Friday, April 21, 2017

Script review - "The Magnificent Ambersons" by Orson Welles (1941)

Honestly, why did RKO ever think this was going to be successful? I get that Booth Tarkington's novel had been a best seller - but wasn't that years ago? And didn't they have a look at the synopsis- rich turn of the century family loses money, bratty kid gets his comeuppance. Has that story ever been popular?

I know I'm talking like a studio suit here, but it's hard to read the script that focuses around bratty George Amberson. Citizen Kane was a brat too but at least he did stuff - he could charm women and co workers, he fought against powerful interests, he did cool thinks like start wars and newspapers and run for office.

George Amberson doesn't do anything except whinge. There's talk of attending college, he complains, he woos Lucy Morgan but not very charmingly, he's attached to his mother, he's mean to Aunt Fanny, he slags off on Eugene Morgan, he doesn't even seem that close to his father. At the end he goes to work, the last few pages - but even then he won't devote himself to a legal career, when one is offered... he goes to make quick cash doing dangerous jobs, and gets injured doing one.

That might be Okay if George were the antagonist but he's the center of attention and being around him is a drag. And frustrating. And we're forced to spend a lot of time with him. We never really see what Lucy sees in him or what his mother sees in him for that matter.

Maybe this would have worked if it had focused on Eugene - a young man about town who liked a drink, who lost the woman he loved to another man then who comes back rich due to his invention. Welles clearly has affection for him. He's a nice guy. He does stuff. He loves his daughter and Isabel, and invents things and makes money.

The basic story isn't bad if told from Eugene's point of view - person comes back to home town, makes a go of it, falls for lost love and faces opposition from her son... But it's from George, so we get George sulking, George liking Lucy being wooing her in an abusive way, not liking Eugene, being protective of his mum, being a brat, seeing his family lose his money, try to get a job.

There's some great stuff to be fair. Fanny is compelling - so much so she pulls focus. Isabel the mum is a drip as is the dad. I struggled to see the point of Jack as well - he was given this long monologue at the end. There is a lot of imagination and passion.

It is fascinating in Orson Welles' oeuvre because of its themes - it's obsession with nostalgia ad the 1890s and love of old things. It's also creatively interesting - the draft I read was a lot like a radio play with extensive use of narration. The ending, with George being injured, then being reunited with Eugene and Lucy, was handled ALL off screen.

RKO shouldn't have cut up Welles work... but based on this script it's hard to see there would ever be an audience for it.

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