The Magnificent Ambersons
The Children’s Hour
Raising children is perhaps the most important assignment a person takes on in his or her life. However, the assignment comes with no manual that can guarantee success. Parenting does not involve a proven scientific formula. In truth, it is more of an art. People generally learn about parenting from their parents, adjusting their style to enhance or discard those elements of which they either approved or disapproved. And often, no matter how much you want to be a good parent, no matter how hard you try to provide your children with a loving and stable environment, no matter how you try to make life better for them that it was for you, and no matter how hard you try to protect them from the dangers of life or from its bad influences or even from themselves, sometimes your children will do mean, hurtful and selfish things that will produce disastrous results. Additionally, your children may not always appreciate your efforts.
Take the case of George Amberson Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons (released in 1942 in black and white). Georgie, as he was called by his uncle, Jack Amberson, and his aunt, Fanny Minafer, was the pampered child of one of Indianapolis’ leading families during the waning years of the 19th century. George is such a brat that the entire town expresses the sentiment that it can’t wait until he gets his “comeuppance.” I don’t remember the movie mentioning how the Ambersons amassed their vast wealth – which I assumed was made by Major Anderson, the family patriarch – but in the early stages of the story, their fortune was augmented by Jack’s prestigious job as a congressman and Wilbur Minafer’s business dealings.
George’s mother Isabel Amberson marries Wilbur despite being in love with a carefree youth named Eugene Morgan. Heartbroken, Eugene leaves town. While he is away Isabel and Wilbur produce George, who grows up believing that the world revolves around his family. For his part, Eugene marries and fathers a daughter, Lucy. Eugene, who has become a widower and owns an automobile company, returns to Indianapolis some 20 years later with Lucy. And now that Wilbur has also passed away, Eugene wants to rekindle his romance with Isabel. But George, who ironically finds himself smitten with Lucy, is appalled that his mother would have anything to do with Eugene and creates an insurmountable obstacle to their plans to be together. The best examples of George’s stubbornness are his refusal to accept the automobile as the innovation that will replace the horse and buggy, and his willingness to sacrifice his relationship with Lucy to prevent his mother from marrying Eugene.
Isabel, giving in to her son’s wishes, decides to leave the country. During her travels she becomes deathly ill and returns to the Amberson mansion. The ever-petulant brat then refuses to allow Eugene to visit his mother on her death bed, even though Isabel expresses her desire to see the man she has loved for decades.
Eventually, the Amberson fortune dwindles away to nothing with a big assist from George's extravagance. Then, the penniless brat is hospitalized after being involved in an accident with an automobile. Lucy, who never stopped loving George despite his treatment of her father, visits him with Eugene and the two lovers reconcile. And to his credit, Eugene forgives George for his selfishness in regards to Isabel.
In Mildred Pierce (1945, b&w), the title character is a divorced parent who buys a restaurant and makes a fortune. However, Mildred’s purpose is not so much to make her life comfortable as it is to spare her daughter, Veda, from the hardships she faced growing up in an apparently lower middle class family – something that Veda chides her for at a critical point in the movie.
There are three men in Mildred’s life – her former husband, Bert; her longtime friend and financial advisor, Wally; and Monte, a self-serving playboy who is obviously after Mildred’s money. As the relationship between Mildred and Monte develops, the cad also makes a play for Veda. The brat then gets it into her head that Monte wants to marry her. After Veda is disabused of the idea by Monte, who says he plans on marrying her mother, the two-timer winds up dead.
Mildred – the loving, protective mother to the end – first tries to frame Wally for the murder and then confesses to killing Monte herself. But the police, with Bert’s help, sort things out and arrest Veda for the dastardly deed.
The Children’s Hour (1961, b&w), tells the story of how the founders of a girls school have their lives turned upside down by a manipulative little liar who lashes out when she doesn’t get her way.
Karen Wright and Martha Dobie met in college, became inseparable friends and opened a boarding school for girls in a small (I want to say New England, but I’m not sure) town. Karen is engaged to Dr. Joe Cardin, who is the school’s physician and also works at the town hospital. The only other school employee is Mrs. Lily Mortar, Martha’s aunt and an out-of-work actress who teaches the social graces. Whenever Dr. Joe is around, Martha seems to become grumpy, for lack of a better word, and while others notice it, she does not.
One day, Karen is disciplining a pre-teen problem child named Mary Tilford for lying. Afterwards, Mary eavesdrops on a conversation between Lily and Martha in which the aunt brings up Martha’s mood change when Joe is around and calls Martha’s relationship with Karen “unnatural.” Furious, Martha fires Lily.
Mary then runs away from the school and goes to the home of her grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford, who is the richest woman in town and also is Mary’s legal guardian and Joe’s aunt. When asked why she left, the brat tells her grandmother about the conversation she overheard, emphasizing the word “unnatural” and implying that the two teachers are having a homosexual affair. To substantiate the allegation, the brat coerces a schoolmate named Rosalie to lie about what she saw and heard at the school. Mary is able to get Rosalie to do her bidding because the brat found Rosalie with a bracelet that that had been reported as missing by another girl. Rosalie apparently is a thief who fears being found out. Mrs. Tilford then calls all the other parents and they all take their children out of the school.
After being told the reason, Karen, Martha and Joe confront Mrs. Tilford and deny the charges. But they can’t get Mary to recant and Rosalie, threatened with exposure, continues to back the brat’s story. Karen and Martha sue Mrs. Tilford for slander, but to no avail. And Joe loses his position at the hospital because he refuses to sever his association with Karen and Martha. Joe then goes to Karen and Martha and asks them to leave town with him and they can all start over somewhere else. While Martha goes into the kitchen to fix dinner, Karen forces Joe to admit that the thought that Karen and Martha might be lovers has crossed his mind. Karen then breaks off the relationship and sends Joe away. When Martha returns, she asks about Joe’s disappearance. Karen tells her what happened and Martha is devastated.
Then, Mrs. Tilford shows up and tells the two women that she has discovered that Mary was lying and had forced Rosalie to back her up. She offers to pay the entire amount sought in the libel suit but the two friends turn her down and tell her to leave them alone. After Mrs. Tilford leaves, Martha has an epiphany and comes to the realization that she in fact does have feelings for Karen that are more than just friendship – although she has never acted on them. Karen is very sympathetic and asks Martha to accompany her on a walk. Distraught, Martha refuses and goes upstairs to her room. While on her walk, Karen gets an eerie feeling that something is wrong and rushes back to the house, goes up to Martha’s room and finds that her friend has committed suicide.
The brats in all three movies displayed heart-wrenchingly devastating behavior, and each for the same reason – to selfishly get their way. One denied happiness to his mother, another commited murder, and the lies of the youngest of the three led to someone else's suicide. And, on top of that, none of them showed any real appreciation for the wonderful environments that their parents and guardians provided.
Please understand that I am not setting myself up as an ideal parent: My children have informed me that my parenting skills leave a lot to be desired. But I feel I must point something out about the warnings these three movies have for us as parents and as a society.
While it is admirable to want to give children advantages that we may have lacked when we were their age, we need to realize that giving them everything they want is not necessarily a good thing. Too many people – children and adults, alike – have developed the attitude that “I want what I want and I want it now” is acceptable, even desired, behavior. Too many of us don’t teach our children about patience and hard work. We don’t teach them about sharing and caring about how what they do affect the lives of others. As I see it, the current financial crisis that has engulfed the planet is a direct result of this failure to successfully teach our children about these things.
Many of us have chased the American dream of home ownership without honestly looking at our current ability to pay for it and having the patience to wait until we do. Like the aforementioned brats, “We want what we want and we want it now. Why should we have to wait until we actually can afford it?”
Our banks, financial institutions and the people who run them have allowed selfishness and greed to influence their actions, taking advantage of those who are too impatient to save for what they want – and collecting ungodly amounts of money for their own satisfaction without concern about those among us who are losing our jobs, who are living on the street, who can’t afford to see a doctor, who have lost our life savings and retirement funds. What does the Ponzi Scheme King need with the $50 billion he collected? Are you telling me that CEOs need multimillion dollar yearly bonuses to enjoy life? And what about the people who actually did the work that created that money? Don't they deserve bonuses, as well? This selfishness is the behavior of brats who can’t seem to get enough and don’t want to share their good fortune with the rest of society. And these brats obviously didn’t think about, or care about, the devastation they were causing.
All of us should try to take advantage of the lessons that are taught in the movies discussed above – and understand that sometimes parenting requires making your children temporarily unhappy. By doing so, you are teaching your children that disappointment is an unavoidable part of life – and that learning to cope with disappointment will not only make their lives better, but also the lives of the rest of us.