“Fanny… (though not an Amberson) may be the main character of The Magnificent Ambersons…” (Emerson, par. 51)
As many of my blog followers know, I am a huge classic film fan. Huge. And whenever an interesting blogathon in the classic film blogsphere comes along, I can’t wait to jump on the bandwagon.
So when the Agnes Moorehead Blogathon came along, I immediately signed up. Agnes Moorehead is probably best remembered for her role as Endora in the campy 1960’s fantasy series Bewitched. But Moorehead was a versatile character actress whose roles often went against the grain. She played some fascinating and not always likeable characters. One of these, perhaps her best performance, was in Orson Welles’ brilliant but overlooked follow-up to Citizen Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.
The film is of Hollywood historic significance both because it was the film that Welles chose to do right after his opus Citizen Kane and because of the well-known stories about how RKO butchered and reshot the film in such a way as to ruin much of the genius that went behind it both from Welles and from the cast.
Moorehead came to Hollywood with Orson Welles and a handful of actors from his Mercury Theater troupe, many of whom would become staples of Hollywood films in later years. She had a very small cameo in Citizen Kane but it made a huge impression on me because her scene involves two significant keys to the psychology of the character of Charles Foster Kane – the Rosebud sled and the implication that Kane suffered child abuse under the hands of his father. One of the things I admire about Moorehead was that she could always infuse psychological complexity into her characters, no matter how small the role (like her role in The Woman In White from 1948). Her role as Fanny Minafer in Ambersons is one of her best.
The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in town and so referred to as “magnificent” in the title but, like all families, they are anything but. Moorehead’s character isn’t an Amberson by blood but by marriage when her brother Wilber Minafer (Don Dillaway) marries the daughter of the Amberson family, Isabel (Dolores Costello). Isabel’s delicate beauty and sweet ways contrast Fanny’s more prickly shrewish personality. But one of Moorehead’s talents was that she could combine prickliness with pathos and as Jim Emerson notes, “[Moorehead’s] Aunt Fanny — petty, spiteful, whiny, self-pitying, deliriously unhinged at times — is one of the great pieces of acting in American movies.” (par. 42).
The psychological complexity of Fanny’s character lies in the way that she becomes the catalyst for the tragedies that befall the Ambersons. Like the character of Nelly Dean in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, her seemingly innocuous role in the family hides the way in which she manipulates the events of the story with words rather than actions. The fall of the Ambersons begins with Fanny’s insinuations to Isabel’s son George (Tim Holt) that his mother had become interested in an old love, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) soon after his father’s death. As a result, George forbids Eugene to even see his mother and later takes her away from temptation on a trip to Europe. Deprived of the love of her life, she begins to show signs of heart issues that eventually lead to her death. Not long afterwards, the patriarch of the family, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) dies also. His death leaves the family destitute because of bad investments and the Magnificent Ambersons become the Dirt Poor Ambersons.
But while the demise of the Ambersons is bleak, it is also a turning point for George. In an Oscar-winning scene in the boiler room of the now crumbling Amberson mansion, Fanny has a nervous breakdown, faced with the severity of their impoverished state. It is a brilliant scene, as “[t]he dry despair [cracks] her voice as she slumps against the water heater, the awareness that brings on her breakdown — ‘It’s not hot! It’s cold!’” (Emerson, par. 42). As a result of her breakdown, George is shocked out of his role as an arrogant aristocrat with nothing to contribute and goes to work at a dangerous job to support himself and his aunt. The job leads to a serious injury for which he is hospitalized. But all is not lost as he buries the hatchet with Eugene and reunites with his love, Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter).
While Moorehead’s performance in Ambersons is fascinating and complex, it was mainly her role that was sacrificed when RKO stepped in and cut the original 132 minutes to the 88-minute film that survives. Moorehead’s character in the original version would have put the story on the level of the complex family dramas of Russian writers such as Anton Chekov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and American playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams. The original cut of the boiler room scene, for example, revealed Fanny’s psychotic breakdown in much more detail. However, when the film went in front of preview audiences, the intense drama of Moorehead’s Fanny going to pieces provoked laughter. As director Robert Wise, who directed scenes in the recut version noted, “ ‘We went back and cut out the scenes with Aggie Moorehead where they were laughing at her over-the-top performance’ “ (as quoted by Emerson, par. 43). So even though the boiler room scene was powerful in its recut version, we can only imagine what it was in the original. In Welles’ own words years later, chatting with director Peter Bogdanovich, “ ‘The whole distance would have flayed you alive — Aggie was that good.’ “ (as quoted by Emerson, par 43).
Photo Credit: Lobby card from the The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead, 1942, RKO Radio Pictures. Although there is no explanation of the scene pictured here, the people peering out from the parlor and the sign to the left of Cotten’s head make it clear that the scene is probably from the ending that was cut from the film: WFinch/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice
The real key to the complexity of the Amberson family lay in the original ending of the film. In the recut version, the tone was more upbeat and, in the happily-ever-after way of films from the 1940’s, the hope of Fanny finally getting the man whom she’s always been in love with (Eugene) is clear. The original version, however, was much bleaker and much deeper. There, the scene is quite different. Eugene comes to see Fanny in the boarding house where she now lives. Her deteriorated psychological state, gone from the recut version, is clearly apparent, as “[i]t’s clear she’s never quite recovered from the boiler breakdown” (Emerson, par. 51). Additionally, the happily-ever-after ending is completely gone, as Eugene tells her that he has remained devoted to his first love, Isabel, killing any hopes of Fanny ever ending up together. In David Kamp’s Vanity Fair article, Kamp quotes Welles himself:
“ ‘[T]here’s just nothing left between them at all. Everything is over—her feelings and her world and his world… That’s what it was all about—the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly with impecunious old age. The end of the communication between people, as well as the end of an era.’ ” (as quoted in Kamp, par. 30)
The lost scene would have completely exposed the psychological reality of the Ambersons – magnificence turned to dust because of their own family disfunction and their refusal to evolve with the changing times.
I do not believe, as the blogger of the StinkyLulu blog does, that Welles’ obsession with filming Moorehead’s every angle and directing her erratic changes in voice and mood cost “clarity and coherence of [her] performance … lost amidst the apparatus of so many bells and whistles” (StinkyLulu; emphasis original). I think that it’s precisely the way that Moorehead could control the emotional intensity of her character that fit the unstable nature of Fanny’s personality. However, I do agree that “the changes to Moorehead’s performance effectively [relegated] her to 3rd female when there’s plenty to suggest Fanny might/well/should have been the dramatic female lead” (StinkyLulu). While Moorehead’s standing as a female lead didn’t pan out in Ambersons, her performance nonetheless is an unforgettable one.
Emerson, Jim. “ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ (1942) at Film Forum (Oct. 26-7)”. Alt Screen. Alt Screen, 2011. 25 October 2011. Web. 30 November 2016.
Kamp, David. “Magnificent Obsession”. Vanity Fair. Conde Nast. April, 2000. Web. 30 November 2016.
StinkyLulu. “Agnes Moorehead in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) – Supporting Actress Sundays”. Web blog post. StinkyLulu. Blogger, 28 May 2006. Web. 30 November 2016.