Entry from June 25, 2014

This summer I am once again presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six movies. The general theme this year is Middle America and the Movies. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the Hudson website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, June 24th with a screening of The Magnificent Ambersons of 1942, adapted from Booth Tarkington’s novel and directed by Orson Welles. It stars Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

In connection with last week’s movie, King’s Row, I talked a bit about a literary and dramatic genre called melodrama that doesn’t exist anymore, except in camp form, and I speculated about the reasons why it doesn’t. I thought the disappearance connected to our culture’s demystification of sex, which used to be all bound up with everybody’s moral, social and religious identities, but especially those of women. Sex outside its narrowly prescribed social and moral boundaries had the power to annihilate the very social and familial existence of women and so could become for them, quite literally, a fate worse than death. That meant that erotic passion was, for better or worse, very often momentous and life-changing in a way that it hardly ever is anymore, and its representation on stage or screen was therefore more naturally accompanied by heightened emotion and portentous manifestations of sympathy from the scenery (such as the thunderstorm in King’s Row) or the music.

But in King’s Row the melodramatic form was deliberately placed into tension with the ethos, which was all in favor of sexual demystification — or, as we have later come to see it, liberation from its former social context. In effect, the story as written by Henry Bellamann seems to me to have been saying, "This is how it used to be in the little North American hamlet of King’s Row forty years ago, but these poor provincial villagers should not have had to suffer as they did. They should have tried to be more like us of the enlightened present and of more enlightened places, and we should all be like the presumptively even more enlightened people of the future." Although some of this attitude survives in the film, Hollywood had to tone it down quite a lot, partly owing to the demands of the Hays Office, and so turned the movie instead into a celebration of America’s can-do spirit and the bright future it promised.

This week, we have another obsolete literary-dramatic form to consider, which is tragedy. And just as King’s Row evokes the melodrama in order to undermine it, so does The Magnificent Ambersons evoke the most famous tragedy in the English-speaking world, that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in order to ridicule it. The novel on which Orson Welles’s movie was based was by Booth Tarkington and was published in 1919 — by coincidence, the same year of publication as T.S. Eliot’s "Hamlet and His Problems." Eliot famously pronounced the play an artistic failure because the emotion it generated was in excess of what he called its "objective correlative." In other words, you could say that Hamlet had made himself the hero of his own melodrama without giving the audience anything objective, anything outside himself, that would have made the heightened emotion understandable.

To me this essay is the canary in the coal mine, heralding the post-First World War collapse of the Western honor culture. Up until Eliot’s time no one seems to have had much trouble understanding at least the basis of Hamlet’s emotion. He had a duty in honor to avenge his father’s death, and for various reasons was reluctant to undertake it. Among those reasons, as Eliot was inclined to agree with Freud and the Freudian psychologist Ernest Jones, were Hamlet’s unresolved Oedipal feelings towards his mother. I don’t know whether Booth Tarkington knew anything either of Freud or Jones or Eliot, but when he came to write The Magnificent Ambersons, it must have been because these or similar ideas had occurred to him as well, since the novel is a kind of burlesque of Shakespeare’s tragedy from more or less the same point of view — the point of view, that is, that the hero’s sense of honor is nothing more than a ridiculous pretense, not to be taken seriously, and so must be a cover for darker feelings that he wished to keep secret, even from himself.

Yet Tarkington had chosen a subject for his parody that must have been close to his heart. The magnificence of the Ambersons is symbolized in both the novel and the movie by the fabulously costly Amberson Mansion — "Sixty thousand dollars for the wood-work alone!" — which is based on Laurel Hill, the former headquarters of (you’ll never guess) the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. It had been built by the banker Stoughton Fletcher in 1916 at a cost of over $2 million, which would be around $50 million today. Booth Tarkington had been married to Fletcher’s sister Louisa from 1902 to 1911 and so knew the family well, which may account for the novel’s prescience in predicting the loss of fortune by its fictional counterpart. Stoughton Fletcher’s bankruptcy didn’t take place until 1924, five years after the novel’s publication, when, according to the history of Laurel Hall by Kate Lenkowsky, wife of the former Hudson president, Les Lenkowsky, he had assets of $481.39 and liabilities of $1,763,602.54.

At least Fletcher had been a banker before being ruined by a combination of his own extravagance and bad investments. Tarkington’s mock-tragic hero is instead merely a spoiled child who grows up with a ludicrously exaggerated idea of his own and his family’s importance in the world. This hero is Georgie Amberson, played in the movie by Tim Holt who, as some of you may remember, was the third of the three prospectors, along with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which we saw in the fourth of these movie series, "The Pursuit of Happiness," in 2010. Georgie is the only grandchild of the wealthy, would-be aristocrat Major Amberson, played by Richard Bennett, whose daughter Isabel had married Georgie’s father, the feckless Wilbur Minafer, instead of the man she really loved, Eugene Morgan. Isabel is played by Dolores Costello and Eugene by Joseph Cotten. When Wilbur dies, Eugene, a widower, comes courting Isabel again, to Georgie’s furious resentment — even though Georgie himself is in love with Eugene’s daughter Lucy, played by Anne Baxter in the Ophelia role. The decline of the Ambersons and what they represent of the past corresponds with the rise of Eugene and what he represents as a manufacturer of automobiles.

At first, Welles himself had planned to take on the role of Georgie as he had done with the central role in Citizen Kane and was to do again in many later films, but he claimed to have given the part, reluctantly, to Holt, aged 22 at the time, because he felt himself to have been too old at 26. Robert Carringer, who carefully reconstructed — on paper anyway — the now-lost original version of the movie, thinks the real reason was that the supposed Oedipal theme that The Magnificent Ambersons shares with Hamlet struck too close to home, given Welles’s own suppressed feelings about the mother he lost when he was only nine years old. Carringer’s essay which introduces his volume is titled "Oedipus in Indianapolis." He also argues that the studio’s famous butchery of Welles’s original version of the picture was largely brought on by himself in a Hamlet-like act of self-destruction.

He makes a persuasive case. Welles went off to South America after completing the film, leaving the final edit to others. He also, from Brazil, cabled instructions for an edit of his own, which Carringer calls "the big cut," that made the ending almost incomprehensible to the trial audience at its disastrous first screening. After that, the head of RKO, George Schaefer ordered a wholesale re-editing of Welles’s original, cutting more than forty minutes out of it so that its running time went from 131 minutes down to 88. But he restored the big cut. It may seem a little far fetched to attribute this chain of events to Welles’s admittedly domineering and eccentric though long dead mother, but that is just one measure of the extent to which the fraught story of the film’s production has since overshadowed the film itself and whatever it was that Welles was trying, or thought he was trying, to do with it. Welles himself contributed to this way of looking at things when he said that the studio had destroyed Ambersons and that had destroyed him.

This was typically Wellesian hyperbole. Even into old age, he liked to hang on to his reputation as a Wunderkind, always frustrated of the glorious fulfilment he had originally promised. But the biographical approach to the film seems much less interesting to me than its idea of America, especially Midwestern America, which survives intact even in the shorter version. Both Tarkington and Welles start from a position of patronizing the past. The film’s brilliantly constructed opening montage of male fashions remembered from the dim and distant past, which is based on Tarkington’s own excursus on the subject, creates an expectation followed through on in the rest of the film that we are to look at these people of forty years ago (nearly sixty years ago from Welles’s point of view) and the things that mattered to them as quaint, intermittently charming but always faintly — and often more than faintly — ridiculous. And that is especially true of the Ambersons’ pretensions to a kind of American aristocracy — less because of any inherent deficiency in the idea of aristocracy itself than because it is hopelessly out of any plausible context in the bustling commercial republic that America had by then become.

In his narration of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles, following Tarkington, talks ironically of the final ball at the Amberson mansion as "this pageant of the tenantry," even though both men must have known that there were no tenant farmers in Indiana. But the word would have been used ironically as being redolent of an Old World, land-owning élite which it was the vanity and the illusion of Major Amberson to see himself as emulating. He is supposed to be of socially obscure origins himself and to have made his money by speculation in the panic of 1873, when other people were losing theirs. In King’s Row, as you may remember from last week, Colonel Skeffington said to Parris Mitchell, just returned from studying medicine in Vienna, "Don’t tell me Europe has given you notions!" Well, Europe seems to have given the Major notions, and his contribution to the spoiling of Georgie lies not just in too much lenity towards the latter’s various childish misbehaviors but in giving him a false sense of family pride and — there’s that word again — honor.

You can tell because the only word of reproof ever addressed by the Major to his grandchild in an otherwise unblemished history of indulgence is when he says, in response to Georgie’s (false) allegation that a complaining neighbor is "an ole liar", "Georgie, you mustn’t say ‘liar’" — for it was a word that the honor culture regarded as being fraught with possibly fatal consequences both for anyone who uses it and anyone against whom it is used. Later, Lucy tells Georgie she won’t marry him because "you haven’t decided on anything to do yet," and he replies that he has no intention of going into business or one of the professions. Instead, he says, "I expect to live an honorable life" — which he understands to mean contributing to charities and, rather hilariously, taking part in what he calls "movements." Or perhaps being a yachtsman. Later still, when Georgie absurdly tries to counteract gossip about his mother and is upbraided for it by his Uncle Jack, played by Ray Collins, he asks plaintively, "What have I done that wasn’t honorable and right?"

His mother seems to have repudiated Eugene as a suitor in the first place because of his act of lese-majesté in getting drunk and stepping through the bass fiddle he had brought to serenade her, and Georgie understands his mother’s honor as being at stake because people are gossiping about the attentions paid to her by Eugene even when his father was alive. He therefore claims to be doing only what his father would have done if he had been there. Always conscious above all of being an Amberson and so having himself to live up to the Major’s delusional idea of family pride, Georgie is rather remarkably allowed no sympathetic moment of screen-time to soften the foolish and snobbish figure he cuts throughout the film. Like the resentful neighbors, we can only wait, more or less eagerly, for Georgie to get his "come-upance." And when he does, he is allowed very little of the grace of his humiliation. Welles shows him in one scene, praying at his dead mother’s bedside and asking for forgiveness, but the scene of his reconciliation with Eugene takes place off-screen, lest his appearing humble and contrite should cast a retrospective pall of sympathy back onto his earlier self and its comically exaggerated bumptiousness.

Maybe that’s another reason why Welles declined to play the part himself: he wanted someone more one-dimensional than he could have persuasively portrayed. Yet George is also allowed to speak, though as foolishly and inarticulately as ever, for a point of view of American progress that I think Tarkington and Welles do take seriously. That point of view is ironically expressed by Eugene after George has deliberately insulted him by saying that "automobiles are a useless nuisance" and "had no business to be invented." Affecting the manners of aristocracy, he forgets even the most rudimentary manners of those lower down in the social scale, as Uncle Jack pointedly suggests to him. But then it is the automobile manufacturer who displays a moment of quasi-aristocratic grace as he speaks up on Georgie’s behalf:

I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles (he says). With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. May be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls, I’m not sure. But automobiles have come and almost all outwards things will be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. May be that in ten to twenty years from now that if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but agree with George — that automobiles had no business to be invented.

This unexpected note of wistful nostalgia for a vanished America recalls Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, now part of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a painstakingly constructed replica of the pristine, small-town America that Ford’s automobiles were already doing so much to destroy. In the context, Eugene’s words may appear to be a concession to the Major’s idea of a pre-industrial America in which a European-style, aristocratic honor culture might once have emerged naturally, even if it could do so no more, but it stands alone in the picture as a moment of regret for a past that is otherwise regarded with steely dispassion, if not with scorn.

Welles himself appears to have remembered the picture 30 years later, perhaps with a nostalgic glow of his own, as having been tenderer to its subjects, and as having had a loss-of-innocence theme, always a favorite with him. In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, as recorded in This Is Orson Welles, he associates it with his version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, The Chimes at Midnight. Here’s what he said to Bogdanovich:

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive of such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit. That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, more generous time is not a sign of our folly. Every country has its "Merrie England," a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world. Shakespeare sings of that lost Maytime in many of his plays, and Falstaff — that pot-ridden old rogue — is its perfect embodiment.

In another Wellesian jeu d’esprit included by Bogdanovich, he imagines Falstaff as Hamlet, had he stayed in England and grown old instead of returning to Denmark to fulfil his tragic destiny. Georgie, for all his resemblance to that tragic hero, also has to be denied the dignity of a tragic end.

All this suggests that, for Welles as for Tarkington, the optimism about Middle America that we noticed in our first two films, is largely absent. Looking back on the same period of our history, they may be similarly touched by nostalgic feelings, but instead of seeing much of what was good about the old days as surviving into the present, as Remember the Night and King’s Row do, The Magnificent Ambersons sees the past as utterly vanished and the emerging American character and people as entirely new things with little respect for or understanding of the past, and the past itself as hardly deserving it. As Eugene Morgan, the apostle of the future, puts it, "There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times." Though the line is taken from Tarkington, as most of the movie is, some such attitude on Welles’s part must account for what seems to me the cold-heartedness with which his unblinking camera records the Ambersons’ decline and fall.

That, it should be said, is also part of the reason why Welles is still celebrated, as he was during his lifetime, as a great director. He has long been the cinéaste’s delight not because of his observations about social progress and American history but because of what André Bazin called his "ambigous realism" — or perhaps it was his realistic ambiguousness, I forget. He also pioneered many innovations in cinematic technique, which always give us something to watch and wonder at and which make it pretty easy to distinguish between Welles’s work and that of the hacks who rewrote and reshot bits of the film, including a banal cliché of a Hollywood ending, to fill in the gaps left by the studio’s cuts. But dazzling technique is also a means of distancing oneself from one’s material. Welles’s approach to George seems to me to be rather like his approach to Middle America, which is where he came from, having been born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He allows himself to feel nothing towards either but the mild amusement of a superior being observing their littleness and their folly. Maybe that comes from unresolved Oedipal feelings too.

It is sometimes speculated that one reason for the failure of the film on its release — besides, I mean, the studio’s chopping so many of the good bits out of it — was that the country had gone to war since it was made and audiences in 1942 wanted to see more of an affirmation of American values and patriotism than either Welles or Tarkington were interested in providing. It’s not that the film was anti-American, only anti "notions" or "putting on airs," like the Indianapolitans who so often appear, more or less ridiculous and self-important themselves in their now outmoded fashions, as a kind of chorus to the film. The final irony may be that the movie takes up this idea of Americanism, especially Midwestern Americanism, as resentment of the snobbish or the "stuck-up," from a point of view that also assumes its own superiority to that of its neighbors. Maybe that’s why the Americans who saw it either didn’t recognize themselves or didn’t like what they saw. Either way, I think it’s a little unfair, both to the Ambersons and to their detractors, but it is never less than a striking and memorable portrait of the Middle America that was emerging in the first decades of the last century, only without the — possibly sentimental — moral freightage of the other films in this series.

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