Starring: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead
Director: Orson Welles, Fred Fleck
Adapted from the well known book by Booth Tarkington, a man Orson Welles claimed to know during his childhood, the film is often noted to have a certain parallel to the directors life.
It’s the story of the Amberson family and their decline from fabulous wealth as times change. Set at the turn of the century, there’s a certain nostalgia present for a time of calling cards and balls, but it’s not without it’s lampooning of the fashions and class snobbery too. It opens with lovely, wealthy Isabel Amberson choosing to marry Wilbur Minifer over Eugene Morgan, who is the man she loves, but is not of the right class. Because she doens’t love her husband, she showers all her affections on their son, George. He grows up to be an awful, arrogant young man, and when, following his fathers death, he discovers that his mother is still in love with her old flame and wants to marry him, he is incensed and keeps them apart, not least because her old beau’s money comes from something as low down as auto mobile manufacture.
In his blindness and selfishness, George ruins the life of his mother, and his life slowly declines as his money runs out and he finally gets the comeuppance that we, and the other characters, have long awaited.
Orson himself was often thought of as an upstart, an arrogant and spoiled child, though not without talent, and he hurt a lot of feelings in his drive for success. He came from a fairly well off background, though a part of his education was paid for by a family friend. He was the apple of his mothers eye, just like George. In this way, he’s a bit like the main protagonist here, with his suave confidence and blindness to the needs of others, his privileged upbringing, but perhaps that’s also too harsh a way to look at it. It’s just an interesting parallel.
This film is Welles follow up to Citizen Kane, which is a very different, film in tone and style. This feels far more personal and perhaps has a bit more warmth and humour. It was released before the full furor of Hearsts attack on the director for his prior films alleged portrayal of him made Welles career more difficult, and Welles star was in the ascendant. Never again would studios trust him with so much creative freedom, which he put down to Hearst villification of him, which is partly true, but it must also be noted and he tended to spend his film budgets on himself and never deliver on time. For example, whilst he lamented the re-cut happy ending that many people despise that ends this film, he was living it up in South America shooting unusable footage and refusing to take studio calls about the film edit or anything else.
Out of all of the Welles films that I’ve seen, this one feels the most emotional, the softest. It’s a film about family and about pride, the end of an era, and the struggle to adapt to modern times. But it’s also a romantic film in many ways, as the older couple try to be together, to finally find their happiness, and George himself struggles with his own feelings for a girl who, unlike him, is not a snob but very down to earth and kind. But importantly, there is punishment for George as his life unravels and everything he knows changes or leaves. That sense of justice and balance at the heart of this film lifts it into being about something more than just a family drama. I think it’s a really interesting film, and unlike anything else Welles created, it shows another side to him. One I rather like.
See It If: a must for Welles fans, it’s also a beautifully realised film and should please anyone who likes a little more meat on their classic dramas.