One of the many pleasures afforded by the spiffy new Criterion Blu-ray of Orson Welles’ beautifully mounted, achingly elegiac and shabbily treated film adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is the chance to re-experience the breathtaking, risk-taking artistry of Agnes Moorehead in her portrayal of emotionally fragile spinster Aunt Fanny Minafer. Only a handful of the Moorehead movie roles that followed in the subsequent 30 years would allow the four-time Academy Award® nominee (for Ambersons, Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)) to tear at the heart so fiercely and intelligently as this second movie role (her first was Charles Foster Kane’s mother in Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane) of what would be a total of 62 feature-film appearances. But make no mistake: whether in small ensembles or in large crowds, eyes were always drawn to the flinty and beautiful Massachusetts native Moorehead (1900-1974), born 118 years ago today.
Twilight Time fans have felt her potent pull – first in the sold-out titles Jane Eyre (1943, as the title character’s icy, unloving aunt), The Left Hand of God (1955, on DVD, as a compassionate doctor’s wife in roiling pre-Communist revolution 1940s China) and the above-mentioned Charlotte (as the scatterbrained, busybody, and thus ill-fated, family housekeeper). In recent months, they’ve been reacquainted with her screen-sparking presence in two marvelous Cinemascope outings as two distinctive women, one caustic and worldly, the other plain-spoken and vulnerable, both in their way defiantly matriarchal. Charles Tranberg reports in his 2005 biography I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead: “The Revolt of Mamie Stover [1956, one of six films she made that year]…was based on the true story of a prostitute who builds a large following among servicemen in Hawaii during the Second World War. Of course, Hollywood couldn’t allow her to be identified as a prostitute, so Jane Russell plays Mamie Stover as a dance hall hostess, the same way Donna Reed was sanitized in From Here to Eternity. Agnes plays the proprietor of a dance hall named Bertha – wearing a garish blonde wig. Richard Egan co-stars as a writer who disapproves of, but falls in love with Mamie. Shooting this film was quite pleasant for Agnes, who truly appreciated the workmanlike talents of veteran director Raoul Walsh, and she found Egan an interesting and attractive man. She and Egan spent time between scenes discussing religious theologies; Egan was a devout Catholic, and Agnes [the daughter of a fervent Presbyterian parson and renowned preacher] always appreciated someone who was a true believer regardless of their faith. Agnes would do three more films in 1957, the most interesting of which was The True Story of Jesse James. In the hands of a revisionist director like Nicholas Ray, fresh off the success of Rebel Without a Cause , the film attempted to be a sympathetic view of the Jameses [Jesse and Frank, played by Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter] and why they turned to a life of crime. In short, it seems the Yankees drove them to it. Agnes is cast as his elderly mother who tells the story in flashback. One of the most dramatic scenes in the film is when Jesse is whipped in front of his mother and his neighbors, and expelled from Missouri by Union soldiers. The scene had to be rewritten and reshot, according to [Ray biographer Bernard] Eisenschitz, in part because Ray ‘felt Agnes Moorehead was excessively hysterical as the mother.’” (Shades of Aunt Fanny, perhaps.) Subscribing to the theory that there can never be enough of a good thing, another grand-scaled film featuring the magnificent Ms. Moorehead debuts on our label in January. In the meantime, TT’s hi-def Blu-rays of The Revolt of Mamie Stover and The True Story of Jesse James deliver choice selections of the sublimely talented birthday honoree who incarnated Mrs. Kane and Fanny Minafer and dazzled us all.