Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons being reconstructed via animation
With all the news coming forward about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it seems that another marred masterpiece may yet get its day in the sun. According to Wellesnet, the long-lost original cut of Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons is getting a reconstruction from documentary filmmaker Brian Robert Rose (When I Last Saw Jesse), who will use animation to complete the footage originally excised by RKO that is now considered lost.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons traces the downfall of the wealthy Midwestern American family of the title with the onset of the automobile age. It starred Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt and Agnes Moorehead, and was Welles’ followup film to his now enshrined Citizen Kane. The director’s original cut ran 132 minutes in length and got a mixed response in previews, particularly for its dark, elaborate ending. While Welles was away in Brazil shooting the (later abandoned) documentary It’s All True, RKO effectively seized the film from him and, with the help of editor (and later acclaimed director) Robert Wise trimmed the film down to a lean 88 minutes with a jarring, crudely shot happy ending tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie. Although a print of the original cut was sent to Welles in Brazil it has never been recovered, and the footage was ultimately destroyed by the studio.
“Many scenes could be recreated thanks to surviving frame enlargements,” Rose told Wellesnet. “For other scenes where more complex camera movements were involved, I relied upon stills, diagrams of camera movement and the layout of the sets which, when reconstructed in a 3D space allowed a greater degree of understanding as to how Welles filmed. This enabled a high degree of certainty in capturing what was lost in a way that will hopefully do justice to Welles’ original vision, so much so that it will be possible, for the first time, to see Ambersons in its entirety — all 132 minutes. The version I have created is now in exact synchronicity to the cutting documents of March 1942 and runs 131 minutes and 45 seconds. But the characters at this point are only the first sketches, what in animator terminology are called pencil tests. The task now is to fine tune the performances, aided by critical feedback by many individuals who have offered scholarly and artistic advice on this project. The film must next go through a period of revision, after which it will enter the ‘ink and paint’ stage where all the characters will be refined with added details, along with further details in the sets, background characters and so on.”
Rose says he believes the remaining work on the reconstruction could take at least another two years, and will hopefully be ready in time for the film’s 80th Anniversary in 2022. One snag in the works is that Rose does not technically hold the rights to the film, which he is embarking on as a scholarly project. He hopes that it will be authorized for proper distribution by the time it is completed. This is similar to the “Recobbled Cut” of Richard Williams’ animated movie The Thief and the Cobbler, which was done by fans and is now considered to be the definitive version of that unfinished masterpiece. Another notable example of this is Turner Classic Movies’ reconstruction of lost silent film London After Midnight, which utilized the original script and film stills to give viewers a close approximation to the original.
Welles had at one point years after the debacle attempted to film a new ending from scratch with the then still-living cast members 20 years later, but the project never came together. In 2002 filmmaker Alfonso Arau (A Walk in the Clouds) directed a remake of The Magnificent Ambersons supposedly based on Welles’ original script, but the poorly-recieved A&E television movie starring Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood and Jonathan Rhys Meyers contains the same tacked-on happy ending as the original. Variety referred to it as, “Just one more sad step in the tragic film history of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.’” On a brighter note, Welles’ film was a major inspiration for Wes Anderson’s 2001 smash The Royal Tenenbaums, which also chronicled the downfall of a -far quirkier- family.
Are you excited to finally be able to experience the Orson Welles cut of The Magnificent Ambersons? Let us know in the comments below!