. And though I'm usually skeptical of voiceovers, I kind of like the idea of Big Daddy Orson proclaiming the events like the voice of God.

    It's interesting about his overrepresentation on the list. I doubt I'm going to watch either Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil again (despite that famous opening tracking shot). Well, maybe I will just for the pure glee of (spoiler alert) Charlton Heston playing a Mexican.

  2. Oh, there is a lot of loudly voiced anti-modernist anxiety in the film. You'll have to tell me what you think when you finally find the antiquated technology to watch it on.

    I *might* watch Citizen Kane again because I didn't like it the first time I saw it so I wonder if I'd like it now. Ha! I thought I might have seen Touch of Evil but I am fairly certain I've never seen Heston as a Mexican. I feel like I'd remember that.