The Royal Tenenbaums and The Magnificent Ambersons: Wes, Welles and Literary Cinema

05/17/2012 10:04 AM |


Beginning this weekend, the Museum of the Moving Image presents the compleat feature films of Wes Anderson. Each will be preceded by a new video introduction from the man himself, as will Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which screens as part of the series.

Here we have two families, and two films. Their productions are separated by exactly sixty years, their settings by several hundred geographic miles. (The former is based in an Indianapolis suburb at the turn of the 20th century, the latter in a fantastically timeless uptown Manhattan.) The opening scenes of both depict large manors with spires at their right. The Magnificent Ambersons ends with a dramatis personae roll call, The Royal Tenenbaums begins with one. Then there is the titular similarity— an adjective, plus surname—and it’s an equally brief journey from patriarch to patriarch. Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), business tycoon, becomes Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), ignominious ex-lawyer.

In so far as the films are about families—in so far as they are families, in facsimile—they are indices of variable fortune and disgrace. Both clans struggle with wealth and talent in surfeit and in deficit. Both are undone, arguably, by l’amour fou—just as unrequited love between Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) leads to the spoiling of the former’s son, George (Tim Holt), the broken-home template established by Royal and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) Tenenbaum instills a feverish insecurity within their offspring. The cameras that behold this dynamism also mimic it; both movies were made by twenty-somethings with a penchant for tracking shots and for blasting the audience with recognizable music. (Welles reportedly exacted this prank in his stage productions.)

But the preceding observations are a mere game of connect-the-dots. Juxtaposing these somewhat superficial attributes may get us somewhere—at the very least, we can excavate from both films a subtextual anxiety over filial relationships that appears symbolic of social change. (The Ambersons’ decline in stature mirrors the rise of the automobile, for example, while the Tenenbaum children simply cannot improve upon their youthful achievements managed in the womb-like mansion on Archer Avenue.) Yet we sense that these similarities are meant to be gleaned from the surface rather than decoded—Anderson nods to Welles compulsively, but not always significantly.

There is, however, one connection here that might prove essential—both Welles and Anderson interact intimately with literary traditions. The intimacy is often biographical: The Magnificent Ambersons is an adaptation of a novel written by Booth Tarkington in 1918, at which time Orson Welles was an affluent three-year-old, and a midwestern terror. Tarkington condensed the massive shifts our national industry had recently undergone, and the related human difficulties, into the arrogance and eventual comeuppance of a single downwardly mobile rich boy, George Amberson-Minafer—whom many have claimed bears a resemblance to the toddler Welles.

Tarkington won a Pulitzer Prize. Welles intended to one-up him, surely, by adapting the book as baroquely photographed radio. After the virtuosic fluidity of the film’s famous ballroom scene, the camera calms down. The long, hyper-composed takes become more actor-oriented, as though helping to absorb the shock of the domestic strife observed. And the film remains true to its source material while ribbing it, as the spoken word has the power to dash hopes while the written word attempts to redeem them. (Consider the last, futile love letter that Eugene Morgan writes to Isabel Amberson, and George’s petulant dominating of it with a single tantrum.)

One Comment

  • Well, enough writen. The parable of indulged Georgie Minifer receiving his come-upance is being compared to the delightful Royal Tenebaum avoiding any real stumble with his tightwalk walk on the wire of truth. Even his gravestone was engraved with a dramatic fairy tale.