Two to One (Vitagraph, 1927)
Two to One (Vitagraph, 1927)
Directed by David Smith
Starring Alice Calhoun and Cullen Landis
It’s amazing what a difference being able to actually see a film makes. I first saw Two to One years ago on a wretchedly poor quality VHS tape with a generic needle-drop score, and despite it being only half an hour long, it felt as though it would never end. It did not leave a very good impression. When I had the chance to buy a film print in decent shape, I jumped at it. And it does make a tremendous difference. I can’t say it improves my impression of Two to One, but it does make a difference.
The film is based on Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons. At least, the first half is. The ending is something else entirely. Actually, I should say the film is based on Pampered Youth (1925), which itself was based on The Magnificent Ambersons, but that gives the impression that Pampered Youth and Two to One are separate entities. They aren’t. Pampered Youth was released by the Vitagraph Company of America shortly before they were bought out by Warner Bros. Pictures. Two years after the purchase, Warner Bros. re-edited Pampered Youth, gave it the new title Two to One, and re-released it under the short-lived Vitagraph Films banner, making Two to One the last theatrically released film to go out under the Vitagraph name.
The Ambersons were the richest and most prominent family of their hometown of Midland, Indiana in 1850. Isabel, the Amberson daughter (Alice Calhoun), is of marrying age and has two suitors: the rather boring Wilbur Minafer (Wallace MacDonald), and the unconventional Eugene Morgan (Allan Forrest). She initially favors Eugene, but after he makes a fool of himself by getting drunk and serenading her window one night, she announces her engagement to Wilbur and Eugene disappears for a while.
Twenty years pass. Isabel is now a widow, left with one son, George (Cullen Landis), whom she dotes on to a fault. He has just returned to Midland from back east, where he’d been at college. Eugene is also back in Midland. In the intervening decades, he’s become a major figure in the fledgling automobile industry and returns a wealthy man. Eugene is himself a widower with one daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Merriam).
George and Lucy hit it off at once and the two are happy until George notices that Eugene and his mother also seem to be getting rather close. Why George disapproves of his mother remarrying takes up the majority of the novel and ties closely into the novel’s commentary on George himself, but here it’s left as a vague Oedipal jealousy. When next Eugene calls on Isabel, George tells him in no uncertain terms that his presence is not welcome. Isabel, who would give the world to make her son happy, breaks their engagement.
Meanwhile the health of the family patriarch, Major Amberson (Emmett King), has been in decline. He dies shortly after the falling out between Isabel and Eugene (and, consequently, Lucy and George). At the reading of the will, George learns to his surprise that the estate is in ruins. He and his mother are left broke and homeless, and George’s dreams of idle wealth come crashing into the reality that he’ll have to work to survive.
Then we depart from the book, there’s something about a tenement fire (which I have to admit is spectacular – no expense must have been spared in shooting it) and forgiveness and redemption for all involved and… bah.
I rank The Magnificent Ambersons as one of my all-time favorite novels, and while I normally try to approach film adaptations on their own terms, divorced from their source material entirely, I just don’t think I can in this case. Two to One is probably a decent film, but it fails to capture the book and that’s all I can see when watching it. For that reason, I’m going to abstain from rating it.
My rating: Abstain.
Available from Harpodeon