How does a 26-year-old auteur follow up the phenomenal success that is Citizen Kane, arguably the hallmark of cinematic history, which met with amazing acclaim from audiences and critics alike?
Despite this genre of drama, the film is bleakly realistic, and not just in its portrayal of a post Industrial Revolution America. Against the backdrop of an era approaching its end, Orson focuses on relationships and skillfully intertwines themes such as Love, Loss and Change.
At the time of its inception, Welles was in a much quieter, reflective state of mind inspired by the post-tensions and stress of Citizen Kane that had left him ‘so emotionally and creatively exhausted’. (Robert Carringer, The Magnificent Ambersons)
Perhaps that is one of the reasons the film lacks the dazzling grandeur of his previous work; however, this is not to suggest any compromise on Amberson’s aesthetic value. Indeed, it is a second sample of Welles’ flawless artistic vision and execution of excellent cinematic technique, such as the film’s deep focus cinematography, smooth dolly and truck shots, great lighting, etc.
This film is a pinnacle of a portrait that captures the exquisite vibe of the 1870s, in which the story is set. An example would be the Ambersons Mansion, one of the costliest sets ever built back then. It is a symbol of the Ambersons’ affluence and eventually their destitution as the household falls apart under the combined pressures of disintegrating family bonds coupled with economic uncertainty at the turn of the century.
In fact, in the film itself, attention is brought to it via the townsfolk’s comments in admiring, possibly subtly envious tones, being described as ‘The pride of the town…sixty thousand dollars worth of woodwork alone.’ Its modern amenities are emphasized, like the ‘Hot and cold running water, upstairs and down. And stationary washstands in every last bedroom in the place.’
Within the house, Welles used the ceilings and staircases for dramatic effect. (Jeffrey M. Anderson, Family Slathering)
This second and third image is from a scene where the protagonist, George Minafer Amberson is confronted by his aunt, Fanny, as he is about to disrupt his mother and uncle’s discussion about his actions against Eugene Morgan, his mother’s romantic interest.
The use of lighting is another key example of Welles’ artistic mastery.
In the first picture, George’s mother, Isabel Amberson, reads a letter from her lover that persuades her to protest against her son’s disapproval and efforts to keep them apart.
The shadows that obscure her face not only convey her uncertainty and keep her decision a mystery to the audience as they are ‘kept in the dark’ about it-but also emphasizes the voice over of Eugene as his heartfelt letter to her is narrated, creating an even stronger emotional connection between viewer and character. This darkness also possibly foreshadows her demise later on, and sets the sombre mood for her death.
A touch that I found particularly interesting was Welles’ use of iris in-out openings or closing of scenes, as demonstrated in the visual below. A cinematic device popular in silent films, and one that D.W. Griffith commonly used.(Jeffrey M. Anderson, Family Slathering)
As a film that offers a look into the past, its final scene (in the unedited version) is historically haunting. In it, George walks ‘homeward slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city.’ The narrator, revealed to be Orson Welles himself at the end solemnly continues ‘The town was growing and changing…And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself, and darkened its sky.’ Orson captures George’s bewilderment, his desolation at feeling left behind and foreign in a place that should be familiar as one he grew up in-but this town had developed without him, and now he felt disoriented, and possibly, disowned. From this film alone, Orson appears to have a pretty bleak outlook on the future, believing in its inevitable corruption that provokes audiences to gravely ponder their part in it, and what shall become of them too, as they realize all fates are uncertain as any story character’s.
As a period drama, Welles had done an incredible job of re-enacting the culture and times; from the architecture, to the speech of the character and the costumes. For the last detail, an entire monologue is carried out on the subject of the developing fashion of the day, as part of an opening introduction of the film.
However, Welles doesn’t just adapt or adopt Booth Tarkington’s novel on which the film is based; he brings forward how George himself adapts to the new century, a timeless struggle against change, which audiences of all ages can understand and identify with. A juxtaposition where the old embodies new, and the young represents the past adds another layer to the conflict between the forward looking Eugene Morgan and the spoilt George Amberson; a youth who expects his family’s fortune to sustain his lavish lifestyle for the rest of his days, and refuses to take up a profession because of this mindset. The automobile is a symbol of a change that drives the story forward into the 1900s; George finds them abominable, but Eugene as an inventor/manufacturer, is convinced that they are the future. Despite this, even he is not altogether convinced or certain of their positive impact they will have on the world, as is elucidated in his chilling speech. (Jim Emerson, What’s Past is Prologue)
At the time Ambersons was being made, America was making forays into WWII, and the significance of Eugene’s line “They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace” is reminiscent of many’s tentative attitude towards nuclear weapons back then, and even now.
Perhaps then, this is Welles’ warning to be cautious about embracing change and development, despite their apparent advantages toward progress; a piece of advice that if tenuous, is still true today.
IMDB. Biography for Orson Welles. [online]. Accessed 22nd June.
Carringer, Robert. The Magnificent Ambersons. 1986. [online] Accessed 22nd June.
Carr, Jeremy. The Magnificent Ambersons. 2013. [online] Accessed 22nd June.http://studiesincinema.blogspot.sg/2013/03/the-magnificent-ambersons.html
M. Anderson, Jim. Family Slathering. [online] Accessed 22nd June.
Emerson, Jim. What’s Past is Prologue. 2011. [online] Accessed 22nd June.
About the author: Ilene is about as magnificent as any other movie-maniac. She likes to take her time to catch up with the times and sleep.