This one quotes Jonathan Rosenbaum and even (gasp!) David Thomson in a rare show of support for the big W. This was originally posted to the rec.arts.movies.past-films newsgroup.
By ELIZABETH WEITZMAN/NY DAILY NEWS
In 1942, "The Magnificent Ambersons," the second feature from then-26-year-old
director Orson Welles, was shown to a preview audience. While a couple of
respondents deemed the film a true masterwork, a more typical viewer comment
was: "People like to laff, not be bored to death."
It is perhaps unsurprising that audiences were put off by Welles' vision.
Tragic and dark, "The Magnificent Ambersons" is a story of shattering loss.
Welles based his screenplay on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth
Tarkington, which charts the decline of the Ambersons, the wealthiest family in
Indianapolis at the start of the 20th century. The story's antihero is George
Amberson Minafer, the dangerously spoiled grandson of the Amberson patriarch.
Reared to believe in his own inherent perfection, George refuses to accept the
changes that beckon both within and beyond his family's grand mansion. He not
only hotly objects to the rise of modern industry outside his window, but is
furiously opposed to the burgeoning romance between his widowed mother, Isabel,
and old flame Eugene Morgan, an automobile magnate. Though George begins his
own pursuit of Eugene's daughter, Lucy, his self-absorption sabotages that
Published in 1918, "The Magnificent Ambersons" is about the end of an era of
ease and opulence that coincided with the beginning of a technological
revolution. Both the novel and film were released at painful moments that
echoed the difficulties of the Ambersons themselves the book toward the end
of World War I, and the film at the beginning of World War II. If ever there
was a time to retell the story of people struggling to redefine themselves in a
new epoch, it is now at the dawn of a century in which America is again at
On Jan. 13, A&E will present its lavishly produced remake of "The Magnificent
Ambersons," directed by Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate").
"There are so many parallels," says Norman Stephens, the film's co-writer and
producer. "The analogy of the dot-com world, the extravagance of the go-go
'90s, followed by a drastic downturn. Is 'The Magnificent Ambersons' a vital
cautionary tale? I think it absolutely is."
But it was history, rather than contemporary relevance, that initially drew
Stephens to the project. The story of what happened to Welles' movie is an
enduring Hollywood legend. At the time he made it, he was both revered and
reviled as the director who had challenged the complacent mores of the industry
with his technically groundbreaking debut, "Citizen Kane" (1941). Despite being
critically acclaimed, controversy over its protagonist's resemblance to
newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst turned this masterpiece into a
financial disaster for RKO, which had financed it.
Accordingly, there was increased pressure on Welles to make a commercially
successful film with his followup for the studio. "The Magnificent Ambersons,"
a beloved slice of Americana, seemed like a good choice, but that first preview
audience which had expected to see a Dorothy Lamour musical almost all
hated it. The RKO brass panicked, ordering Welles to change his film.
But as Welles had already left for Brazil to make a film for the war effort,
"The Magnificent Ambersons" was restructured by other hands and scenes neither
written nor shot by Welles were added. The edited version came in at 88
minutes, with much of the complexity removed along with nearly an hour of
footage (which has never been found); RKO still ended up with a $600,000 loss.
Welles' original, seen only by its technicians and a pair of preview audiences,
has tantalized film scholars for 60 years with the thought of what might have
been, which is what inspired A&E's version.
"We've always known about the legend of Welles' film," says Stephens, referring
to himself and his producing partners. "A few years ago, we met with RKO about
some of the scripts they had in their vaults that had never been made. And we
also asked for Welles' original screenplay, because we could take the position
that that's never really been done."
Given the rocky history of Welles' film, it's only appropriate that the new
version should come with its own controversy. The film is presented, in the
opening credits, as "Based on a screenplay by Orson Welles." But those
expecting a faithful rendering of that script may be alarmed by the outcome.
"Early on, the decision was made that this was not going to be a shot-by-shot
re-creation of Welles' screenplay," says Stephens. "It seemed to me that that
would have been more an act of arrogance than taking a clean slate and saying,
it's the year 2000 and we're making our own movie. It was very important that
the movie have a certain modern feel to it."
The clearest example of that modern feel is the nature of the relationship
between George (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his mother, Isabel
Arau has been working on a new film and was unavailable for an interview, but
he has said that, "In order to modernize the content, I just updated the real
problem with the Ambersons, which is totally an Oedipus and Electra Complex
now, you can talk directly about incest, which is the word."
In Tarkington's book, as in Welles' film, George and Isabel are unnaturally
close. Isabel blindly adores George and, after his father dies, George sees
Eugene as a threat to his relationship with his mother. But Arau approaches the
sexual implications much more directly than either Tarkington or Welles.
In one scene, Isabel, who is smoking a cigarette, watches George as he stands
at his bed and undresses in front of her. In another, she kisses George's hand
and he kisses the same spot her lips had touched. Later, he even kisses her
full on the mouth, lingering long enough for us to think, as Madeleine Stowe
remarks, that "this is a really weird family." Isabel eventually expires in
George's arms after they have danced alone together in her room.
Stephens supports Arau's decision to "update" the material by addressing the
sexual tension between mother and son. "In the periods in which the book was
written and the [Welles] movie was made, there were limitations on where you
could go," he says. "What Alfonso did was to take it a step further, and say,
'Well, in today's terms, we'd be allowed to look a little closer at that erotic
Not everyone agrees with Arau's choice, however. Stowe bluntly characterizes
his exaggeration of the incestuous elements as "way out there," adding that
"it's a different interpretation than I certainly would have had."
David Thomson, the author of the Welles biography "Rosebud," concurs. "[Arau's]
not looking more closely at the erotic fascination, he's inventing it. I'm not
saying that in the original there may not be a subtext, but it is not overt.
We're talking about [characters] who would have been shocked rigid by the
When George forbids Isabel to see Eugene, Thomson says, "It's much more about
sheltered emotional life and about power than about incest."
Playing up the sexual feelings between mother and son wasn't the only major
change Arau made in his adaptation of Welles' script.
As the story draws to a close, George realizes how selfish he has been and
pledges to take care of his Aunt Fanny, who is alone and penniless. Soon after,
he is hit by a car and hospitalized. The book ends with him reunited at the
hospital with Eugene and Lucy Morgan, who forgive his past behavior.
Welles strongly believed that Tarkington's uplifting ending did not fit the
solemn tenor of the rest of the novel and wrote his own instead: Rather than
including the reconciliation at the hospital, he had Eugene recount it to a
bitter Fanny, rotting at her decrepit boardinghouse.
In the book "This is Orson Welles," based on a series of interviews with Welles
by the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, Welles described his somber ending as
"pretty rough going for an audience" but insisted "that's what it was all about
the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age the
end of the communication between people, as well as the end of an era."
Welles was devastated when his ending was replaced with one more similar to the
book's. So it is surprising that Arau's version, which proudly claims to be
based on his screenplay, returns to the novel for its conclusion. (After the
hospital scene, Arau adds a coda in which Eugene writes a letter to the
deceased Isabel, telling her what has happened.)
"Our ending is exactly what's in the book," Stephens says, echoing the concerns
that RKO executives had about Welles' downbeat ending in 1942. "I think it
would be a cheat of the audience not to see the gathering at [George's]
bedside, and the tears in Lucy's eyes, and the sense of hope. They've stayed
with the movie for a long time, through deaths and disappointed love affairs,
and at the end there's a poignance and satisfaction that's given by seeing that
Stephens' perspective has its dissenters. "If you read the [original Welles]
script," says Thomson, the ending "seems like an extraordinary deepening of the
film. To credit Welles' screenplay, and then leave his ending out seems very
hypocritical. Simply say that you've made a film of Booth Tarkington's novel
and keep Welles' name out of it entirely." (The film's production notes
actually cite both sources.)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, the editor of "This is Orson Welles," agrees, noting the
irony that this is the second time a film from Welles' screenplay has acquired
an ending he rejected.
"The point is that 'Ambersons' was a rough film to watch," he says. "The ending
was very hard to take. But Welles felt it was the strongest scene. If we
treasure what he brought to it, then that's what we should use."
Since the filmmakers have diverged significantly from the screenplay on which
they based their film, why would A&E use Welles' name at all?
"It's an advertising ploy," speculates Rosenbaum. "A gimmick to do it in the
Indeed, it does seem likely that without Welles' name, there wouldn't be much
contemporary interest in an almost forgotten 83-year-old novel. As Stephens
observes, "It won the Pulitzer, but then poor old Tarkington got lost in the
shuffle when the new writers of the 20th century Fitzgerald, Hemingway
(This is another irony, considering that Tarkington was writing about one era
being subsumed by another.)
But because of Welles' dramatic, well-documented experience, "It's part of film
lore," Stephens adds. "There's a built-in fascination with this material."
And, of course, there's the intense desire, for anyone who knows the movie's
history, finally to see Welles' vision realized.
That may not have been A&E's ultimate aim, but as Madeleine Stowe says, "If
this film introduces people to what Welles was trying to do, and sparks
interest in his original intentions, I think that's wonderful. Very few people
have the audacity he had. You have to appreciate that kind of passion."