Tuesday, April 5, 2011

'The Magnificent Ambersons' Open Thread

What did you think?


  1. This looks rather interesting, but it may be a challenge for me to locate it.

  2. I know! The reviews and articles I keep coming across indicate the movie is taken very seriously, especially by Orson Welles fans -- but I haven't been able to find a copy to watch yet, either.

    Well, I'll check out a few more sites this evening, and let you know if I find a winner.

  3. Just out of curiosity, how can the writer be thinking that a family in Indianapolis of all places might represent established wealth with superior, aristocratic aires. Indianapolis is middle America, which makes sense in terms of making it an American story, but old money and high-brow sophisticates? Surely they would be found to reside in the East. Anyone from Indianapolis, now matter how well established their grandfather might be, would be considered an outsider and a Westerner in terms of the really established families of the East. If George went to an Ivy league school, he would soon be made to appreciate that, one would think. Maybe he came back too soon.

    I did get to see the Alfonso Arau 2000 remake, and just a four minute clip of the original Welles version. Arau made a beautiful film, but the Welles version had a magical quality in the clip I saw. And George, he was spoiled and superficial in the first film, but an absolute SOB in the remake. It was tough to watch the guy.

  4. I read somewhere(s) that the remake reflected Welles' story-line much better than the (apparantly, brutally) edited movie that Welles actually made. But, the ending that Welles shot was not the way the novel ended, although the edited version that was released did have the ending of the novel. ?

    So now, I have to watch both. Damn this inquisitive mind!

  5. It was frustrating to watch Eugene so enamored with someone so unable to appreciate his value. And all the doting on that sorry son of her's, Georgie, for Pete's sake!!

  6. Hey, wait a minute! Not only are you dropping SPOILERS -- they're from the wrong movie!


  7. No, no, it's the right movie! They're from the clip. And it won't take long to realize that Isabel ... oh, for heaven's sake!

  8. I'll just say that I love this film because I've never come across another with quite the same beautiful, wise, warm, melancholy (but not doomy) atmosphere. (The closest is Portrait of Jennie, which is why I suggested it at the same time.) I love the way it conveys the essential sadness of the passing of time, of things beginning and ending, the inevitability (and equally inevitable destructiveness) of change (and technological 'progress'), and the beauty of the past, without ever slipping into chocolate box nostalgia. It also, I think, wisely counsels that the only way to deal with these things is stoically and optimistically.
    I love all of the performances and most of the characters. Joseph Cotten's performance is his best ever for me, and the film is certainly my favourite of all of Welles's. Agnes Moorehead is sensational: one of the great screen performances.
    The music adds so much, and the scenes in the snow are so evocative I try to watch the movie every Christmas, although it isn't really a holiday film as such. I've written elsewhere that the time to watch is late on Christmas night, when everyone else has gone to bed, and you are feeling tired, content, but perhaps just a touch wistful as you recall Christmases past and the stages of your life that they mark.

    As for that ending: for Welles enthusiasts it is a scandal that RKO took the film away, chopped off the last two reels and replaced them with hastily shot new sequences. It is true that you can tell the presence of a second hand (certainly if you know to expect it, perhaps not so much otherwise) and that the film seems to speed up in the last quarter. But I love the ending as it is, which is truer to the book than the original climax Welles prepared, and crucially, restores its essentisal humanity. (Welles had apparently gone for a more glibly pessimistic feel.) Though not Welles's own work, the new scenes were supervised by Robert Wise - no small talent in his own right. I think I read somewhere that Joseph Cotten preferred the new ending too, and that it drove something of a wedge between him and Welles for a time.

    Back to the film: psychologically, it seems truer than most forties films: the characters and their motivations and interactions have a strongly realistic feel. I love the way it begins almost in documentary mode and then slowly and expertly segues into moving human drama. The business about George finally getting his comeuppance but nobody being around any more to care either way says something very deep and true - almost too deep to express in words. (Certainly too deep for me to express in words.)
    For me, the film is a really moving experience.

    By the way, I'll only be able to look in on the next couple of choices without contributing, as I am moving from London to Bath this weekend (lovely Georgian Jane Austeny Bath!) and I'll be without internet access for two weeks.
    I'll be back at the end of April.

  9. Oh, Matthew, your notes on the movie are wonderful! I was going to throw in the towel on trying to find a way to watch it -- so far, I've come up empty on on-line sites, Netflix, Blockbuster, and the library -- but I'm more intrigued than ever. And having gotten an overall sense of the story line from the various discussions and reviews I've come across, I'm actually kind of relieved that you like the more optimistic ending RKO went with (It sounded as though they traded quality for popular appeal). And that, while a melancholy look at the inevitable changes in one's lifetime, it sounds somewhat encouraging nonetheless.

    ... the inevitability (and equally inevitable destructiveness) of change (and technological 'progress')...

    One of the clips I found was of a scene in the dining room, the men talking about the way automobiles were already changing such things as the distance from their workplaces in the city people could build their homes, and the impact that would have on the value of the long-established residential areas in town.

    George makes a contemptuous dismissal of The Automobile, and Eugene responds with an almost poetic reflection of the ways in which people's lives, and Man's inner life, would be affected, and that possibly George would be proven right, that the automobile wold prove to be no boon in the long run.

    Joseph Cotten/Eugene is so intriguing here, so quietly eloquent in his thought piece, I wanted it to continue, wanted him to continue, talking about those aspects of Man's nature he was seeing change in the wake of this early, profound, technological change. Short as it was, it gave me such a desire to see more of this character, so much richer than I had imagined from the few other clips I'd found.

    I did also see (at least part of) the sleigh-ride scene, though completely out of context. I loved the back-and-forth between the tinkling music as the sleigh makes its way, all Currier and Ives-ish, and the grind, grind, grind of the hand crank on the stalled car! And, even from my brief exposures to his wit and charm, I was cheered to see Obnoxious George made to push! (I assumed the scene was shot outdoors; it never occurred to me that was a sound-stage -- set up in an ice house!)

    Now, then! I hope all goes well with your move, and that settling in to a new place in a new city is a happy adventure!

  10. Oh, I know! I am miffed, so absolutely miffed that I can't get a hold of this show!! And what great comments you offered on it, Matt. That sleigh scene you mention Cath is the one I caught, and it just seemed so well done, so magical, and the contrast between the hope of the future, loud and noisy, but the future none the less, contrasting with the effortless gliding of George's sleigh... until of course George manages to crash it, an event he might well have avoided if he hadn't been quite so intent on jeering at Lucy's father. The rube!

    No, I am quite disappointed. Perhaps I can just buy a copy, Critics Choice Video or some such. Let me know if you come up with anything.

  11. Well, I have ordered this movie from Amazon and should have it in a couple of weeks. Should work out just about when Matt gets back on line. I will rejoin the discussion once I have been able to view it. I am very much looking forward to it.

  12. !!!

    Me too. Even the Amazon part.

    AND, I just read Matthew's piece on The Magnificent Ambersons at his Movietone News blog. Beautiful!

  13. Well, I did get my own copy of "The Magnificent Ambersons", and a good investment it was too. What a lovely told tale. I love the narration. Just as Matt said, it provides a wonderful sense of perspective and the passage of time. One of the elements it is looking at, of course, is the transformative affects of technological progress as manifested by the automobile. It is hard for us to even think of the automobile as a mechanism of progress. It is a part of our daily lives, and has been as long as we can remember, and yet in the days of the early 1940s it was very real as an amazing transformative invention. It gave everyday people the possibility of travel, and the sense of freedom that came with it. It gave rise to the Sunday drive, which really was an afternoon family outing in which the family would get into the car and just drive around for a time. A pleasant, pointless afternoon diversion.

    Now days, we have similar conversations about personal computers, and cell phones, texting and the like. Progress it is, and things go faster and faster, but are the time savers really saving any time? And what of our relationships with our loved ones?

    It's a bittersweet story, sure, and that darn Georgie is a royal pain, but I just loved Eugene. That heartfelt note that Gene wrote to Isabel was so sad, as you could see that as much as she loved Gene, she was a prisoner of her desire to please her son.

    I very much enjoyed the show. Thanks for recommending it to us, Matt.

  14. The beginning of the movie is so sweet, almost whimsical in the way the narrator talks about the times that were, from the changes in fashions for the well-dressed gentleman -- Joseph Cotten playing model, with a perfectly straight face (now that's acting!) -- to the cable car waiting for the lady who hailed it to finish half-a-dozen tasks before stepping aboard. And the story of the rise of Major Amberson, the magnificence of the Amberson mansion, the recognition on the part of his neighbors (he had no peers) that no expense was ever spared, either in the plumbing fixtures for his home or the delicacies for his daughter's wedding reception.

    I liked the way the viewer gets reeled in to the drama -- starting with all the outside information, the narrator's and the observed towns-people's, and moving back and forth until we're completely inside Isabel's beautiful house, and her no-less-dysfunctional-than-anybody-else's family life.

    The young actor that played little Georgie was remarkable -- what a horrible child! You don't have to look far to find the reasons for his awfulness, between the arrogance on his grandfather's part, and the extraordinary indulgence on his mother's. We don't see much of his father -- and I rather suspect Georgie didn't, either. There is a great line from Wilbur Minnifer, during the after-party discussion Georgie starts regarding the "kind of man" he suspects Eugene Morgan to be. Wilbur says rather dryly that Morgan didn't have a mother who could always get money out of his grandfather for him -- and it gives such an instant picture of a father who has long given up hoping to influence the son who has little regard for him or his values. Such a tiny moment, but such a sad insight,

    Tim Holt was kind of magnificent, himself, his Georgie so certain of his family's superiority; so determined to be a gentleman of leisure, above such squalid professions as potato farmer, or lawyer. So jealous of his dignity that he cannot tolerate Eugene Morgan's -- or anyone else's -- lack of deference to members of the Amberson family.

    But by the time Georgie is confronting his aunt's friend over the gossip about his mother, the tide has already been turning for the Amberson dynasty. How much it has to do with the changes that came of new technologies in manufacturing and transportation, and how much the simple diminishment of an old man's business acumen I'm not sure, but the Major has run out of social and political influence while his fortune has dwindled. And Georgie can't understand that he isn't local aristocracy any more. As tragically single-minded as his determination to maintain his mother's "good name" is, he is pathetic, furiously fighting changes that have already taken place, desperately trying to maintain the already shrugged-off regard of his neighbors.


  15. Continued

    I understand that Wells' version of the movie had an ending that strayed quite a bit from the novel's, with no rebound for the injured Georgie, no suggestion of better times to come. The revised portion doesn't flow as smoothly as the parts that Wells had control over, and some of those later scenes feel a bit abridged, but I think going with the novelist's ending makes better sense (and not just because I like a happy ending!) The point of this story about the inevitability of change isn't to say that everything good goes away, and then you die. Rather that there are life cycles to everything, and as one town, or one tycoon, fades, another is growing in importance, and we have to be ready to adjust our course as the world we know changes.

    I wish the writers had incorporated more of the book in the re-shot portions of the movie, so that there would be more to base our optimism for Georgie's future on. Responsibilities he had already assumed, including taking on dangerous work; the "good stuff in him" that Morgan hadn't doubted being proved as he rose to management in that work; and the solitary life he leads in the boarding house while Fanny has the society of the old acquaintances living there, are barely represented by the scene where he explains to his would-be law mentor that he has decided to find different work so as to afford the new home Fanny longs for.

    But -- speaking of Fanny -- wow! Wasn't Agnes Moorehead wonderful! That perfect characterization of arrested development -- sighing over Morgan like the infatuated schoolgirl she once was, bickering with Georgie like a sibling, dramatizing her grievances (like the "talk" situation that sent Georgie off on his disastrous mission), and, always, impulsive and indiscreet.

    Joseph Cotten was great as Morgan, but I was quite taken with young Anne Baxter as Lucy, drawn to Georgie but wary of his weaknesses, sometimes serious, sometimes teasing, and so wonderful in the scene where, already heart-broken over his treatment of her father, she pretends to be unconcerned about his farewell -- and then collapses at the druggist's counter.

    Now, I can't pretend to know enough about film to comment on Wells' lighting or staging -- but his narrating was wonderful. Having the narration at all lent so much to the sense that you were entering a story, but that beautiful voice -- I could be happy listening to him read the proverbial phone-book.

  16. I'm in beautiful Bath and back on the net at last!
    So glad you enjoyed this as much as I hoped you would, and especially that you seemed to get the same things from it as I did.

    So what's next?

  17. Well, I've been thinking of Patrick Swayze lately, a nice guy, great dancer, not a bad actor, and I think we are going to take a look at my favorite Patrick Swayze movie... "Dirty Dancing".

    Should be up in a day.

    May 16, 2011 1:35 PM

  18. Matthew, Hi! What great timing -- we just got caught up on the Ambersons!

  19. You cannot mention Bath without bringing to my mind Persuasion:

    "I would dearly love to go to Bath"

    ...and so you have! I hope it's grand for you both.