It’s not my purpose here to try to dethrone Kane in favor of Ambersons; that’s a fool’s errand and I know it. Everybody who considers Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made — i.e., just about everybody with an opinion on the subject — has good and sufficient reasons for saying so, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to talk them out of it. Personally, I’ve always found Kane … well, dazzling, impressive, virtuosic and all that, certainly, and a singular achievement any way you cut it. But for me it’s a rather cold movie that I rather coldly admire, like a display of fireworks seen from afar.
In Ambersons the fireworks are much closer and consequently quieter — and they’re very personal. The Magnificent Ambersons was a very personal picture for Orson Welles, too; quite a bit more personal, I think, than Citizen Kane had been. And I suspect that’s why he took what happened to Ambersons so personally; his bitterness was palpable any time the title was mentioned during the last 43 years of his life. “They destroyed Ambersons,” he often said, “and the picture destroyed me.”
Pardon me, but nobody destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons. If the picture is not as great as it might have been — and I do not concede that point — I say Orson Welles deserves as much blame for it as anyone. I suspect that on some level he knew that, and I think his bitterness over it must have come from chagrin as much as righteous indignation — maybe more.
The Magnificent Ambersons, first of all, was a novel that won Booth Tarkington the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1919 (the second came three years later for Alice Adams). Born in 1869 in Indianapolis, Tarkington was successful right out of the chute with his first novel, The Gentleman from Indiana, published when he was 30. He was popular and prolific, turning out some 53 novels, plays and nonfiction books, including one published posthumously in 1947. Like many of his contemporaries, he has drifted out of fashion, but in his day he was nationally famous and well respected; his Penrod books, idealized yarns of mischievous childhood, gave Mark Twain’s Tom and Huck a good run for their money, and in 1922 the Literary Digest proclaimed him “America’s greatest living writer”.
Tarkington’s current obscurity is undeserved. Certainly his two Pulitzer Prize winners are as good as they ever were. The Magnificent Ambersons was the middle volume of a trilogy Tarkington called Growth (the others: The Turmoil [’15] and The Midlander [’24]), and is the only one of the three that remains in print.
Magnificence, Tarkington writes, is always comparative; the magnificence of the Ambersons dated from 1873, when Major Amberson made his fortune, and it lasted “throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city”. The Ambersons and their doings dominate the town’s activities and its conversations; everybody knows what they are up to and cares what they say, think and do. Major Amberson has six offspring, but only three of them figure in Tarkington’s plot: sons George and Sydney and daughter Isabel. Isabel in turn has two suitors: careful, quiet Wilbur Minafer (“a steady young businessman and a good church-goer”) and George’s best friend Eugene Morgan — dashing, charming, and a little wild.
One night, Eugene gets a bit too wild. In a state of inebriation while trying to serenade Isabel, he stumbles through a bass viol, reducing it to splinters and himself to a mumbling heap. Humiliated by his “making a clown of himself in her front yard”, Isabel refuses to accept his apologies or even to see him, and two weeks later announces her engagement to Wilbur. The wedding is a grand Amberson affair, the honeymoon as staid and careful as the groom, and Wilbur and Isabel move into their new house, a wedding present from the Major next door to (and almost as impressive as) his own, and they live there with Wilbur’s unmarried sister Fanny.
Isabel is a good and faithful wife to Wilbur, but she doesn’t really love him. A town dowager predicts that all her love will go to their children, “and she’ll ruin ’em.” The dowager is only partly wrong: Wilbur and Isabel don’t have children, they have one child.
By the time he is ten years old, George Amberson Minafer, the Major’s only grandchild and the apple of his adoring mother’s eye, is a spoiled rotten brat, lording it over local citizens and strutting around town as if he owns the whole place — which he assumes, by right of birth, he will someday. As a teenager he high-hats and bullies his supposed friends in a “secret club” they have formed when they dare to elect someone else president. The idea that he may be making enemies never enters Georgie’s mind; it’s other people’s job to curry favor with him. He dismisses anyone not an Amberson as “riffraff”. Among the solid citizens of the town, more than a few long for the day this haughty young prince will get his “come-uppance” (“Something was bound to take him down, some day, and they only wanted to be there!”).
So much for prologue. The Magnificent Ambersons really begins when 19-year-old George Minafer, now grown into a strikingly handsome young man, comes home from school for the Christmas holiday. His parents and grandfather host an elaborate formal soiree in his honor at the Major’s mansion. It is “the last of the great long-remembered dances that ‘everybody talked about'” — because, although the Ambersons may not realize it, their town is already growing too large for “everybody” to talk about anything.
At this party George comports himself according to his idea of noblesse oblige, pretending to remember people when he doesn’t (and, with some of his former boyhood friends, pretending he doesn’t know them when he does). One of the people he pretends to remember is none other than Eugene Morgan, now a widower with an 18-year-old daughter, returning to town for the first time since before George was born. George doesn’t know the history between his mother and Eugene, of course, but there’s something about the man that he doesn’t quite like.
Eugene’s daughter Lucy, however, is another matter. George likes her very much; he is instantly smitten. Lucy, for her part, takes a liking to him as well, despite his rather smug and grandiose airs, which, to his consternation, she finds slightly amusing.
Eugene spends the evening dancing with Isabel and George’s Aunt Fanny and talking over old times with Uncle George, the Major, and his old rival Wilbur. Fanny — who, like many young women back in the day, was quite taken with Eugene — revels in his return, and in a quieter way, so does Isabel.
George stifles his mild dislike for Eugene as he continues to court Lucy, never quite sure where he stands with her, but finding her so much more interesting than the “silly” girls he grew up with. Eugene, meanwhile, becomes a regular visitor in the Minafer home, taking Fanny and Isabel, and sometimes Uncle George, on frequent outings in his automobile. For all of them it seems like old times, which both amuses and unsettles young George.
Some time later, the first crack in Major Amberson’s vast fortune appears when Uncle Sydney and his wife Amelia — insufferable snobs — decide that the town isn’t fit for a “gentleman” to live in, and pressure the Major to give them their share of his estate now rather than make them wait to inherit it in his will. Uncle George holds that the estate can’t handle being broken up so soon, and in the ensuing squabble Amelia makes catty allusions to rumors going around about Eugene and Isabel. Young George, his latent antipathy aroused, is alarmed, but Aunt Fanny, herself infatuated with Morgan, pooh-poohs the idea, while Uncle George dismisses it as the idle gabble of the malicious and greedy Amelia.
During young George’s senior year at college, Wilbur Minafer dies, the victim of a listless constitution and his worries about a business that died just before he did, taking all the Minafer money with it. Wilbur’s death therefore leaves Fanny penniless and at the mercy of her Amberson in-laws. Isabel and George agree that Fanny should continue to live with them, and they assign Wilbur’s life insurance money to her to give her something of a nest-egg. Still, she remains bereft, insecure and emotionally fragile; when Georgie returns home after graduation and teases her anew about Eugene Morgan, she is quickly driven to tears.
Also on his return from college, George is appalled to discover that the broad lawn between the Amberson Mansion and his and Isabel’s house has been subdivided by the Major to build five smaller houses as rental properties. George’s aesthetic sensibilities are offended; even more offensive is the idea of strangers — riffraff — interloping on Amberson property. Uncle George fails to impress on his nephew the idea that perhaps the Major needs the money. Later, when George asks his grandfather to buy a larger two-horse carriage, or even a four-in-hand, the Major temporizes, then mumbles something about helping George get through law school. George fails to make the obvious connection; he worries that the Major is getting senile.
Eugene Morgan continues a frequent visitor at the Amberson and Minafer homes, taking Isabel and Fanny — sometimes the Major, or Uncle George, or young George too, but always Isabel — for drives in his motorcar. Georgie, for his part, prefers buggy rides with Lucy, but his courtship is not going well. Whenever he presses her to become engaged, she sadly parries his advances. Finally George gets her to admit that she is concerned for her father’s approval and uneasy about George’s reluctance to “make something of himself”. George is affronted; why should he make something of himself when he’s already an Amberson? The very suggestion that he enter some profession insults him. He becomes quarrelsome, and he and Lucy are estranged.
That same evening, on their front porch, as Fanny and Isabel chat, George daydreams of Lucy begging his forgiveness, promising she will never listen to her father again, that she now dislikes him just as much as George does. This is followed by another, less pleasant fantasy: He imagines Lucy surrounded by young men — the same ones he bullied and dominated when they were boys — and laughing gaily, giving no thought to him. Riffraff! George continues to stew over his foundering romance with Lucy, and what he sees as Eugene’s meddling in his personal life. (Everything is always about George Amberson Minafer.)
One night, when Eugene comes to dinner — without Lucy — George’s resentment boils over. As Eugene and the Major chat about Eugene’s flourishing automobile factory, George blurts out that automobiles are a useless nuisance; they’ll never amount to anything and had no business being invented. In the awkward silence that follows, the Major chides George for his tactlessness. Eugene’s answer is worth quoting because it has become — partly due to the abbreviated version of it that appears in Orson Welles’s movie — the most famous passage from the novel:
Some time later, when George, still brooding over his break with Lucy, again snubs Eugene, Fanny sees it and comes to George’s room to congratulate him. She knows exactly what he’s doing, she says, but she doesn’t. In fact, she has let her own frustrated dreams of marrying Eugene Morgan poison her, and the poison festers as she sees long-buried feelings blossoming again between Eugene and Isabel. Now, misunderstanding George’s motives, she says she understands that he’s only trying to protect his mother’s reputation, that he’d give up Lucy in a minute if it was a matter of Isabel’s good name.
George is thunderstruck. In his self-absorption he hasn’t given a thought to Eugene and Isabel, but now, badgering the sputtering Fanny, he learns that Aunt Amelia was right, there has been talk about them, and it has only increased since Wilbur’s death. Fanny thought he already knew, but in fact she’s the one who has told him. Now she tries to restrain him, but he flies into a fury.
George storms across the street to confront Fanny’s friend Mrs. Johnson, a notorious gossip. Imperious as always, he demands to know who has been slandering his mother’s name, but she indignantly orders him out of her house. When George turns to his uncle, Uncle George is appalled at what George has done. Doesn’t he realize that he’s only thrown fuel on the fire? Gossip is never fatal until it’s denied, he says. Worse yet, in his nephew’s eyes, he appears unperturbed at the thought of Eugene and Isabel marrying; why shouldn’t they, he says, if they’re both free and care about each other? Young George calls the idea “monstrous”.
It is clear to Georgie that it’s up to him to defend his mother’s good name — the Amberson name — not to mention the memory of his father (whom he barely noticed when he was alive). When Eugene comes to the door to take Isabel driving, George intercepts him, refuses to let him in, tells him he is no longer welcome, and slams the door in his face.
Isabel waits in vain all afternoon for Eugene to come for her. Instead, late that evening, her brother George arrives, takes her into the parlor and closes the door. Fanny stops Georgie from barging in on them; She knows Uncle George is telling Isabel what her son has done. Too late, Fanny realizes the damage she has done, and is aghast. She realizes that she’s been a fool; she never had a chance with Morgan, and wouldn’t have had, even if Wilbur had lived. She was only letting off steam, and now look what she’s done.
Uncle George has brought a letter from Eugene pleading with Isabel to stand up to her son for the sake of their happiness. But George remains adamant, and the heartbroken Isabel can’t bring herself to go against his wishes. She breaks it off with Eugene once again. “This time,” he laments, “I’ve not deserved it.”
The next day George encounters Lucy downtown. It is clear she doesn’t yet know about the scene with Eugene. She is friendly and cordial, but she keeps the conversation light and trivial, which frustrates George. He had thought losing Lucy would be “no great sacrifice”, but now that he sees her, and she offers no hint of their former intimacy, he knows otherwise. Reminding him of their quarrel, she says since they can’t “play nicely”, they’d best not play at all. He tells her that he and Isabel are going away soon — indefinitely, perhaps permanently — and he may never see her again. She expresses casual regret but wishes him “ever so jolly a time”. Stung, he stalks off. Only when he is gone does Lucy show her true feelings, nearly swooning inside a nearby shop. When she gets home, she finds Fanny Minafer waiting for her, and at last she hears about what George has done to her father. Immediately after Fanny leaves, Lucy burns George’s pictures and all his letters.
The next day George and his mother leave on a round-the-world tour. Fanny has warned George that Isabel’s health is not good, but he refuses to believe it, says she’s the healthiest person he knows. In their absence, real estate values in Amberson Addition decline sharply, so much that the Major is unable to rent all of the new houses he had built.
One evening, relaxing on the veranda, Fanny and Uncle George fall to talking about money-making opportunities in the face of the dwindling Amberson fortune. Old Frank Bronson, the Major’s lawyer, has told George about a new company planning to manufacture automobile headlights; with the proliferation of motorcars like Eugene Morgan’s, this could prove to be a lucrative investment. Fanny and George agree to consider putting some money into the company, agreeing also not to invest more than they can afford to lose.
They ask Eugene’s opinion, and he advises caution, but by then Fanny and George have “the fever” and see the headlight company as a sure-fire way to get rich quick. They both “plunge” on the company, forgetting their resolve not to invest too much. It’s a decision that will have serious consequences.
Finally, after nearly a year and a half abroad, even young George can see that they must return home now if his mother is ever to withstand the journey. As it is, the trip home is so arduous that by the time they arrive Isabel is too weak to walk a step, and George has to carry her up to her room. A doctor and nurse have been summoned and are waiting. Fanny, Uncle George and the Major are desolate, understanding — as young George does not, quite — that Isabel is on her deathbed.
Eugene Morgan hears, and comes to see Isabel, but George again refuses to let him in; if it weren’t for Morgan, he says, none of this would have happened. When Isabel learns that Eugene has been there, she whispers that she would have liked to see him — just once. The next morning she is dead.
Young George is dazed and devastated; he had been clinging to the forlorn hope that she might get better. Even a month later, he is still answering the unspoken reproaches he imagines coming from Uncle George and Aunt Fanny. “What else could I have done?” Before long, his question becomes, “If I was wrong, couldn’t someone have stopped me?” Fanny tells him, bleakly, that no, nobody could stop him; he was too strong, and Isabel loved him too much.
On some level, George seems to understand that his mother died of a broken heart, and that it was he and not Eugene Morgan who broke it. And even in his wretched grief and denial, he certainly knows this: He refused his mother’s dying wish to see Eugene one last time.
With Isabel’s death, the fall of the House of Amberson gathers a terrible momentum. Major Amberson withdraws into his own private contemplation of mortality, where his son and grandson can no longer reach him. The headlight company where Uncle George and Fanny put so much money fails, never having resolved the technical flaws in the product. No one can find a clear title to Isabel’s house, the wedding present from the Major so many years ago; it seems the Major neglected to transfer the deed to Isabel or to register it with the county land office. Nor is the Major any help; his mind seems elsewhere. The two Georges hesitate to question him on the matter, but they hesitate too long; one morning a servant finds the Major dead in the easy chair by his bedroom window.
Between the money Uncle George invested in the headlight company and the share that Sydney and Amelia took (which turns out to have been the only share that was really worth anything), the Major has died virtually penniless. Sydney and Amelia, now living like royalty in their Italian villa, decline to help.
Young George loses his mother’s house and land, and is able to clear only about $600 from the sale of Isabel’s furniture and clothes. Uncle George, thanks to his political connections, lands a minor consulship in South America, but even then he must borrow $200 from his nephew to make the trip to his new home. At their last meeting, before boarding his train, uncle tells nephew that he’s always been fond of him — hasn’t always liked him, but always been fond. You’ve had some hard blows lately, he says, and you’ve taken them like a man. There may be others in this town who are fond of you too; don’t be too proud to turn to them. And with that he is gone; both men know that they’ll probably never see each other again.
George tells Frank Bronson that he can’t take the job, and he hasn’t time to wait to become a lawyer. He needs something that pays well right away. Bronson protests, but George explains that, well, he has much to atone for in his life, and he can’t really make it up to the people he owes it to. The next best thing is to behave decently to poor Fanny, whom he has never really treated very well. Now George has heard that there are well-paying jobs for men in dangerous professions — handling chemicals or explosives, things like that. Bronson reluctantly agrees to help George find such a job: “You certainly are the most practical young man I ever met!”
All this time, Lucy still has feelings for George, and she indirectly admits as much to her father. He doesn’t tell her that he has learned that George has found a job handling nitroglycerine at a chemical plant — a job with a high mortality rate. An old friend tells Eugene that George seems to be trying to do the decent thing for “old Fanny”, and he hints that he (Eugene) might find a safer job for George. Eugene is in fact a silent partner in that chemical plant, and could arrange something without George ever knowing. But Eugene, still bitter, is unwilling to do George any favors.
On one of his Sunday walks, while Fanny is at church, George takes a melancholy stroll through Amberson Addition. The once-stately houses are now rundown, soot-stained and seedy, converted into apartment buildings, boarding houses, shops, lodge halls and the like — or, like the Amberson Mansion and Isabel and Wilbur’s old house, demolished, waiting for the rubble to be carted away. Even the newer houses the Major built as rental properties have been pulled down. The fountains at the intersections are dry and crumbling, the statues lining the streets corroded and pitted. All that’s left of the family name, he muses, is the name of Amberson Boulevard itself. But a corner streetsign disabuses him: Amberson Boulevard has been changed to Tenth Street.
Returning to the boarding house, George remembers a book he saw in the parlor, a municipal tome chronicling the 500 most prominent families in the history of the city. He takes the book down, opens to the index, and looks over the names listed there: Abbett, Abbott, Abrams, Adam, Adams, Adler, Akers, Albertsmeyer, Alexander, Allen, Ambrose, Ambuhl, Anderson…
George stares a long time at the page. Five hundred families, and there’s nothing between “Allen” and “Ambrose”. He puts the book back on the shelf. Something has happened that has been a long time coming: Georgie Minafer has had his come-uppance — “three times filled and running over.” But all those people who so longed for it are not there to see it. “Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.”
In the end, it’s not the nitroglycerine that gets George. Of all things, it’s an automobile. One Sunday, walking downtown, he remembers seeing a young lady stepping into an expensive motorcar. He thought at the time that it might be Lucy, but he couldn’t be sure. Now, standing in the street, he remembers back to that day, and while he’s standing there thinking about the auto in his memory, another auto in the here-and-now runs him down, breaking both his legs. As George lies there in a haze of agony, the driver jumps out of his car and begins jabbering to police that it wasn’t his fault; he’s sorry for George but it wasn’t his fault, and he has a witness. As George lies there dusty and bloodied, waiting for the ambulance, he mutters, “Riffraff!”
Eugene Morgan reads about George’s accident in the paper while on his way to New York on business. His bitterness toward George is unchanged by the young man’s misfortune, but somehow in his reverie he senses the presence of Isabel, and can see her wistful eyes, more than at any time since her death. In New York, on an impulse, he goes to see a spiritual medium, a woman he had visited once before and dismissed as a fake. Now, however, the woman gives him an ambiguous reading that faintly suggests a message from Isabel: A beautiful lady, she says, wants him to “be kind”.
Has Eugene subconsciously fed cues to the woman that enabled her to lead him on this way, or was she really in touch with Isabel? Eugene can’t be sure, but when he returns home he goes straight from the station to the hospital where George is convalescing. He isn’t surprised to find Lucy already there.
Nor is George surprised to see Eugene. “You must have known my mother wanted you to come, so that I could ask you to — to forgive me.”
Eugene takes George’s hand, and Tarkington’s novel ends thus:
But for Eugene another radiance filled the room. He knew that he had been true at last to his true love, and that through him she had brought her boy under shelter again. Her eyes would look wistful no more.