MAJOR AMBERSON had "made a fortune" in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence
of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may
now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their
splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost
during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.
In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet,
and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the
winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and
the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time
rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else's family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a
mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to
noon dinner or evening supper.
Booth Tarkington begins his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with the preceding two paragraphs. I haven't seen a better
first-page hook. It draws us into the world of this bustling, voraciously growing (but unspecified) "Midland Town" and the
world of a very prominent family whose genteel life is engulfed by the expanding city and changing times:
- Major Amberson, patriarch of the family, and the only one to have earned his money
- George Amberson, the Major's son, member of the only criminal class native to America2
- Sydney Amberson, the Major's other son
- Amelia Amberson, Sydney's wife
- Isabel Amberson Minafer, the Major's beautiful daughter,
- Wilbur Minafer, Isabel's cipher of a husband,
- Fanny Minafer, Wilbur's sister, an aging spinster, and finally, but most importantly,
- George Amberson Minafer, Wilbur and Isabel's son.
Central to all of the action are George Amberson Minafer and his antics. Georgie is
the darling of Isabel's eye. He believes himself lord of all he surveys, and grows into
a terror to everyone in the town. In fact, the action consists mainly of the consequences
of those antics. You may have read somewhere that Ambersons is a story of the
relationships between characters; this isn't precisely true. More accurately, it is a
story of the other characters' relationships with Georgie. The book might better be
titled How Georgie Got His Comeuppance" and you can certainly consider
it a Northern version of Gone with The Wind.
"Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves,
and how little we think of the other person."
- Mark Twain, Notebook, 1898
Georgie is utterly incapable of such deception, and so makes enemies of just about everyone around him. His family is
part of "Society", everyone else is "Riffraff", a favorite term of Georgie's. His mother sees only the angel in him, and
always takes his side.
Not even his family is immune; he is embarrassed by his father, and constantly says cruel
things to his Aunt Fanny.
Into this world come a former rejected suitor of Isabel's, Eugene Morgan, and his lovely daughter Lucy. Eugene Morgan
has come back to his hometown to start up an automobile factory. Georgie is horrified by "the old sewing machines" being
pushed by this "queer-looking duck" but imagines them a fad.
Georgie has a problem: At the same time he considers Morgan exceedingly vulgar for his invention, he finds himself falling in love
with Morgan's daughter. I will not spoil the plot any further; you will simply have to read it.
If you do, you will find parts of The Magnificent Ambersons quite racist. The Ambersons' "darkie" servants stay
mostly in the background, but perhaps this is part of Tarkington's program of showing a way of life based upon airs of
superiority swept away. I cannot raise this vague feeling to the level of an excuse for Tarkington, but certainly Margaret
Mitchell would never have had a black stablehand berate the main character for using a racial epithet.
In late 1941, Orson Welles was finishing his masterpiece Citizen Kane and was looking for another project
to fulfill his contract with RKO. Welles had produced a successful radio version of The Magnificent Ambersons for Mercury Theater; eventually Welles settled on the story for this project. Both RKO and Welles understood that they would have to top Citizen Kane but they had differing ideas about what that might mean. Oblivious to this fact, Welles proceded with the project. Joseph Cotten was cast as Eugene Morgan, Dolores Costello was Isabel,
and Agnes Moorehead was Aunt Fanny. For the all-important role of Georgie he cast RKO contract actor Tim Holt, quite a surprise considering that Welles liked to play his own leading roles.
In the meantime, The United States had just entered World War II, and its government was looking to improve relations
with Latin America in order to keep them from supporting the German side. On the commission created to study the issue was
Nelson Rockefeller1, a major stockholder of RKO, and it was he who suggested that Welles direct a movie in South America. Ambersons was nearly complete, and so Welles took up the challenge, delegating the finishing of Ambersons to assistant director Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten. Welles went off to Brazil to start work on his movie (to be called It's all True). Wise finished the editing of Ambersons, producing a 135-minute movie.
While the cat's away... Producer George Schaefer interpreted the results of a botched test screening (to a bunch of bored teenagers expecting a monster movie at a Saturday afternoon matinee) as you would expect a Hollywood producer to. He decided that Welles' film was too depressing and too long. He set about 'improving' the picture by cutting it from 138 minutes down to 88 minutes. Schaefer had the assistant director re-shoot scenes to cover the bloody stumps. An exchange between Schaefer in Hollywood and Welles in Brazil followed, Welles commanding Schaefer to restore his film and Schafer tryoing to bring Welles around to his way of thinking. In the end, The Magnificent Ambersons was released in its butchered form. Welles disavowed any connection with the film and sued to have his name removed from the picture. This experience embittered Welles to Hollywood and destroyed his directing career. You can be sure that a few people thought that Welles got his comeuppance.
Alfonso Arau's effort to produce a version of The Magnificent Ambersons that was true to Orson Welles's vision
was a valiant one. Elaborate sets and costumes recreated the Gilded Age in turn of the century Indianapolis. Casting Jennifer Tilly as Aunt Fanny was a masterstroke, but Jonathan Rhys-Meyers comes off as petulant rather than overweeningly arrogant. It is a beautiful homage to Welles's vision, but none of this makes up for the fact that Arau is trying too hard to meet his idea of the audience's expectations, and the expectations of one important, but dead, man. Meeting one's idea of the audience's expectations is the cause of the tragedy with Welles, after all.
My first exposure to Ambersons was a documentary about Orson Welles in the late 1980's. I had never heard of the picture before this. I managed to catch snippets of Welles's movie over the following years but never saw it all the way through. I only found out about Booth Tarkington during the hype for the 2002 production.
After said production left me with a vague sense of unease, the idea of acquiring and reading a copy of Tarkington's novel entered my head. Like many such ideas, I put it off until itbecame meaningless (I've had 100 Years Of Solitude in my amazon.com cart for several months without actually buying the thing).
On a recent vacation, I happened upon a place called the "Book Barn" in Stockton Springs, Maine. This was an actual barn and it was filled to the brim with books. Books crammed into shelves, books lying about in thirty-year-old grocery bags, books piled so high on the main desk you could barely see the attendant. Prices were much higher than I expected for a place with used ashtrays on the shelves. I explored for awhile longer, thinking perhaps to get an old geography or geology textbook, but for a moment I thought I might find a first edition of The Hobbit; what a miracle that would have been! Well, the "T" shelves of the fiction section contained no such miracle, but I remembered my notion of reading The Magnificent Ambersons, and sure enough, there in a complete collection of Booth Tarkington, there it was! A smallish book, bound in blue cloth, with indentations on the edges of the back cover indicating that it had once been tied up with string. The title page indicates that it was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1920. Rough-edged pages, some of which had never been cut. There are four black-and-white illustrations depicting four important scenes in the novel. Since it's not a first edition, and the cover's a bit worn, it's probably not worth the $28.00 I paid for it. On the other hand, theat means I don't have to feel guilty about reading it.
I confirmed to myself that Booth Tarkington's novel is really the best depiction of this story. Certainly, this might have been different had RKO not butchered Welles's masterpiece, a movie that might have surpassed Citizen Kane.
The book is actually painful3 to read, as Georgie does one incredibly stupid thing after another. I banished any notion I might have retained that the story does anything but revolve around Georgie Minafer, just as much as he probably thought the world revolved around himself. How could I have imagined that the decline of The Magnificant Ambersons could have been centered upon anything other than this arrogant boy, the inevitable product of all that hauteur?
1You've probably noticed the fact that a member of one of America's most prominent families was the principal engine behind Welles's diversion from a project depicting how fleeting such prominence is, but I wanted to make sure.
2As you might guess, I have ripped off Mark Twain's famous bon mot about Congress.
3I do not deny that part of this pain comes from remembering the stupid, arrogant thigs I have done in my life.