The Voice of Orson Welles

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Voice of Orson Welles

On Film / Essays — Nov 27, 2018

Wisconsin native Orson Welles had, by some confluence of a peripatetic childhood, a precise ear, radio and theater experience, and sheer genetic luck, the most singularly beautiful speaking voice in American film. That instantly recognizable “mighty Wurlitzer of a voice,” as critic Tom Shales called it, was virtually considered a national resource; the ways he used and (in some views) misused it were critiqued all his life and well after he died. Welles earned so much derision for his Paul Masson wine ads that nearly every major obituary writer managed to tut-tut over it when he died in 1985.

Those ads were, of course, like nearly everything else he did in his later years, undertaken to fund more movies. You didn’t have to listen too closely to catch an undercurrent of Welles’s real thoughts in the commercials. Indeed, throughout his career as a film actor, one of his vocal signatures was a faint tone of mockery, whether he was discussing the relative merits of Swiss and Italian civilization in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) or growling at Marlene Dietrich’s unlikely gypsy in his own Touch of Evil (1958): “Come on, read my future for me.” It’s as much a part of the voice’s allure as its baritone register. Gifted with an instrument that could (and often did) shout down the biggest house, Welles was most effective when quiet—when, in Citizen Kane (1941), a friendship ends with two words (“Sure, we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired”) or an offhand observation to a bank examiner carries the weight of a failed life (“If I hadn’t been born rich, I might have been a really great man”).

In Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the summit of his work as a vocal actor, he is chronicling the decline of an entire wealthy midwestern civilization—both how the Ambersons pulled their own world down and what was lost with it. He does so with breathtaking grace.

Welles was marked from the beginning by his prodigal gifts, speaking in complete sentences at age two, supposedly analyzing Nietzsche by age ten, performing Shakespeare in his teens, staging the landmark “Voodoo Macbeth” at age twenty—and yet the role his voice played in his spectacular youthful ascent isn’t analyzed often. That preternaturally mature instrument helped enable the orphaned sixteen-year-old and rather baby-faced Welles to literally talk his way into roles with Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Listen to the talk of an average teenage boy, even one who’s an actor, and ask yourself if anyone in their right mind would cast him in a commercial stage production as the evil Duke of Württemberg in Jew Süss, Welles’s first role at the Gate.

Radio drama was an art form tailor-made for Welles, one he used so well that, in 1938, with The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds, he was able to convince a number of his fellow Americans that the Martians had landed. His radio interpretation of the Shadow, the mysterious, laughing avenger who uses hypnosis to conceal his presence from others, was definitive. But one of the best examples of the power of Welles’s radio voice came inadvertently, when he discovered he’d scripted a Mercury Theatre drama so tightly that twenty-two minutes of dead air were left to fill. “I ran down to the library at CBS and got books that I knew Orson and I liked,” recalled Welles’s collaborator John Houseman. “I would hand Orson one of these books, and he would read [a passage] brilliantly, and say, ‘That is the kind of entertainment we’re going to give you next season. Next!’ and then I’d hand him another book.” CBS, Houseman added, loved it.

With the same kind of assurance, Welles recorded his narration for Ambersons in the Florida studio of animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer in 1942, shortly before he left on his star-crossed trip to Brazil to film It’s All True. Legend has it that he completed the job in a single night. When the film had begun shooting, toward the end of 1941, its George Minafer, Tim Holt, was twenty-two years old, only four years younger than Welles. Welles still could have played George; indeed, it is often said that his personal identification with George was part of what drew him to Tarkington’s novel. But he rejected the idea, saying (probably correctly) that he wouldn’t seem young enough on-screen.

And there was also the fact that Welles had already played George, in the Mercury Theatre’s 1939 radio adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons. His narrative voice there emphasizes nasal vowels and gallops through that version’s short, expository bits of Tarkington. And as George, Welles’s voice is close to unrecognizable: pitched higher and given a whine that at times edges into a near-shriek. The radio version does nothing to prepare a person for the aural impact of Welles’s film.

After the silent title credits (a highly unusual choice, as it had been for Citizen Kane), Welles is the first thing you hear: that rich, rolling baritone that focuses as deeply as the camera, with a similar interplay of light and dark. “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.” The vowels have softened, the consonants rumble gently, and Welles is taking things slowly, as we all once did in these vanished days: “In those days, they had time for everything: time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions . . .”

Having rejected himself for George, Welles, like any actor, still managed to assign himself one of the best parts. He even gets some interaction with the cast, as they seem to answer him at times, the Greek chorus of the town’s residents chiming in like the sudden neigh of a horse: “There it is, the Amberson mansion. The pride of the town.” It is an extraordinary performance, and an unanswerable riposte to story consultant Robert McKee and all the others down the years who have railed against the very idea of voice-over narration. Nothing but Welles’s voice could have achieved that gentle mockery of the rich midwesterners and their privileges, as when he describes the long process of a lady hailing a streetcar and the sad yearning for Tarkington’s vanished world—too slow for us now, all of it. 

Welles’s voice is such an intrinsic part of The Magnificent Ambersons that it’s a bit startling to go back and be reminded that his narration serves, in the version we have, only to bookend the film, opening and setting the mood, then disappearing for a long, long while. Then, as Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) prepares “to enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson,” Welles’s narrator returns to dim the lights. 

A few scenes later, as George walks through a town whose better days are behind it as surely as his own are behind him, Welles’s voice is needed to give the climactic lines of The Magnificent Ambersons their sense of waste and inevitability. His narration turns the much-anticipated fate of the Ambersons, the vision of George on his knees at last, into the loss we all suffered when the great god Aut O’Mobile first took us for a ride. The bitterness and regret linger in Welles’s phrasing, but so does the gallows humor. We brought this on ourselves, with our eager embrace of the new, the fast, the loud, as surely as George Minafer ever did:

Something had happened, a thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it came at last. George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about him.

And then, after the ineffable grace and beauty of that scene, Welles’s voice goes dark, save for the curtain call at the end where he gives credit to the cast and crew. We don’t hear his narrator again, not when George is injured, and certainly not in the final, studio-dictated hospital scene, its optimism as off-key and faintly irksome as a chorus of coughs at a string quartet performance. When Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere of Puccini’s forever unfinished Turandot, the story goes, he laid down his baton as the last notes of the late composer faded away, leaving the remainder, written by another, unplayed. Welles is so vigorously present in much of Ambersons that when he goes silent, it is one more way we can feel him leave the frame.