One of the great tragedies in cinematic history was the fate of Orson Welles’s 1942 epic, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was cut, reshot, and mutilated by studio functionaries while its visionary director was working on another project in Brazil. Sixty years on, the 132 minutes of the original version—if indeed they exist—are still the holy grail of certain film buffs. The author follows the making, and unmaking, of a movie that Welles believed was the death of his Hollywood career.
There are two great “lost” movies in the annals of Hollywood filmmaking, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Neither film is lost in a literal, vanished-and-gone sense—both are available on video, are occasionally screened in theaters, and are highly regarded by film critics (four stars apiece in Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide, for example). Rather, their tragic “lost” status stems from the fact that they exist only in truncated, bowdlerized form, having been wrested from the hands of their visionary directors by studio functionaries who were too craven and bottom-line-obsessed to cut these directors some auteurist slack. Since both films well pre-date the preservationist era of film-as-art-and-heritage—Greed was released in 1925, The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942—they have suffered the further indignity of being unreconstructible; studios back in those days didn’t hang on to excised footage for the sake of future director’s cuts on DVD, so the reels upon reels of nitrate film trimmed from the original versions were—depending on which movie you’re talking about and which story you believe—burned, thrown in the garbage, dumped into the Pacific, or simply left to decompose in the vaults.
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