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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


To quote Don Ameche, “Things change.”  For all our stiff-necked opposition, progress, for better or worse, is inevitable.  Transformation, whether of a society or of an individual, is at the heart of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), Orson Welles’ follow up to CITIZEN KANE.  Though wrestled away from Welles by studio bosses and eventually mangled and truncated, AMBERSONS manages to be a worthy successor to his cinematically adventurous and dramatically astounding debut.

In late nineteenth century Indiana, Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), the daughter of a wealthy businessman known as “the Major” (Richard Bennett), secretly loves Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) but marries the milquetoast (and much safer) Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway).  They have a son George who is, to say the least, incorrigible in his youth.  He grows to adulthood (here portrayed by Tim Holt) as nothing more than a slacker, in the modern vernacular, and he scoffs at innovation in general and Eugene especially, who is fascinated by the prospects of “a new type of horseless carriage” or automobile, in other words.  Eugene invests his money in bringing the idea to fruition.  He meets with great success and his fortunes rise dramatically even as the Amberson’s falter.

A film about change, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is filled with amazing cinematic transitions.  The most impressive of which are found in the famous “sleigh ride” scene, as Eugene desperately tries to crank start his new car.  Welles and his editor, Robert Wise, cut from the image and sound of the crank to shots of a sleigh hurrying along the winter landscape, jingling sleigh bells filling the country air.  Over and over they cross-cut these visual and audio effects, more and more quickly each time, until the car finally starts, its motor drowning out the sound of the bells.  This  symbolic victory of modern technology over the old ways will not be an easy one, however:  The car soon stalls, and the horse-drawn sleigh runs wild causing its occupants, George and Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter as Eugene’s daughter) to tumble onto the snowy banks.  Like the runaway progress that will later be illustrated in the film, nature can be wild and dangerous as well.  Eventually, all the main characters pile into Eugene’s car and drive off shakily into the future.  The scene ends with a bucolic “iris out”, a quaint silent movie technique, and is followed by another startling transition: Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s  grim, forbidding music we fade into a shot of the Minafer’s front door opening to usher in mourners.  Wilbur has died.  This is the most somber and oppressive scene in the film.  Wordless, all is told by images – and Herrmann’s music.  Coming after the electricity of the sleigh ride/auto scene, it is all the more effective.  The old ways are truly dying.  As Eugene says earlier in the film “Times aren’t gone, they’re dead.  There are no times but new times.”

To Booth Tarkington’s genteel novel of changing times, Orson Welles brings a Santa’s sack full of expressionism and energy.  Like much of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, Welles’ film has many scenes set on or around staircases.  Staircases, of course were a favorite motif of German expressionist directors, and here as in those earlier films, the winding stairs seem to represent the ups and downs, the fortunes of each individual life’s journey.  A key scene set on stairs involves George’s first encounter with Lucy, a woman he will soon love.  They are seated on the steps, he on the left side of the screen with Lucy opposite him.  A bannister post rises up between them and reaches, with its ornamentation, to the top of the frame, splitting the image in two.  The old-fashioned opulence of the Ambersons lifestyle as represented by the staircase post, will come between them.  His lack of willingness to change is one of George’s identifying characteristics.  Another revelatory scene on this same set occurs when Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead – in a wonderful turn as a sexually repressed biddy) confronts George with her belief that Isabel has loved Eugene all along, even while married to Wilbur.  Other moments are shot from the stairs or are photographed from the viewpoint of a child peering through the slats of the bannister.

Eugene’s words that changes brought by the automobile to society may not be all positive, are treated by Welles as prophecy.  As the film progresses and Eugene’s business flourishes, the sounds of car engines and horns become overwhelming, even when the noisy machines are not shown.  This is especially notable as George and Lucy walk along a city street, discussing the changing fortunes of the Ambersons.   Later, it seems ironic in the extreme when George is hit and nearly killed by a car.  But by this time he has proven himself to be a better man than we may have expected.  While the vanishing wealth and subsequent accident suggest that George Amberson Minafer has “finally gotten his comeuppance” (as the townspeople had wished) his behavior in the face of it is surprising.  He decides to look for a job in a high paying but dangerous profession so as to provide Fanny with a comfortable existence.  His transition from nere-do-well to practical man is complete.  Throughout the film neighbors refer to George as “Mr. Amberson” suggesting the dominance the Amberson wealth has over him.  We have the feeling at the film’s conclusion that he will finally be correctly addressed as “Mr. Minafer”.

After the accident, Lucy visits George in the hospital and it is suggested that the full-blown romance he has always yearned for may become a reality.  The rise of the modern automobile based society has been a mixed blessing as Eugene (and Welles) had predicted.  It nearly lead to George’s death but it was also responsible for true love blooming – and the blossoming of a new age.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS represents Orson Welles at his near best.  While CITIZEN KANE and TOUCH OF EVIL are the ultimate expressions of his talent, AMBERSONS contains many of his hallmarks: From the moody photography of Stanley Cortez, here doing his best to outshine Gregg Toland, to the elegant camera movements and “lightning mixes” of sound and images.  And, of course, there is the Welles stock company of players, many with him since his radio days.  These include Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorhead and Erskine Sanford.

Welles claims forty-five minutes was cut from the film by meddling studio executives.  What idiots these bunglers were.  The “suits” haunted Welles throughout his career and one is left to wonder “what might have been?”, for Orson Welles’ larger body of work, and for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in particular.

CREDITS:  Written and Directed by Orson Welles, from the novel by Booth Tarkington.  Photographed by Stanley Cortez.  Edited by Robert Wise.  Music by Bernard Herrmann.  Starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and Erskine Sanford.

October 7, 2012 Posted by | American Film, expressionism, film directors, film editors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) is a beginning and an end in itself.  It is generally regarded as the first example of German expressionism – that manifestation of the tortured Germanic soul emerging in the aftermath of WWI.  Characteristics of the movement include weird, twisted sets, heavy use of shadows, extreme camera angles, highly externalized acting and macabre story elements.  All of these ingredients were utilized to accentuate the psychological aspects of the character’s inner worlds as opposed to the world as it is usually perceived. 

CALIGARI, directed by Robert Wiene, tells the chipper tale of a carnival hypnotist (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who does his murderous bidding.  Everything – and I mean everything – is played to the hilt.  The filmmakers even went so far as to paint shadows on the already deformed sets designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reiman.  And what sets they are…jagged, twisted angles, contorted as if in some madman’s dream or delusion.  Settings where only hellish deeds can take place.  And indeed they do… 

CALIGARI was the beginning of the movement but also a bit of a cul-de-sac, for its abstractions were far more extreme (and psychologically disorienting) than those of any of the films that followed it.  All of the above traits of expressionism had their fullest realization in CALIGARI.  It is as if the movement burned itself out with the first film, the subsequent entries having far less imagination or guts.  The village settings of THE GOLEM (1920) were oppressive but they had their roots in traditional production design, as did those of NOSFERATU (1922).  To find a German film as daring as CALIGARI we must travel to the era of post expressionism, the kammerspiel or “intimate drama”, and experience THE LAST LAUGH (1924) which, like Wiene’s film, was written by Carl Mayer.  Mayer’s contribution to THE LAST LAUGH was unique in screenwriting history in that he developed a detailed shooting guide, complete with precise instructions on camera placement and movement-instructions which were followed religiously by the director F.W. Murnau.  The imagination employed was often astounding and Mayer’s efforts make the film the greatest of all post expressionist German works.  Though many of them were stylish and enormously entertaining, no such creativity was to be found in the expressionist films made in the wake of CALIGARI.  NOSFERATU is creepy beyond belief, probably the most powerful of the children of Caligari, but Murnau’s film is based on a famous novel (DRACULA).  This work of literature is arguably the greatest reason for the film’s success, even considering the magnificently ghoulish persona of Max Schreck, whose performance as the vampire is an unsurpassed treat. 

Of course this and many of the expressionist films played with techniques and themes introduced in CALIGARI.  Arthur Robison made an entire film on the subject of shadows, called appropriately enough WARNING SHADOWS.  This film of 1923 is about a jealous husband’s obsessions, revealed through the paranoid interpretations of shadows.  WAXWORKS (1924), directed by Paul Leni, takes us once again, into the world of the carnival side-show, as a poet concocts tales of intrigue surrounding such waxen figures as “Jack the Ripper”.  Fascinating and inventive stuff to be sure, but not the envelope pushing one might expect after CALIGARI. 

Despite its shortcomings as a movement, expressionism had a great influence on future filmmakers, especially Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.  Welles especially took glee in distorting his images, not so much with nightmarish sets but with wide-angle lenses and bizarre camera angles.  As for more modern films, there are touches of Germanic influence in films as varied as Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) and Scorsese’s and Paul Schrader’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), both psychologically dark and disturbing as well as visually flamboyant movies. 

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the early expressionist films is that they were an expression of the fears and anxieties of the German citizen of the time.  These fears quite possibly led to the rise of the Nazis.  Like Dr. Caligari, Hitler was a hypnotist and the German people were his Cesare – a nation of sleepwalkers carrying out the nasty business of a maniac.  In a few short years the horrors of expressionism had become a reality.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | expressionism, film directors, German cinema, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment