By Peggy Nelson
The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 – dir. Orson Welles
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), based on the Booth Tarkington novel of the same name, focuses on an Indianapolis family around the turn of the century. The most important family in town, with an impressive neo-gothic mansion, horses and buggies, beautiful clothes, and perfect pedigree, the Ambersons represent “old money” at a time when there wasn’t any other kind. “Old,” at least, for Indianapolis. But times they were a-changing, horses were yielding to horseless carriages, agriculture was shifting to the new industrial economy, and the old society, in which you are born to it, was being pushed aside by the new, in which you can become what you make of it.
The storyline is Hamlet transposed to the American Midwest, Welles’ native land, and concerns one George Amberson Minafer, spoiled scion of the old line. In her youth, George’s mother Isabel had spurned her favored suitor, inventor Eugene Morgan, for “unbecoming hijinks” (he tripped over his bass viol while serenading her window, something more or less unimaginable now), and married a more conventional man. Years later she has poured all her unfulfilled affection onto her adult son, George, who has become so arrogant and impossible that the entire town dreams of him “getting his comeuppance.” Meanwhile, Eugene has done well with his innovations in the automobile industry, and has come back to town, a wealthy widower, with a beautiful daughter, Lucy, who is around George’s age. George’s father then conveniently expires from the stress of bad investments, and Isabel and Eugene resume their long-interrupted courtship, while George proceeds to court Lucy.
All well and good, but not for George. Caught in an immediate Oedipal rage, he forbids Eugene from seeing his mother — and she agrees. He insists on an extended European tour, just mother and son, to separate the lovers, which so weakens her broken heart that she dies upon return. Meanwhile Lucy has declined George’s numerous proposals, because he refuses to get a job, or come up with any direction in life whatsoever. George stands for a way of life in which you simply “are,” which might have been a great deal if you were rich enough to afford it, but from Lucy’s (and our) perspective it seems wasteful, unproductive, and dull.
But, as Eugene proclaimed during the ballroom scene, there are no old times. The only times are new times! The European tour spent the last of the Amberson/Minafer money, and now reality finally catches up to George. And — Aunt Fanny.
The Ambersons lived as an extended family in their mansion, and why not? There they could associate with the proper sort of people (each other). Contrary to expectations, it is George’s relationship to Aunt Fanny that turns out to be the shaft around which the story turns. Played to neurotic perfection by Agnes Moorehead (later Endora in TV’s Bewitched), Fanny is an old maid in a time when that really meant something. Nursing an unrequited love for Eugene, she hovers around the edges of life because she hasn’t got anywhere else to go, and even less to do. Despite general sympathy for the underdog, Fanny’s desperation is particularly unlovely; she and George fight like irritable children, which in a sense they both are. When Eugene returns to town Fanny rekindles her one faint hope, but it is quickly and casually dashed — of course, she never had a chance. Her despair over Isabel and Eugene kindles George’s anger, and while he probably would have acted the same in any case, Fanny’s hysterical edge sends him over his.
When the money runs out the only Ambersons left to be evicted are George and Fanny, the rest having either died or left (for jobs!) elsewhere. Fanny has a breakdown in anticipation of George leaving her basically on the street — she has $28 to her name, having put her personal inheritance into the same bad investments as George’s father. At this point, George does the unthinkable — not only has he hit up one of his father’s old friends for an actual job in a law firm, an idea he once despised — he immediately resigns it for something higher-paying, a blue-collar job working with dangerous materials. He thinks of someone other than himself, perhaps for the first time, and it’s not his mother, or his girlfriend: it’s his maiden aunt, with whom he’s never had a single positive interaction.
The job is dangerous. But going to work one day, George is hit by a car, that hated symbol of Eugene Morgan and progress, and is taken to the hospital, severely injured. It is at this point that the film we see diverges fully both from Welles’ original vision, and from the novel.
Welles seems to have felt the subject matter acutely, oddly declining to take the lead role himself (an excellent actor as well as director, he was never shy of self-promotion), allowing his moods to affect production and, most damagingly, turning over final sign-off to RKO, the production company, while he left town on another project before editing was completed. The outcome was perhaps predictable. Shown to a test audience following a light comedy, the reaction to The Magnificent Ambersons was overwhelmingly negative. In response, almost an hour of footage was cut from the piece, and a new, happier, ending was quickly shot and tacked on, in Welles’ absence and against his wishes. The negatives were then destroyed so he couldn’t sneak back and produce a “director’s cut.” The new ending feels rushed and the note it strikes rings false. But the changes were enough to get RKO to release the film, where even in its diminished state it was declared a masterpiece, second only to Citizen Kane, and has given rise to almost 70 years’ worth of “if only’s.”
It is Welles’ genius that takes Tarkington’s heavy-handed symbolism and not only makes it come alive, but come alive in two of the least sympathetic protagonists ever to appear onscreen. He manages to gain our allegiance for George and Fanny without sugar-coating or diluting their unpleasantness in any way.
Life is not about “out with the old, in with the new.” It’s not necessarily about love, or money. It’s not even about finding yourself or having adventures. It’s about the relationships you end up having, or that end up having you. Those stories may not fit into a top-ten list of themes and plots, but they are rich, and unpredictable, and worth telling, and may reveal more about what it all means than happily ever after, after all.