Wednesday, October 5, 2016
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)
told Peter Bogdanovich that Frank Lloyd Wright, who was Anne Baxter's grandfather, visited the set and hated it: It was precisely the kind of domestic architecture that he had spent his career trying to eliminate, which, as Welles said, was "the whole point" of the design. As for the performances, Agnes Moorehead received a supporting actress nomination, the first of four in her career, for playing the spinster aunt, Fanny Minafer. She's superb, especially in the "kitchen scene," a single long take in which her nephew, George (Tim Holt), scarfs down strawberry shortcake as she worms out of him the information that Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) has renewed his courting of George's widowed mother, Isabel (Dolores Costello), which is especially painful for Fanny, who had hopes of attracting Eugene herself. Holt, an underrated actor, holds his own here and elsewhere -- he is, after all, the central character, the spoiled child whose selfishness ruins the chances for happiness of so many of the film's characters. We can mourn the loss of Welles's cinematic flourishes that were apparently cut from the film, but to my mind the chief loss is the effective integration of the theme initiated when Eugene, who has made his fortune developing the automobile, admits that the industrial progress it represents "may be a step backward in civilization" and that automobiles are "going to alter war and they're going to alter peace." Welles was speaking from his own life, as Patrick McGilligan observes in his book Young Orson. Welles's father, Dick Welles, had been involved in developing automobile headlights -- the very thing in which Fanny invests and loses her inheritance -- and was the proud driver of the first automobile on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Welles's home town. The Magnificent Ambersons would have been much richer if Welles had been able to make the statement about the automobile that he later told Bogdanovich was central to his concept of the film.