Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


Prejudice became a popular subject for Hollywood movies with the “social realism” movement that emerged following world war II.  Inspired by the twin thrusts of Italian neo-realism and a desire to explore America’s own racial problems after a war against imperialism and fascism, the movement produced several thought-provoking films.  Directors and producers such as Elia Kazan (PINKY, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT), Stanley Kramer (HOME OF THE BRAVE) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT) seemed to be engrossed in a national guilt trip.  Understandably so, considering our sorry record of racial and anti-Semitic injustice.  Throughout much of our history Catholic/Protestant relations (in some regions of the country) were almost as bad as relations between blacks and whites and Jews and gentiles.  With this in mind, a film set in Canada during the nineteenth century caught my attention when I noticed it in the listings for Turner Classic Movies.  From roughly the same era as the films listed above, SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953) interested me because it is one of the few American pictures to tackle the Catholic/Protestant divide and because it is set in Canada.  Since it is a period film, director Jean Negulesco and writers Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, are more concerned with whimsy than social comment. 

In turn of the century Quebec, a Catholic orphanage burns down facilitating the need to place the children in new homes.  Along with the other little ones, Patsy (Donna Corcoran) is placed on a train bound for Ontario by Sister Josephine (Agnes Moorhead).  Patsy carries along her pet goldfish named Harold, in a jar of water.  We are well aware that Harold will be some sort of symbol or metaphor, and since Patsy named him after the hymn “Hark The Herold Angels sing”, we are clued in that he will serve as a guardian angel for the child, as well as providing a mirror of her own experiences.  Trying to find a new home for the fish, Patsy plans to set him free in a pond by the Scourie, Ontario train station.  However, she meets Vicky McChesney (Greer Garson), who, immediately taken by Patsy’s charms, decides to adopt her, giving the youngster and her fish a new home.  A Protestant, Vicky is certain her husband Patrick (Walter Pidgeon) will be as charmed as she is, and dismisses any possibility he will be put off by a cross cultural adoption.  The audience agrees with her, since he and Patsy already share a connection through their first names.  After the initial misgivings of Mr. McChesney, the family is formed and the new parents give Harold a model castle for his jar, just as they have, in a sense, given Patsy a storybook home. 

But Patrick is an important member of the community, serving as “Reeve” or Mayor of the town, as well as holding other important positions.  When a political opponent (Philip Ober), who also happens to be a newspaper editor, publishes an editorial suggesting Patrick has adopted Patsy in an effort to buy votes from the Catholic population, tensions rise.  Questioned at a campaign rally about the rumor, Patrick proceeds to pound the curious fellow into the dirt.  We then dissolve to a shot of schoolboys in a violent tussle, with the filmmakers suggesting that such inter faith squabbles are childish.  Since the very first shot of the film is of a small bridge over a pond, we are secure in our belief that everyone will come together.  Indeed, the climactic scene takes place on this very bridge, but the film has a few more melodramatic turns before getting us there.  Nothing, however, that is too involving, as this is a generally feckless film with little emotional hold on its audience.  Matters are not helped by the utilization of a ridiculous sound effect every time Harold is shown.  And several supposedly light-hearted moments prove embarrassing. 

Canada has a reputation as a “kinder, gentler nation” (Phil Donahue’s words) among American intellectuals and Canadians themselves.  However accurate this assessment, one thing is certain: A significant amount of cruelty exists in all populations, across all borders.  Though rather inexpertly explored in SCANDAL AT SCOURIE, this is an undeniable fact of life.                       

CREDITS: Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg. Photographed by Robert Planck. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. With: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Corcoran, Agnes Moorehead, Philip Ober.


May 28, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, American Film, film directors, films about prejudice | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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