Eighty years ago, in March 1942, Orson Welles was two months away from turning twenty-seven. Until that moment in his already wonderful life, he had known little applause.
Born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Wells was considered a genius from an early age. “I was spoiled in a very strange way when I was a kid because everyone told me from the moment I heard I was so cool,” he said in a 1982 BBC interview. As he began his career as the most talented writer, director, and actor in America, he did his best to confirm their expectations.
First Welles oversaw a pair of dazzling new adaptations of Shakespeare on the Federal Theater Project and then on his Mercury Theater – Macbeth In 1936, an all-black crew appeared Caesar In 1937 it contained provocative allusions to Nazism and Fascism. Then, for Mercury Theater on Air, he put on a radio version of H.G. Wells war of the worlds It was so convincing that some listeners kept believing that Mars had already arrived. In 1941 he came Citizen KenWells co-wrote, directed and starred in it. Although not as widely admired in his day as in our time, it was nonetheless seen in advanced circles as a major advance in the art of cinema.
“I haven’t heard the word depressing in years,” Wells told the BBC. “I didn’t know what awaited me!”
In fact, Wells’ downfall was just around the corner. During the fateful spring of 1942, Wells’ second film, The Magnificent AmbersonsHis brilliant, enduring funeral adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an aristocratic midwestern family whose downfall is told parallels the rise of a “horseless chariot” is experienced with audience preview. The response constituted the first “frustrating words” that Willis had ever heard in his life.
At the first preview, held March 17 in Pomona, California, the response was mixed, with 53 positive reactions from the audience versus 72 negative reactions, according to numbers from a collection of interviews Peter Bogdanovich gave Wells in the posthumous publication. This is Orson Welles. “Very strange [sic] Camera shots,” read one of the negative cards. “It should be put off because taking people’s hard-earned money for such a crime is a crime. Technical Trash as Mr. Wells wants us. . . Wells would have been better off going back to the radio, I hope.”
That was enough To alert officials at RKO Radio Pictures. Using the negative feedback in Pomona’s preview as an excuse, RKO officials deemed the film to need severe cuts and major reshoots, both of which were done without Welles’s participation in the process (he was then working on an unreleased non-fiction film finished in Brazil). In Pomona, the film took about two hours, but the release version that is settled after subsequent previews, the only one in circulation today, unfolds over the course of just 88 minutes.
“When we took it out for previews, it played really well in some locations and in others it was really bad. My film editor, Robert Wise, told me when I interviewed him in 2004 for my book. Remember Orson Welles?. Yet the question remains: Why did those who hated do? The Magnificent Ambersons categorically hated it? The preview audience may not have been able to fully express their distaste – hence the defensive references to Willis’s “weird” visual style or his “artistic” pretensions – but we can make some guesses.
Much is made of the elegiac tone of The Magnificent Ambersons– evoking the way the Midwest lived, dressed, and played – but one would expect that kind of melancholy nostalgia to have played so well with moviegoers who, only a few years later, had hit the equally melancholy Vincente Minnelli Meet me in St. Louis. Welles was not above feeling affection for the Midwest in his youth, as he did in an autobiographical essay on Paris Vogue In the early 1980s, he described his childhood visits to Dixon, Illinois, the birthplace of Ronald Reagan.
“I think it was in Dixon that our president shaped his image of a strangely innocent America to which he would like us all back,” Wells wrote. “Dixon had the kind of Main Street we used to see in a Hollywood studio, with hookups, barber poles, and a wooden Indian in front of a cigar shop.”
At first glance, The Magnificent Ambersons It seems to stem from the same nostalgic impulse. In the famous opening sequence, we see a shot of a horse-driven tram — “the only public means of transportation,” Wells notes in his sleepy account — stopping in front of the snow-covered Amberson Palace, followed by shots of star Joseph Cotten posing in fleeting dress styles. “In those days, they had time for everything,” Wells continues. “Time for sleigh rides and balls and gatherings and cotillions and opening the house to New Year’s picnics and all-day picnics in the woods, and even those most beautiful habits are gone: singing . . . . ”
However, once Willis establishes this popular tune, he complicates it. In his novel, Wells It shows that the Amberson family stands a long way from this Norman Rockwell-style utopia. “Against this homely background, the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as the brass band at a funeral,” says Wells, creating a short article for ordinary townspeople sharing information on the apparent wealth of the family: “Sixty thousand dollars for woodwork alone said a man of the mansion, Hot and cold running water,” a woman intervenes, “upstairs and downstairs,” another adds.
The townspeople are said to wish to “punish” George Amberson Minfer (played by Bobby Cooper as an adult, and as an adult by Tim Holt), the unruly and arrogant Isabel Amberson Minfer (Dolores Costello) son (Dolores Costello) and her husband Milk, Wilbur Minfer (Don Delaway). Young George makes no excuses for harassing a local man after an argument with another boy. “I bet if he wanted to see any of us, he’d have to go to the side door,” says George, eliciting affectionate laughter from his grandfather, the head of the household, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). Fully grown, George is no less caring toward automobile inventor Eugene Morgan (Cotten), whose invention offers nothing but outright disdain: “Cars are a pointless nuisance,” says George.
What we have then is not just a nostalgic portrait of bygone days – a project most 1940s moviegoers would have fallen short of – but a study of class differences and social upheaval: the city transforms in film from a domination of blue streams like Ambersons run by a class of inventors, entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs like Eugene.
Uncomfortable in the preview audience 80 years ago, it is likely that Wells is coming down to the side of the Ambersons, whose wealthy laziness is seen as carrying fewer social costs than Eugene’s diligence. This is a movie about cars that were made without any of the glamor or excitement of classic car movies of the ’60s and ’70s, instead portraying them as dirty, ugly, noisy alternatives that pollute the air and crowd the road.
Welles certainly relishes at the expense of the Ambersons, as when George scoffs at potential careers—”lawyers, bankers, politicians, what they get out of life, I’d like to know”—and insists that his goal, the extent to which he ever has one, is to become a man yacht But watch how gently and gracefully their lifestyle captures: The camera floats in the front doors of Ambersons during a Christmastime ball throw, and there is an unparalleled amount of cinematic magic when George and Lucy, the adult daughter of Eugene (Anne Baxter), ride a sleigh through a snowy driveway, bypassing Eugene’s car. Pausing, to the sound of sledge bells.
By contrast, Willis shows that outwardly gentle Eugene is a vessel for horrors, a gentle and lovable man who is nonetheless certain that his creation will “change the face of the earth”, in the words of Major Amberson, not for the better. Eugene admits, “They may not add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls.” “But the cars came, and almost all outside things will be different because of what they bring. They will change war and they will change peace.”
And that’s what they do. “It has changed, very changed,” Isabelle says of her hometown late in the film, and foreshadows a long sequence in which Willis starkly depicts the extension and fabrication of what was an attractive tower. “The city was growing and changing,” Wells says via footage of telephone poles, electrical wires, tall buildings and cheap apartments. “It was incredibly high in the middle, it was incredibly spreading.” Undoubtedly, this aspect of the film was expressed with more drama and depth in the full version that the first preview audience saw. In the release version, the film gets too involved in the personal dramas of the Ambersons and loses the central metaphor of the family skidding and car climbing.
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That night in Pomona, Wells’ message came loud and clear: Modernity has a price. This was and still is a provocative feeling. Although a staunch Liberal Democrat, Wells was anti-modern in many ways. Describing his closeness to Shakespeare, whose works made three masterful films, Willis told the BBC: “I am against my modern age, it was against him.”
He was so skeptical about technological advances that he refused to land on the moon, as he explained in a never-ending documentary about the making of his Franz Kafka movie. trial: “I’m very serious about the moon. I think Robert Graves was right when he said that the most blasphemous thing that had happened since Alexander cut the Gordian knot was when we landed on the moon.”
Who is not an artist boldly Willis question the wisdom of democracy, the moon landing, and the “carriage of horses”? Viewers of World War II in America did not know how to deal with a film that addresses such a problem with material progress and the fruits of capitalism, let alone a film that praises the firmness of the hand of the ruling class. Today, however, we may finally be ready to share in Welles’ admiration for the magnificence of the Ambersons.