Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

I wanted to talk about the similarities of Booth Tarkington's novel to The Great Gatsby, starting with the title, but I see I already covered it when I wrote about the Orson Welles movie. As it turns out, the movie (such as it is) is quite faithful to the book, in detail and in spirit. It's much like a standard novel of manners—it moves a lot like one of Jane Austen's—which morphs into a genuine American tragedy in the last third. George Amberson Minafer is a great American character—to paraphrase someone on someone else, born on third base but thinks he hit a triple. Actually, that's more and more true of the American moneyed class at large, or certainly their kids (see Kochs, Trumps, Bushes, Romneys). And that's exactly the point. There's an American pattern being exposed here in this great story. The first generation of Americans, hardworking and thrifty (and immigrants, note), makes a fortune by their ingenuity, work, and goodwill. The second generation appreciates the work but is more interested in appreciating the money. The third generation thinks work is beneath them. Georgie Minafer's ambition, in the movie as in the book, is to be a yachtsman. One slight advantage the movie might have on the novel is Tim Holt, who seems vividly apt as Georgie—his petulance, his stupidity, his ability to exert his will. At least I think that's the case, but because I saw the movie first it shaped my sense of these characters and I may never know for sure. Certainly I also now see Joseph Cotten for Eugene Morgan. All credit to Tarkington for the narrative. The complexities of these relationships are all his, nicely transposed to the film, especially the delicious tangle of Georgie falling for Morgan's daughter Lucy, even as Morgan and Georgie's widowed mother Isabel renew a connection from their youth. This is where it most reminded me of Jane Austen—the ways people live their lives and make mistakes and regret them. The foolish things people do and the wise things too. One aspect that comes out even more in the novel is the animal strength of Georgie. He's spoiled rotten but he's strong like a bull. The sense of his living honorably, by his own code, however demented, is also developed more in the book. His ultimate fate is somewhat ambiguous but he is shown as plainly willing to make sacrifices in order to live by what he believes is right. This takes some of the sheen off his nearly perfect despicability—makes him more sympathetic right at the last moment. It is famously a story about him receiving his comeuppance. And so he does, in large doses. It's a neat trick Tarkington leaves you with, a kind of wistful sadness about the whole affair.

In case it's not at the library.

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