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TNR Film Classic: ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ (1942)

Orson Welles’s second I-did-it should show once and for all that film making, radio and the stage are three different guys better kept separated. The Magnificent Ambersons is one of those versions of the richest family in town during the good old days. Front and center of the Ambersons is the Oedipean situation between Dolores Costello and son Tim Holt, which, according to the movie, started when Dolores married the wrong man. All her frustrated love went toward smothering her son, and sure enough he grew up to gloriously rotten manhood. When the father dies, Sonny Boy keeps Mother from marrying her first love, who for some reason is still hanging around (from what you see you wouldn’t think she was worth the fuss). As a result, limpidly pretty Dolores shrinks up and dies.

While telling this story, haltingly and clumsily, the movie runs from burdensome through heavy and dull to bad. It stutters and stumbles as Welles submerges Tarkington’s story in a mess of radio and stage technique. The radio comes in those stretches of blank screen when the only thing present is Welles’s off-screen voice mellifluously setting the period and coyly reminiscing, talking and drooling, while you sit there muttering let’s get on. And at the times when something is on the screen and Welles tells you what for. Meanwhile, for something to do, you count the shadows. Theatre-like is the inability to get the actors or story moving, which gives you a desire to push with your hands. There is really no living, moving or seeing to the movie; it is a series of static episodes connected by narration, as though someone sat you down and said “Here!” and gave you some postcards of the 1890’s. The first ten have to do with costume. Then some on the many-gabled architecture. Then the first automobile, the second, the third, and you wait for somebody to say “Get a horse,” and finally somebody does. Eventually the main people come on and act mostly on a dime (Welles, off-screen, says Isabel Amberson is rejecting a suitor and you see the suitor rejected). Then, cut, and you’re on Main Street with the average man. Now back for another fond look at the Amberson mansion with the camera ostentatiously snailing its way into coiners and crevices until finally a face turns in out of the stage-muddy murk, looks or talks or walks upstairs or, if it’s Agnes Moorehead, has hysterics. The pace of the camera (Stanley Cortez’) is too slow for movie eyes, and the pace of the story (Orson Welles’s) too labored to create any emotion but boredom.

Aside from all the dead spots the story is told as badly as would seem possible. The incidents selected don’t explain themselves sufficiently to be there, and moreover, are ineptly chosen to get across the psychological workings of the Ambersons, which is the main concern of the movie. Repetitious display of Aunt Fannie’s hysteria is good theatrical bombast, but every fit after the first is irrelevant as far as the story’s concerned. Toadying like this to melodramatic effect strips the other roles, particularly the two older lovers’, to almost nothing. So that you feel that you’re looking at the main plot—the triangle of son, mother and lover—through the wrong end of a telescope. There are long, awkwardly handled scenes that add up to nothing. There are some plain cheap effects: Richard Bennett as old Major Amberson is finally given his due when they set his face to the camera and Welles tells you he’s scared to die. The two minutes you’ve seen of him before wouldn’t prove it (in fact you wonder who the old geezer is), but even if you accept this fact what have you got? The transitions are handled miserably, and in the midst of all the redundancy the story thuds suddenly into situations without any reason that you can see. Just before the end, pace, characters and feeling change abruptly and sprint to a hearts-and-flowers finish. Much of this seems the fault of blundering editing.

In keeping with this eclecticism are photographic tricks from everywhere, so unintegrated you can’t miss them. These aren’t as objectionable as the general theatrical use of the camera, which subscribes to the theory that six shadows are six times as dramatic as one and the blacker the better. This eighty-eight-minute dim-out negates nearly everything a camera can do.

On the credit side is Welles’s drive, as in Citizen Kane, toward three-dimensional characters and away from standardized movie types. He wants realism and there’s no one in Hollywood to touch him in its use. He directs his actors in more meaty portrayals of neurotic people than any other Hollywood director. But even this, which is so admirable, suffers from the general clumsiness, and from the fact that stage acting is more boring than not on the screen.