It might be difficult to see how a film by Orson Welles and a film by Wes Anderson could be meaningfully paired. Stylistically and tonally, they’re worlds apart; no one could mistake one man’s movie for the other’s. In fact, part of the way through watching the two movies in question, I had a moment of panic. Do The Magnificent Ambersons and The Royal Tenenbaums have anything to do with each other outside of the whimsical similarity of titles? Would there be anything to say about them together? After only a little bit of thinking, though, I was able to say yes to both questions. These stories of wealthy American families share some thematic DNA and take similarly expansive looks at their subjects. Not only that, but even the respective filmmaking styles have some interesting points of connection. Then, of course, a simple four-word Google search allayed my fears even further: Anderson has acknowledged the older film’s influence on his. I was on the right track after all.
The clans at the centers of these films are American aristocrats from two different eras, roughly a century apart. The fundamental drama for each concerns passing the baton to the young generation — both the estate itself and the way of life more generally. Flaws and foibles are replicated in the young, even amplified. Between the two films, there are six or seven cases of unrequited or spoiled love, both within the families and among a few individuals who get caught in their orbits. Parents are separated by death or divorce, and children deal with the repercussions. One point of departure between the films is the precise treatment of these generational divides. The Ambersons begin as a secure dynasty, rolling with successive changes in fashion but maintaining their grip on high society. One scion, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), brings it all to an end through his self-destructive behavior, though the advent of the automobile does its part in shifting the social structure. For the Tenenbaums, however, there are disappointments among both the young and the old. The children, Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson), are all prodigies who stall out after a certain point. Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) set a bad example with their parenting, both by favoritism and neglect, even before they become estranged. The irony is that, while the problems pile up — drugs, lies, a suicide attempt, incest — the Tenenbaums seem to have a brighter future when it’s all over than the Ambersons do, even though the latter inhabit a “simpler” time.
In tackling these grand ensemble pieces, both films take an overtly novelistic approach. The Magnificent Ambersons is a faithful adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, a fact that’s duly emphasized in the credits. The Royal Tenenbaums is an original story that’s rendered as though it were an adaptation, with sequences given chapter titles and the opening sentences of these chapters presented on the screen. The authorial voice is represented in each film by voice-over narration that sets the stage and introduces the main characters from an independent but not disinterested point of view. Welles himself read the narration in Ambersons, while Alec Baldwin was recruited to do so for Tenenbaums. The actors’ credits are handled in similar ways in these films, a headshot for each actor paired with the name of the character he or she played, hearkening back to the silent era. Welles put this touch at the very end of his movie rather than the beginning, but the effect of livening up a dull procedure is just as strong. Each film expects its audience to keep up with a staccato structure and many moving parts. And neither director felt like mitigating his signature style to make things more conventional. This led, infamously, to Ambersons getting chopped up by its studio, with a new, happier ending replacing Welles’s original idea. Anderson has been fortunate enough to work with greater freedom.
Simply put, these films look nothing like each other. Welles was the king of high-contrast black-and-white expressionism, and this film continued the legacy of his debut, Citizen Kane, with its deep-focus compositions and harrowing close-ups. Anderson’s world is extremely colorful and plastic, and Robert Yeoman’s camera homes in on quirky details at every opportunity. One style is tailored for baroque tragedy, the other for dry comedy. So the two films do clash a bit when placed side-by-side. And the commonalities — namely, long takes and a moving camera — are general enough that they could apply to many other directors as well. Anderson’s puckish lateral moves create a different mood than Welles’s probing journeys along the Z- and Y-axes. What they share is absolute control of their environments and a willingness to make the camera noticeable. No particular attempts at realism are made. The viewer either embraces the stylistic invention or not.
The Magnificent Ambersons was released in 1942, The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, between them covering the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the beginning of twenty-first century cinema. The presence of Dolores Costello and Richard Bennett in the earlier film’s cast gives it a direct link to the silent era, while Welles gets some of the best performances in the film from his usual Mercury Theatre troupe (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford). The later film features three different second- or third-generation actors (Huston, Stiller, and Paltrow), as well as sibling actors (Luke and Owen Wilson). In each case, there’s the sense of history placed alongside a sense of family. These complementary emphases are brought together perfectly in the family mansions of each film. The Amberson home is notable for its grand ballroom and snaking staircases, layers of platforms perfect for observation and collusion when private jealousies collide. The Tenenbaum residence is, typically for Anderson, teeming with fastidious detail, from the roaming Dalmatian mice to dozens of framed artworks and a closet full of board games. These spaces are safe and inviting but also stagnant. The aristocratic way of life, to Welles, was a dying fantasy, and to Anderson it was a charming delusion. The films succeed as they do by honoring these tensions and constructing believable, personal worlds around them.