In an era where the Snyder Cut exists, the possibilities are endless that some of the best lost works in filmdom could see the light of day. If all goes well, the next one on the docket could be the most tantalizing one of all: Orson Welles’ original version of “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Welles’ feature, released in 1942, saw the temperamental director film a 131-minute cut only to have home studio RKO add new scenes (including a completely new ending) and excise 43 minutes. Welles said about the finished production, “They destroyed ‘Ambersons’ and it destroyed me.”
Allegedly, the missing 43 minutes was melted down so the nitrate could be utilized for the war effort. But filmmaker Joshua Grossberg, with the help of Turner Classic Movies, are on the hunt to find footage that might have been saved so a restoration of Welles’ original vision can take place. TCM will sponsor Grossberg’s expedition to Brazil — where the footage was supposedly found in the 1960s — this fall in the hopes the director’s 25-year search will come to an end.
Brazil was where Welles did work for the U.S. Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs during the early days of America’s involvement in World War II, as part of the Good Neighbor Policy — a bit of cultural diplomacy to ensure Brazil and other South American countries stayed on the side of the Allies. At the end of January 1942, right after having finished shooting “Ambersons,” he left for Rio de Janeiro. It’s believed RKO sent him a complete workprint of the film for him to edit while on the trip. That’s the print Grossberg hopes to find.
The expedition will simultaneously be documented in the feature-length documentary “The Search for the Lost Print: The Making of Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.'” The documentary, produced by Joseph Schroeder and Gary Greenblatt under Grossberg’s production banner Under the Dome Ltd., will not only follow Grossberg’s quest to find the original version, but also explore the legend surrounding the lost print, “Ambersons'” troubled production, and Welles’ exile from Hollywood
Welles’ follow-up to his groundbreaking “Citizen Kane,” “Ambersons” was an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel following the fortunes of a Midwestern family and starred Welles’ alums Agnes and Joseph Cotten.
“We know it’s a long shot but if these guys are able to find Orson Welles’ version of the film it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of cinema,” said Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president, programming and content strategy for Turner Classic Movies (TCM). “It’s too important not to try.”
The hope is that if the film is found it can be restored and released to coincide with the documentary’s premiere in July 2022, the 80th anniversary of “Ambersons.”
This is not the first time a Welles’ feature has famously been resurrected and restored. In 2018, Welles’ long-presumed unfinished feature “The Other Side of the Wind” was completed and released via Netflix.