Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $39.95
By 1942, Orson Welles was a young man on quite a run. After turning Broadway upside-down with his innovative Shakespeare adaptations and terrifying radio listeners with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles had taken Hollywood by storm. Fresh off the release of his controversial magnum opus Citizen Kane, Welles decided to scale it down for his next film: an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons. Going from dramatizing a powerful media tycoon’s public downfall to a quietly observed family drama was as risky an artistic choice as any Welles had ever made.
Unfortunately, the exasperated studio honchos agreed. After disappointing feedback from a misinterpreted test screening, they unilaterally decided to slash major parts of the film, including Welles’s intended ending. The original version is permanently lost, but the remaining one has been reissued in a splendid and thorough new edition by the Criterion Collection. This is a cause for celebration, and not just for cinephiles. Even in its truncated form, The Magnificent Ambersons manages to be both a sensitively observed family chronicle and a visionary social prophecy that still has much to say about how we live now, more than 75 years after its initial release.
The Ambersons are a wealthy Indianapolis family who rose to prominence during Reconstruction by acquiring vast plots of land through financial speculation. As the film opens at the turn of the century, it is clear that they set the social pecking order for the rest of the townsfolk. Every eligible bachelor competes for the hand of the lovely Isabel Amberson, and the ambitious Eugene Morgan (played with worldly bemusement by the great Joseph Cotten) seems her ideal suitor—until a painfully public faux pas irrevocably derails their courtship and causes him to leave town. Instead, Isabel reluctantly marries a stuffed shirt named Wilbur Minafer. Their only son, Georgie, is a spoiled brat consisting of equal parts petulance and naivety. As Georgie grows older, everybody in town murmurs among themselves like a Greek chorus, looking forward to the day when the little jerk will finally get his “comeuppance.”
The Ambersons pass their blasé days shuffling around their opulent but gloomy mansion, as their emotionally repressed aunt (played with self-effacing gravitas by Agnes Moorehead) selflessly tends to the family business. Years pass like silhouettes until one Christmas celebration, elegantly brought to life in a bravura feat of nimble camerawork and intricate mise-en-scène, Eugene returns—now with a fortune all his own through investing in a newfangled contraption called the automobile. Georgie can’t possibly imagine why anyone would be interested in this “horseless carriage.” Sensing Eugene’s nascent threat to his elite status—and resenting his affections for his mother—Georgie rudely scolds him about the foolishness of this new machine during a formal dinner.
In a masterful portrayal of tightly controlled emotion, methodically squeezing a spoon with his thumb, Eugene eloquently explains that even he has doubts about the automobile’s true social value: “With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls,” he predicts. Yet if Eugene isn’t necessarily optimistic about what this new invention will bring, he is certain that it’s too late to turn back the clock: “Automobiles have come,” he concludes, and their effects will be felt for good or ill. Matters of war and peace will be conducted differently, he muses, because people’s minds will suddenly work differently.
Given his grand new fortune, Eugene’s ambivalence about his prized investment testifies to his thoughtfulness. Unlike privileged Georgie, he seriously considers the social consequences of his newfound fortune and doesn’t assume that whatever makes him wealthy must be self-evidently good for the world. Georgie, by contrast, is a study in self-regarding naivety, reinforced by lifelong entitlement and the freedom from having to suffer the repercussions of his actions.
Eugene’s concerns prove prophetic. Welles’s all-knowing narration describes how over the next few years the quaint town of Indianapolis gradually “spreads and darkens into a city.” Georgie eventually doesn’t even recognize the streets he grew up on as the elite status he’s taken for granted all his life begins to erode. The investments that his doddering grandfather carefully tended over a lifetime lose value. A different form of commerce gradually takes over. And the Ambersons are too caught up in the emotional and economic traps they’ve set for themselves over years of posh isolation to learn how to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Georgie does ultimately get his comeuppance, but not in a way that any of the townspeople ever expected: a world that he barely understands has left him behind and doesn’t even bother to notice as it runs him over.
A similar kind of unease is widespread in today’s world. Automation and its discontents loom large in the public imagination. The uncertainty about how rapid technological advances will change our society is palpable. As Eugene understood, there is and has always been an incalculable social price to pay for relentless innovation.
According to the nonprofit research organization Institute for the Future, it’s estimated that 85 percent of the jobs that today’s students will do in 2030 don’t exist yet. The industrial robotics market is expected to increase by 118 percent over the next ten years. And no one knows whether there will be enough access to the kind of specialized education (the kind that oblivious Georgie merely scoffs at) that will enable the next generation of workers to master the ever-evolving requirements of the brave new technology.
Roughly a century later, too, the genteel social status that the land-rich, old-money Ambersons embodied has been usurped by the casually dressed tech savants who have become immensely wealthy through a combination of ingenuity, tenacity, and savvy self-promotion. In many ways Silicon Valley’s innovations have been quite useful in our daily lives, but one look at the dehumanizing way that Amazon treats its workers—as ill-paid human cogs in a perpetual conveyor belt—reminds us how Eugene is wise to be nervous about what the future holds. Technology giveth as much as it taketh away.
Meanwhile, our pace of life is constantly increasing. Food, information, text, images, and sounds are constantly being delivered from one place to the next. It isn’t being alarmist to consider, as Eugene does, how this relentless forward motion quickens the ways we think, talk, and act. “I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles,” says Eugene. The same holds true of our minds in the internet age—when the ephemeral nature of written content has made it harder than ever for the average person to discriminate between true and false information; when the instant dissemination of personal data creates a newfound potential for surveillance and theft; when previously anonymous groups exploit the internet’s openness by rallying around all kinds of shared grievances. There’s a widespread anxiety about the pressures of modern life that has metabolized in the body politic in the form of mass political unrest and deepening individual angst. It’s enough to make you wonder what the mentality of Eugene Morgan’s great grandchildren might be, coming of age on the cusp of the self-driving car—and enough to make his concerns about the automobile seem almost quaint by comparison.
Welles was no Luddite, but he understood the insights of Tarkington’s tale both intellectually and on a deeper personal level. His free-wheeling father was an acquaintance of Tarkington, and he had made a fortune from investing in new technologies, including a special lamp specifically designed for bicycles. He was also something of a playboy, and eventually squandered that fortune. Welles thus knew from experience both what it was like to have money and to lose it. His father’s profligate spending caused his precocious young son to grow up largely in hotel rooms, and in his later years Welles joked that it was an open question who raised whom.
Critics have speculated about the recurring themes of parental fecklessness and neglect in both Kane and Ambersons. David Thomson, a Welles biographer, has suggested that the key scene in Kane is the ominous one in the beginning where the parents quietly barter him off to boarding school while innocent little Charles Kane romps around in the snowy backyard with his beloved sled. In Ambersons, Georgie’s naivety is clearly a result of his Oedipal coddling—not only is he rude to Eugene at dinner, ignoring his mature, measured reflections about the future, but as his prominence steadily declines he compulsively over-relies on his spinster aunt’s devotion to the point of emotional cruelty. Welles usually preferred not to speak of his early life, probably enjoying the born storyteller’s delight in self-mythologizing, but themes of generational conflict do tend to reappear in his films.
In a sense, Orson Welles was his own greatest creation, at least as far as the public was concerned. This suggests another way in which he anticipated the self-obsessed direction in which modern life was headed. Welles had seen firsthand the persuasive power of mass communication from his involvement with radio and the new world of cinema. A talented amateur magician, he knew how to hold an audience’s attention. Welles had been studying theatre and memorizing Shakespeare since childhood, and it was his mastery of storytelling, tone, and performance that helped him thrive in new media. But he also knew how dangerously seductive it could be. (The fact that he briefly considered running for political office only underscores this point.)
As Welles’s narrator ruefully remarks toward the beginning of the film, the staid life the Ambersons knew is paradoxically “too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.” This isn’t as paradoxical as it might sound: Having more information at our fingertips necessarily shortens our attention spans, which makes our experience of time much quicker than we might realize. It then becomes harder to pay attention, to retain facts and chronology, and thus to concentrate. The faster life moves, the harder it is to slow down and really see it in great depth.
The original ending of the film was much bleaker than the existing one, with the sanity of the remaining Ambersons on the line. Having lost everything, Georgie visits his now decrepit aunt in her boardinghouse and they can barely speak to one another. The two find themselves, as critic Molly Haskell writes in her accompanying essay, “in a kind of entombed silence.” As Welles later explained, their worlds have been “buried under parking lots and cars.”
Clearly, Welles intended to challenge his audience’s assumptions about the future. Instead of providing easy entertainment for the masses, with the usual Hollywood preference for an upbeat ending and likable characters, Welles put the tension and anxiety of modern life on the big screen for all to see. In retrospect, it’s not so hard to see why the movie failed with test audiences. There are drawbacks to being that far ahead of your time.
Aside from its unique place in Welles’ career and film history, The Magnificent Ambersons has much to tell us about the march of progress and its discontents. Rewatching it, especially in Criterion’s splendidly crisp new edition, offers a useful break from the hurly-burly of 21st-century life, with its incessant beeps, alerts, and updates. Even in our age of distraction, the film’s subtle poetry and prophetic insights still shine through. If there was one thing Welles knew better than anyone else, it was how to keep you watching.