EXCLUSIVE: It has only been about a quarter of a century since he started it, but filmmaker Joshua Grossberg’s Quixotic documented quest to find the original print of Orson Welles’ 1942 classic The Magnificent Ambersons has enlisted a powerful media partner to help in his long journey to solving one of cinema’s great mysteries.
Turner Classic Movies is teaming with Grossberg to finish his documentary on the search for what many film historians consider the “Holy Grail”: Welles’ original preview workprint of the film, his follow-up to the iconic 1941 Citizen Kane that got him fired by RKO Studios after reportedly disastrous test screenings. The studio then took control, cut 43 minutes and shot new scenes including a new ending, all without the approval or input of its director. The original excised footage was melted down for its nitrate for use in World War II.
The resulting film, even in its truncated form, has still managed to live on as a certifiable classic and was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and three others, but the lost opportunity to see it as Welles intended has been on the bucket list for film buffs for nearly 80 years. Welles has said he thought in its original form The Magnificent Ambersons topped Citizen Kane, a movie still considered by many as the greatest of all time, as well as the inspiration for the current David Fincher movie of its creation, Mank, which leads all others in Oscar nominations this year.
Seeing a completed version of Grossberg’s long-gestating dream documentary The Search for the Lost Print: The Making of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons as a perfect vehicle to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Ambersons next year was irresistible to TCM, and a natural fit. As TCM points out, the legend of Welles’ director’s cut has only grown as cinephiles discovered details gleaned from production photos and first-hand accounts from those who viewed it. Film historians now regard this lost version as Welles’ second masterpiece, if only the studio had left it alone. “They destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me.” So said Welles, who blamed it also for his lack of work for many years following the debacle of its post-production.
“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, SVP Programming and Content Strategy at TCM. “It’s too important not to try.”
As part of the initiative, TCM will sponsor Grossberg’s research trip to Brazil, where he believes the Welles version exists somewhere — even possibly sitting in the attic of a collector — to follow up on leads he’s developed over his 25-year search. At the same time, the writer-director is chronicling his quest in the feature-length documentary that will air on TCM in July 2022. If somehow the unbutchered version of the film is indeed found and in viable condition, Grossberg and TCM will restore it to premiere in conjunction with the documentary’s premiere. That film, 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 — the critical turning point in a career that would see this giant of cinema go on to forge a more independent filmmaking path.
There is always hope. “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,” said Grossberg. “To finally be able to track down the leads I developed is exciting and I’m grateful to TCM for their support.”
At Deadline’s 2019 New York Contenders Film event, Greenblatt in fact approached me and told me of plans for the documentary, then in pre-production, and he followed up later in July 2020 to share a “sizzle reel” they had put together even as the pandemic had delayed the project and their trip to Brazil to finish filming. You can find the sizzle reel here:
Many other films, cut up by their studios in various ways, have managed to be restored to some semblance of glory, 1954’s A Star Is Born being one brought back to at least a portion of its original life after missing film cans and audio tracks were found (photos had to be used for part of its restoration).
In the mid-1990s, Grossberg stumbled on tantalizing leads regarding its whereabouts: a film archivist working at a Brazilian film distributor claimed to have seen canisters comprising the 131-minute version in the 1960s. TCM and Grossberg hope this and other new information may lead in sheer Sherlock fashion to the lost print, one that even then-editor the late Robert Wise who assembled it had said he believes it could still be somewhere in that country where it was being delivered to Welles who was there working on a new film at the time.
Grossberg’s return trip to Brazil will (hopefully) commence in summer 2021, though Brazil’s dire Covid situation is not ideal to say the least. It will chronicle him as he renews his search for the lost print as well as interview more key players.