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, 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. His nostalgic sketches of an Indiana boyhood in Penrod (1914) instantly became part of the culture. As a literary voice of the Midwest, he embodied a newly ascendant regionalism. With The Turmoil (1915), the first part of a trilogy centered on the effects of technological change on the life of Indianapolis, he ventured into darker and more ambitious territory. The Magnificent Ambersons, its Pulitzer Prize–winning successor, a far superior work, struck an even more mournful note. The novel’s force 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. If smoke is a token of industrial blight, it also provides Isabel with a metaphor in her early prescient observation that “the things that we have and that we think are so solid—they’re like smoke, and time is like the sky that the smoke disappears into.”
Welles omitted that lyrical passage from the screenplay for his 1942 adaptation of Tarkington’s novel, but it expresses well the pervasive sorrowfulness that seeps into even the film’s most casual moments. It is not hard to surmise that Welles’s connection to the novel, which he had already adapted for radio in 1939, was intensely personal. His father, Richard Welles, had been a friend of Tarkington’s, and it was thought in the family that Richard—an inventor who according to Welles was the builder of some of America’s earliest automobiles—was the model for the entrepreneur Eugene. In his previous films—Citizen Kane, and before that the footage shot to be incorporated into his stage production of Too Much Johnson—he had already been drawn to the era of his parents’ youth, and in The Magnificent Ambersons he would attempt a full-scale re-creation of it.
The sturdy architecture of Tarkington’s novel, a belated triumph of a nineteenth-century aesthetic just as a modernist generation of fiction writers was about to come to the fore, was itself one of those seemingly “solid things” vanishing into the smoke of time. To read Ambersons is to become acquainted with the spaces the family inhabits, in their initial splendid expansiveness and then in their gradual and inexorable erosion. It is a book about property and its ultimate emotional costs; the novel’s enduring effectiveness lies in the precision with which each step of the downward trajectory is charted.
In crafting his adaptation, Welles did not tamper with the arc of that precision. Later, in bringing Shakespeare to the screen, he would work with a far freer hand. He thought nothing of adding a major character to Macbeth in 1948, drastically abbreviating and rearranging Othello in 1952, or, in Chimes at Midnight (1966), creating a new work from elements of five different plays. Likewise, he did not hesitate to tack on a nuclear mushroom cloud to the end of Kafka’s The Trial in 1962. When it came to Ambersons, by contrast, he adhered with remarkable fidelity to his source. Such structural changes as he made (aside from his finally discarded reimagining of the book’s ending) were largely a matter of necessary compression, such as leaving out the granular details of Aunt Fanny’s unfortunate investments, and omitting a couple of Ambersons whose only real function was to speed along the decline of the family’s fortunes.
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.
The novel’s ending is far from satisfying. It’s as if Tarkington—having masterfully managed all the catastrophes of the plot and brought the critically injured George to a hospital room in “comeuppance” for his having shattered the happiness of Isabel and Eugene—wanted to wrap things up as quickly and painlessly as possible. He arranges a quasi-supernatural resolution in which Eugene consults a trance medium and receives an apparent message from Isabel begging him to forgive her son. On the final page, Eugene forgives the repentant George, and thinks once again of Isabel, whose “eyes would look wistful no more.” Minus the medium, this comes close to the hasty, reshot scene that actually ended up in the film.
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.