Orsen Welles, the Ambersons and Cleveland

27 Sep

I love Black and White. I also love what Orsen Welles could do with it. I’m sure you have all seen his first film Citizen Kaneand if you have not where have you been? On Mars perhaps?. Orsen’s cinematography is legendary. What he could create with light and shadow is so visually exciting to me I can bearly express it in words, it’s there every time I do an install, Orsen is whispering to me over my shoulder, It’s good, but what how would it look like in B and W? It’s always the test of good composition,without the distraction of color. As I document my work I always save both the color and the black and white image. I have Mr. Welles to thank for that.

The color version

The Welles version

I am constantly subjecting my model to Wellesian effects.

His second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a hand book of the beauty of the B and W image. Released in 1942 by RKO, this film was a tour de force of Welles eye for architecture, composition and atmosphere. Despite the sad fact that RKO cut 40 minutes out of it and tacked on a “happy ending” behind Orsens back. The Amberson mansion played a leading role. Built at the height of the Amberson fortune it was the symbol of success and accomplishment of late 19 th century America. The story line traces the decline of  a prominent  family as social values of the age of innocence deteriorate as industrial technology advances. The house also succumbs to the rising tide as it morphs from proud statement to hulking tomb that slowly suffocates its inhabitants.

The Gilded Age

Mr. Welles inspiration for the Amberson mansion may be a little known story that I came across in my insatiable interest in the late 19th century. My place of birth, Cleveland Ohio [as unlikely as that seems] caused me to concoct a theory. At one time Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue was named the “Showplace of America”. A mecca for the newly rich industrialists the likes of John D. Rockefeller founder of  Standard Oil, Jeptha Wade of Union Telegraph and Charles Brush founder of General Electric, built homes on the “Avenue”  Miles of the most elaborate,costly and frankly outrageous Victorian mansions were constructed along Euclid Ave from the 1850’s to the last in 1910.

home sweet home

It was the Samuel Andrews home that peeked my curiosity for a few reasons. Built at 3033 Euclid by architect Walter Blythe as an English manor house, the epitome of Gilded excess. Andrews developed the lucrative process by which kerosene could extracted from crude oil. Andrews hit big in 1874 when John D Rockefeller bought out his stock for 1 million, a huge sum in 1874. He later went on to work with a neighbor Charles Otis, yes, the elevator man. Andrews then built his dream house a 33 room 18.000 sq ft. pile of limestone in the highest of high Gothic revival. The first house in Cleveland with an elevator and a large ballroom on the third floor. The Andrews only lived there for 3 years, the house proved to be an operations and maintenance nightmare and stood empty for 30 years. Andrews Folly as it was dubbed was immortalized as a dramatic stage set in 1919 for 3 movies filmed in Cleveland, House Without Children, Women Men Love and Dangerous Toys.

The Line Stone Pile

What could be a better choice for Orsen? The Andrews house parallels the Ambersons tragic decline. When one couples Welles talent for architecture and his pursuit of a film career I’m sure that one of those films must have been a catalyst for forming his vision of Ambersons mansion. My research turned up the following photos that add weight to my theory.

Scene from "House Without Children"

scene from "Ambersons".....Makes me wonder

Now for the Philadelphia connection. Not long ago I heard a story and I cannot attest to its truth but none the less it contributed to my train of thought. During the building of the set for Ambersons a designer from Philadelphia had acquired photos of the Andrews ballroom and showed them to Orsen. He liked them a great deal and said “build it!” ..So there you have it, Hollywood, Cleveland and Philadelphia and of course Orsen Welles in black and white.

More stills from the film   https://picasaweb.google.com/110585336863782076355/TheMagnificentAmbersons#

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5 Responses to “Orsen Welles, the Ambersons and Cleveland”

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    • vori52 October 22, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

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  3. vori52 September 29, 2013 at 4:49 am #

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