The Magnificent Ambersons

Director Orson Welles‘ 1942 movie The Magnificent Ambersons was taken away from him by RKO after it earned negative test scores, with the studio scrapping nearly an hour of his footage, reshooting additional scenes, and cooking up a completely different ending than Welles originally intended. The resulting Frankensteined version is still widely regarded as a great film (it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars), but for many film fans, Welles’ original work print – which was largely destroyed, but had one copy sent to the filmmaker in Brazil while he was working on another project – remains one of those all-time great Hollywood mysteries.

For the past 25 years, filmmaker Joshua Grossberg has documented his quest to find that missing workprint, and now Turner Classic Movies has agreed to sponsor Grossberg’s upcoming trip to South America to try one last attempt at locating this cinematic needle in a haystack. The resulting documentary, whether he finds Welles’ workprint or not, will air on TCM in 2022. 

“They destroyed Ambersons,” Welles once said, “and the picture itself destroyed me. I didn’t get a job for years after that.” The wunderkind filmmaker was appointed as an ambassador for the United States in Latin America, and after Welles’ cut of Ambersons tested poorly, the studio began tinkering with his vision, and since he was out of the country at the government’s behest at the time, Welles couldn’t stop RKO from meddling with his movie. Deadline says the negatives for Welles original footage were melted down for its nitrate during World War II.

Now the outlet reports that Turner Classic Movies has agreed to team up with Grossberg to help finish his documentary in time for The Magnificent Ambersons‘ 80th anniversary next year. “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, TCM’s senior vice president of programming and content strategy. “It’s too important not to try.”

“Considering the missing full-length version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was discovered in an Argentine museum in 2008, it’s entirely possible the lost print of Ambersons survived somewhere in Brazil,” writer-director Grossberg said in a statement. “To finally be able to track down the leads I developed is exciting and I’m grateful to TCM for their support.” Grossberg has been building those leads for more than two decades. He believes a print of Welles’ cut that was sent to the director in Brazil is still there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.

If he’s able to find the print, he and TCM plan to restore it in time for the recut movie to be able to premiere alongside the documentary next year. If not, the documentary will still track “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 — the critical turning point in a career that would see this giant of cinema go on to forge a more independent filmmaking path.”

Here’s a sizzle reel for the project that Grossberg put on Vimeo last year:

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