Where You Can't Get at Him: Orson Welles and the Attempt to Escape from Father
Beja, Morris, Literature/Film Quarterly
In Orson Welles's first film, Citizen Kane, after young Charles Foster Kane defiantly pushes the adult Walter Parks Thatcher down into the snow with his sled, his mother protectively holds on to him while his father reaches for him threateningly. "What that kid needs is a good thrashing," Mr. Kane says: Mrs. Kane's reply is that it is because he thinks that way that Charles is "going to be brought up where you can't get at him." That fundamental psychological situation is so pervasive from then on in Welles's career that he could well follow Franz Kafka's example and contemplate giving all his works the collective title, The Attempt to Escape from Father.^ In Welles- as in Kafka, and of course as in Freud- the attempt to escape from, or evade, or deny, or retreat from the father is connected inevitably with the attempt, conscious or not, to usurp the father's role. I shall provide a quick run-through of Welles's major films in order to demonstrate not only the persistence of these themes but also their variations; but 1 shall postpone until the last two films which I shall consider in at least some detail: Citizen Kane and The Trial.
Certainly no one would bother to try to deny the presence or central importance of Oedipal patterns in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and its depiction of George Minafer's relationships with his family and others. At the ball in which he is otherwise smitten with the daughter of his mother's old beau, when that young girl remarks, "How lovely your mother is," George's reply is a very tender, "I think she is." Not surprisingly, he forms an intense and immediate resentment against the girl's father, an older man who also threatens to take his mother from him. (In Tarkington's novel we are told that, at the ball, "Strangely enough, his thoughts dwelt more upon the father than the daughter, though George could not possibly have given a reason-even to himself- for this disturbing preponderance."2)
George's "real" father is too patently ineffective even for the childish George to worry about. But we have had forecasts of George's attitude toward father-figures, especially when they seem somehow connected to his own mother. For example, while still a young child he has a fight with another boy, and when that boy's father tries to break up the scuffle, George violently attacks the man when he dares to mention George's mother. The attack on Mr. Bronson, who is played by Erskine Sanford, takes the form of his hitting him in the stomach, and it is interesting on a number of levels. For one thing, in a film which is throughout strikingly faithful to the events and dialogue of the novel on which it is based, this physical attack is an addition which does not take place in the book; moreover, it has clear echoes of Citizen Kane- of Charlie pushing Thatcher in the stomach, but also of the young adult Kane's treatment of the elderly Inquirer editor, Mr. Carter, whose "private Sanctum" he invades, and whom he eventually dismisses- and who is also played by Erskine Sanford. At the end, however, Mr. Bronson is kind to the impoverished George, and offers to help him start a law career.
Such benevolence is also a trait in the man who is, of course, George's chief antagonist: Eugene Morgan. When at the ball George asks his Uncle Jack who this man Morgan is, Jack replies, "Just a man with a pretty daughter"-but George objects to the fact that he seems "pretty at home here." When his father dies, George becomes furious when he realizes that Morgan has begun to court his mother again, and he denies him access to the Amberson mansion and to his mother, who finally succumbs to her son's influenceshe knows whom she loves most- and agrees to go away with him on a trip that has all the characteristics of a honeymoon. It is a wedding trip for a marriage of a distinctly Victorian cast: as Jack reports back to Morgan, "they say he won't let her come home. Don't think he uses force. . . . He's very gentle with her. …