It’s been an obsession for New York doc filmmaker and former entertainment journalist Joshua Grossberg — the missing reels to the long-lost directors cut of Orson Welles’ indelible classic The Magnificent Ambersons (pictured).
For the uninitiated, 1942′s The Magnificent Ambersons was Welles’ follow up to Citizen Kane, but he was fired from the film by RKO Studios. Following disappointing test screenings, RKO cut 43 minutes from Ambersons and shot new scenes against his wishes, including tacking on a new ending. The original, excised footage was melted down for its nitrate for use in World War II.
Even in its mutilated form, the film is still considered a classic. But for Welles, it was a personal tragedy, about which he once said, “They destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me.”
The legend of Welles’ director’s cut has only grown as cinephiles discovered details learned from production photos and first-hand accounts from those who viewed it. Film historians now regard this lost version as Welles’ second masterpiece, which the auteur once said was even better than Citizen Kane, if only the studio had left it alone.
Grossberg’s journey to find the lost footage has taken 25 years and counting, a journey that is taking him to Brazil as part of his latest feature documentary, The Search for the Lost Print: The Making of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which will sponsor Grossberg’s upcoming trip to Brazil where his search has led him, will premiere the documentary in 2022 in honor of the 80th anniversary of The Magnificent Ambersons. And should the lost film be found, TCM plans to restore and air the cinematic treasure alongside the documentary.
“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 survives somewhere in Brazil,” said Grossberg. “To finally be able to track down the leads I developed is exciting and I’m grateful to TCM for their support.”
In the mid-1990s, Grossberg stumbled on leads regarding the lost print’s whereabouts: a film archivist working at a Brazilian film distributor claimed to have seen canisters comprising the 131-minute version in the 1960s. This and other new information may help Grossberg learn the fate of the film.
The documentary will follow Grossberg’s quest to find the original version, while also exploring 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.
“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.”
Most recently, Grossberg was a producer on HBO’s acclaimed documentary special, Between the World and Me as well as the Emmy-winning, two-part documentary Brightness of Noon: The Intersect of Faith, Immigration and Refugees, which aired on ABC.
The Search for the Lost Print: The Making of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is produced by Joseph Schroeder and Gary Greenblatt under Grossberg’s production banner Under the Dome.
(Image from The Magnificent Ambersons courtesy of TCM)