Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Magnificent Ambersons

It's unfortunate that this film is available only on video, especially one that begins with Robert Osbourne apologizing for everything that's wrong about the print chosen for commercial release. Whether it was the fact that thirty-one minutes were edited and burned by the studio while Welles worked on projects in South America, or that it was, alas, a full-screen print, it's difficult to imagine The Magnificent Ambersons as Welles intended it.

Nevertheless, the story itself, based on Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, shocked me for its notable thefts, tearing pages from Dreiser, Howells, Twain, and Wharton, especially as it was published in 1918, leaving only Dreiser and Wharton to hash out differences with him. But it's Howells' book The Rise of Silas Lapham that seemed to have been scavenged most ruthlessly. Tarkington's story begins in 1873, tracing the Family Amberson from its peak fortune through their decline into madness and depravity. Howells' book does nearly the same, introducing readers to Silas Lapham from the discovery of mineral deposits on his family farm, through the rise of his paint manufacture, to his embarrassment at the loss of his Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts mansion. Unlike Tarkington, Howells' reputation (given to him by notable critic Mark Twain) as the smiling face of realism, stops short of Tarkington's naturalistic telling.

Regrettably, Welles didn't make a film about the Laphams and the Coreys, and old money versus new, choosing instead to adapt Tarkington's work - I wonder if he even knew about Howells as anything other than a literary critic - which gets across more or less the same notions about the fragility of aristocracy and the persistent hope of realizing some American dream. The antecedents are switched in Welles' film, in this case allowing Joseph Cotten's Eugene Morgan to emerge as an inventor- industrialist after his frivolous childhood, and the descendants of Major Amberson scattered to the wind, ruined by bad investments, following a theme pursued by Wharton in The House of Mirth.

The film itself is like these books as a study of American types: the alternately opulent and sedentary aristocracy set against an energetic, hopeful petit bourgeoisie, the working class represented by docile servants. Their attitudes and aspirations are reflected in the young heirs of both fortunes whose star-crossed paths mirror those of their lovelorn parents. Notions of borrower and lender take on erotic forms; Morgan cannot marry the widowed Minafer for proprietary reasons, providing evidence of America's enduring caste structure, despite remonstrations to the contrary in print and politics. Likewise, technological progress plays as foil against social injustices: that George Amberson Minafer can't control all the aspects of his life proves his downfall, opening but one space atop Edward Bellamy's metaphorical stagecoach, a seat Morgan happily claims.

Retribution equated with justice is a common element in literature of the period, but it wasn't always in the venial manner expressed in these books and Welles' film. From Bellamy's Looking Backward to John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer, one can easily see all manner of justice exacted on the cunning and witless. Like Lapham seeking reassurance from his clerk, we find a would-be scion begging for work, dangerous work, from a former subordinate. For Minafer, the loss of dignity begets the fall of empire, proving, albeit in a convaluted way, Spencer's perverted understanding of Darwin's evolution, in which the wealthy and the poor alike may be brought low their perceived weaknesses.

For Welles, this film marked what many critics consider the beginning of the end. Chafing under a studio system that sought creative control for commercial ends, his absence resulted in the unauthorized editing of The Magnificent Ambersons. Forthwith, Welles bold visions are more conservative, and while films like The Lady from Shanghai are remarkable triumphs artistically, one senses that these films, nearly all of which are concerned with matters of identity and power, might have been more piercing indictments of American policy, economics, and justice.


Blogger Christopher Trottier said...

I'll be sure to check this one out.

9:51 PM  

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