Late in life, Orson Welles professed a lifelong affinity for the works of Booth Tarkington, and for The Magnificent Ambersons in particular. In “My Father Wore Black Spats”, an autobiographical essay published in Paris Vogue in 1982, Welles reminisced about Grand Detour, Ill., a quaint little village and artist colony 75 miles west of Chicago where Welles and his family often spent long weekends and summers. “[A] childhood there,” he wrote, “was like a childhood back in the 1870s…a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life.” (He used the exact same words in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich published in This Is Orson Welles.) Here Welles was referring to the Tarkington of the Penrod books and Seventeen, the author’s turn-of-the-century idyl of adolescence. Elsewhere in that same Vogue article Welles was more Ambersons-specific: “It has long been a family assumption that the author had my father in mind when he created the character which I will always think of as the Joseph Cotten role [Eugene Morgan] in The Magnificent Ambersons.”
In other remarks and interviews, Welles went even further: His father, Richard Head Welles, was Booth Tarkington’s best friend. Welles Sr. actually invented an early automobile, but didn’t carry it any further because he couldn’t see any future in it. I wasn’t able to find references to any of these assertions until years, even decades after Welles’s movie of Ambersons.
Then there’s the fact that Orson Welles had a penchant for, well, making things up, especially when he was talking about his father; a 1963 monograph by Maurice Bessy includes a highly amusing load of malarkey about Orson’s father, obviously gleaned from Orson himself. (“Seventy-five percent of what I say in interviews,” he once warned, “is false.”) In fact, other than Orson’s say-so, there’s no evidence that Tarkington and Richard Welles ever met. It’s not entirely out of the question; Richard does appear to have been acquainted with George Ade (another Hoosier writer and contemporary of Tarkington’s, less famous in their day and even more forgotten than Tarkington now). But “best friends” with Tarkington? Unlikely; certainly Orson never said anything about it before 1946, when Tarkington would have been around to weigh in on the subject.
As for inventing the motorcar, the closest Richard Welles ever got to that was acquiring a patent for an automobile jack in 1904. It may be somehow significant that in Orson’s telling, his father becomes something of an amalgam of Eugene Morgan and George Minafer — inventing a car on one hand, deciding it would never amount to anything on the other.
Not that this was anything new; at this stage of his career, divided attention was Orson Welles’s modus operandi. In New York he was famous for keeping busy enough for three men, shuttling back and forth between the stage and radio, even keeping an ambulance on call to ferry him from one live broadcast to another, siren blaring. Now in Hollywood he was doing the same thing, stretching himself as far as Mexico for the Bonito jaunts; even on a slow day he’d be hopping from Ambersons to Journey into Fear and back, sometimes dictating his direction onto phonograph records when he wouldn’t be on the Ambersons set in person. No wonder he thought he could do anything, he’d been doing it so long.
When Welles presented Ambersons on Campbell Playhouse he was already under contract to RKO, though he wouldn’t start work on Citizen Kane for several months. Maybe he really did have an early affection for Tarkington’s book — why else would he have done it on radio in the first place? — but when it came time to choose his second picture as writer-director, he may well have picked it largely because the radio drama had already given him a head start on it. With everything else he had going on, who could blame him? He played a recording of the show for RKO president George Schaefer, who green-lighted the production on the strength of that. (Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming that five minutes into the recording, Schaefer dozed off, waking up only at the end, then giving the go-ahead. Like the story of Tarkington and his father, this one seems not to have surfaced while Schaefer was around to dispute it; he died in 1981 at 92, and Leaming’s 1985 biography was the earliest mention I could find of Schaefer’s nap.)
Anyhow, awake or asleep, Schaefer approved Ambersons to proceed, alongside Journey into Fear and the still-percolating (and partially shooting in Mexico) Pan-America — but with a renegotiated contract for the Mercury Productions unit. The battle with Hearst over Citizen Kane was still raging, and the RKO board pressured Schaefer to rein Welles in; gone was the free hand and final cut Welles had enjoyed on Kane, and the budget for Ambersons was capped at $600,000. Welles signed, with a confidence he would come to rue.
On Ambersons, Ray Collins was set to repeat his Uncle George/Fred role from the radio show (renamed again, to Jack). Stage and silent screen veteran Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan) was Major Amberson, Dolores Costello (silent star, ex-wife of John Barrymore and grandmother of Drew) was Isabel Amberson Minafer, Joseph Cotten was Eugene Morgan, and 18-year-old Anne Baxter was Morgan’s daughter Lucy. For the crucial role of Aunt Fanny, Welles tapped Agnes Moorehead, who had played his mother in Citizen Kane; in Ambersons, only her second picture, Moorehead would give the performance of her long and distinguished career — but more of that later.
Then there was Welles’s idea of having his cast pre-record their dialogue, lip-synching to playback on the set like singers in a musical. The idea, he said, was to keep actors in touch with the dialogue as they first read it, without camera-induced self-consciousness — plus it would (theoretically) free the camera from worries about boom mikes in the frame, wobbling sound levels and the like. All in theory — but it proved a disaster in practice; if anything, the actors were even more self-conscious, trying to match lips with readings laid down long before. The idea was eventually abandoned, but like most of Welles’s ideas it died hard (he tried it again later for Macbeth over at shoestring Republic, with far more success).