In his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich published as This Is Orson Welles, Welles speaks nostalgically of the time he spent with his father in a tranquil enclave of 1920s Illinois, comparing it to “a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies—a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life.” “Anachronistic” was the right word. When Welles was an infant, Booth Tarkington had already memorialized the disappearance of that old-fashioned world in a 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons—which Welles would film so stunningly in 1942—that was also a simmering polemic against the forces of industry and greed that had befouled the one he grew up in. In 1918, Tarkington came as close as anyone to being America’s preeminent writer, a copiously productive novelist and playwright who was both a beloved entertainer and a respected national figure.
Penrod (1914), his nostalgic sketches of an Indiana boyhood, had instantly become part of the culture. With the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons, he struck a more mournful and ambivalent note. The force of Ambersons is in its ambivalence. Tarkington must acknowledge that the decline of the Ambersons has as much to do with their own arrogance and shortsightedness as with economic transformations beyond their control, but his sympathies are with them as he describes how their privileged domain at the heart of the city is defiled by the dirt and unbreathable air of industrial pollution, and implicitly by the cruder values of interlopers and immigrants.
In the novel’s central drama—the successful effort of the spoiled young heir George Minafer to thwart his mother Isabel’s remarriage, to the industrialist Eugene Morgan—youthful pride struggles self-destructively to preserve a world and a set of values that have already disappeared. George’s blindness to the effects of his actions, Tarkington suggests, can be forgiven as the result of his upbringing; he is finally the victim of that magnificence he has been raised to revere. Much as the novelist regrets the changes that befall the family, he also recognizes their inevitability.
What is most striking is Welles’s faithfulness to the novel’s language. The particularities of the way Tarkington’s characters talk, as well as the cadences of the omniscient third-person narrator, were evidently essential to Welles’s conception of the film. He preserves the slightly dated locutions like necessary evidence, the priceless patina of a lost time, of a piece with the lovingly recreated furniture and fashions and popular amusements. Even if the film dazzles in the first place with its visual audacity—the constantly evolving nuances and surprises in the way we are shown things, the accents of antiquarian style, the changes of frame and texture, the sustained labyrinthine camera movements and abrupt, jarring close-ups—from the start it’s the language that is foregrounded. A black screen is the backdrop for Welles’s unforgettably sonorous opening narration: “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city.” Only after this, as if the visual were a secondary level, are we shown an American-gothic house and a horse-drawn carriage passing in front of it, which might be a tintype pasted into an album, image following word as if the film were to be an illustrated storybook.
It would be hard to overestimate how much of the film’s power resides in its deployment of speech. In recollection, the voices play back indelibly. After enough viewings, they start to feel like part of your own family history: Joseph Cotten musing on the impact of automobiles (“It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls”), Agnes Moorehead leaning back against the stone-cold boiler (“I wouldn’t mind if it burned—I wouldn’t mind if it burned me, George!”), Ray Collins’s Uncle Jack reporting on his sister’s health (“I found Isabel as well as usual. Only I’m afraid as usual isn’t particularly well”), Richard Bennett as the dying Major Amberson muttering to himself about eternal questions (“The earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth”).
No doubt the lines stick in memory in part because of the pointed and beautifully recorded vocal performances of an extraordinary ensemble, but almost every word we hear in the film is by Tarkington. Much would of course be lost in RKO’s edit, but even in its surviving form, the film is a stunning demonstration of Welles’s genius for pinpointing the most expressive moments in the original text, while letting others go by. Tarkington was a masterful storyteller, but his presentation of character has a certain theatrical flatness; Welles’s paring away has the effect of making the characters both more mysterious and more profoundly real. If the novel was already a meditation on a vanished time, the film stands at yet a further remove, probing the surfaces that Tarkington has salvaged to detect whatever further truth has been secreted there. For all his powerful nostalgia, Welles works in a questioning and conflicted spirit. He tells the same story as Tarkington, in the same words, but he ends—or would have ended, if the film had not been taken away from him—in a very different place.
Welles’s version of The Magnificent Ambersons closed with a melancholy epilogue—a skeptical Cotten described it as “more Chekhov than Tarkington”—that he thought the best thing in the film, in which Eugene visits Fanny in her boardinghouse. What he relates to her of his visit to George corresponds roughly to the narrative of both book and release version, but evidently this was staged in an entirely different mood, with other boarders shuffling about in the background, a raucous comedy record playing on a Victrola, Fanny looking away, lost in her own thoughts, and Eugene, having registered his inability to communicate with her, walking out alone and then driving off into the darkening city, now thick with traffic: a far cry from Tarkington’s somewhat half-hearted gesture of redemptive uplift.