Meet the Team on a Quest to Find Orson Welles’ Lost Original Cut of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

We talked to the director and producers of 'The Lost Print,' an upcoming documentary about finding the original director's cut of 'The Magnificent Ambersons.'
The Magnificent Ambersons

Joshua Grossberg has been searching for Orson Welles‘ lost director’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons since he was in college in the 1990s, but now he has Turner Classic Movies and a team of passionate producers to help him find what they call “the holy grail of cinema.” In 2022, you will get to see their cinematic expedition to Brazil’s film archives as depicted in The Search for the Lost Print: The Making of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, a documentary about Welles and the ruining of what he thought to be his greatest film.

Best known for his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, Welles signed on to direct his follow-up to that masterpiece with the promise from RKO studios that he would have final cut on The Magnificent Ambersons. But then the film, a dark and thoughtful adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s hit novel about a wealthy Gilded Age family getting their “comeuppance,” performed poorly during test screenings. As Welles was already off to Brazil shooting his next project (the never-finished It’s All True), RKO had editor Robert Wise completely upend Welles’ vision and deliver a more upbeat ending.

It’s been Hollywood lore that the original director’s cut that Welles sent from Brazil is not lost completely but hiding somewhere in a Brazilian archive. Grossberg and his leads in Rio are the keys to unlocking, for modern audiences, what could be the best movie of the 20th century. Their adventure is being funded by TCM in hopes that the television channel will have both the unseen director’s cut and a fascinating documentary to air in time for The Magnificent Ambersons‘ 80th anniversary. Check out a sizzle trailer for The Search for the Lost Print, in which Grossberg sets up his quest and his documentary:

With more than a year to go before the planned July 2022 premiere of The Search for the Lost Print, I recently talked to Grossberg and two of the documentary’s producers, Joseph Schroeder and Gary Greenblatt, about the two-fold project, which is still ongoing. Here is an edited version of our conversation:   

Josh, what made you want to search for the lost version of The Magnificent Ambersons for so long? 

Joshua Grossberg: What drove me, of course, was my interest in Orson Welles, one of my favorite directors. I was particularly struck by The Magnificent Ambersons the first time I saw it, which was back when I was about nineteen years old. I am a big Indiana Jones fan, so when this mystery availed itself to me, of course, I had to take it. I was on my way down to Brazil during college and a mentor film historian of mine, Rich Johnson, told me about the lost print. I didn’t know about this story, but as it so happened, I had a connection from a summer internship to Bill Krohn, the director of It’s All True [the documentary about Welles’ unfinished film of the same name]. So when I arrived in Rio, Bill said to look up Rogerio Sganzerla, this Brazilian director who did a documentary on Welles.

That’s what sort of touched off the whole adventure, and we started making inquiries about the print when I was in Brazil. When I got back from that trip, suddenly I realized there’s this great opportunity to find a lost cinematic work, like the holy grail of cinema, as we say. We could restore Orson’s original vision to the big screen. I guess the obstacles for me at the time when I was in school and shortly thereafter, it was just impossible to get any real financial backing. So, it’s been a twenty-five-year odyssey with stops and starts. I would have people call me about it, reporters inquiring about the story.

Joe and Gary, what made you join the project?

Joseph Schroeder: So, Josh and I have been friends probably for about ten years. We usually get together to have pizza, specifically pizza, and we talk about stuff that we might be able to work on together. We were talking about a bunch of different things and then he offhandedly mentioned, “Oh yeah, I kind of got written about in this publication over the summer in France and they’re detailing my search for this lost print.” And I stopped and said, “Excuse me, what? Wait, take me back to that.” And then we started talking about it and realized, man this is really a movie! You’re going to chase something, and if you’re going to chase it, we might as well follow you.

That was when we started thinking about it more in the terms of what it was. I had no idea about this story. I had seen Ambersons and I had seen Citizen Kane,  but I had no idea this story existed the way it did until I had my second meeting with Josh and he had this file and plopped it down. Then I realized, oh man this is real. I think it was around that time that Gary joined up with us and knew more about Welles and about Brazil. Then we were able to round out a team for this. 

Gary Greenblatt: I’ve been obsessed with this movie. I’m a big Welles fan, and my wife is Brazilian, so we used to visit Brazil a lot. Every time we would go, we would make inquiries to different places [about the movie]. Then, I had read the article in Vanity Fair in 2000 that Josh was in after I had already been inquiring about the movie. I’m also in the Producers Guild, and years later, we met at an event. Josh casually mentioned that this might be his next project. I asked, “Wait, are you the guy from the Vanity Fair article?” He said yeah, and I told him this has been something I’ve been obsessed with as long as he has. We had known each other for a while at that point so it was really funny that we stumbled upon that.

Grossberg: Yeah, and this had been something where I had been trying to find the right team because I was looking for the print solo at this point. I had no support in the ’90s. Now it’s different, of course, with documentaries being as popular as they are. I think it’s a lot easier to set something like this up, but there was no Kickstarter back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. So, when you have so many people telling you that you’re crazy or that it’s not for them, then you wanna move on and come back to it. But when Joe and I started, then Gary joined up, it was like the perfect team.

I went to Los Angeles in January of last year because we wanted to get a sizzle reel together. So, I interviewed Peter Bogdanovich, and I had also had footage that I shot in the ’90s when I interviewed Robert Wise, the editor turned director. He, of course, directed The Sound of Music, but he also edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. So, I had this amazing footage with Robert Wise that got incorporated into the sizzle, and then I’ve had a lot of support from a number of film historians and critics, from Jonathan Rosenbaum and Joseph McBride, for instance. Everything just came together beautifully.

We were going to go to Brazil, and we had some interest as of a year and two months ago. Then COVID hit! So, things ground to a halt, which was actually good because it allowed us time to figure out who we wanted to target and to make sure we had our ducks in a row with the production. We needed to make sure we had the right people on the ground in Brazil whom we would need for production since I have these leads that I’ve developed. They are our best chance that if this print does exist, and it is quite possible that it does, it might be with one of these film collectors or their descendants who may not even realize they have it.

What does a partnership with TCM for this project mean for you guys?

Grossberg: First of all, we’re grateful that TCM is partnering with us. They are wonderful collaborators and really the best partners we can think of for this endeavor. We can’t think of a better place to air the original version than TCM, which is preserving the art of cinema and educating people about what we are passionate about — movies. For TCM, it was a no-brainer to come on and support the expedition. They hope we can find it, and for one, it allows them to show Ambersons. Now, there’s this story of the whole backstory in terms of the tumultuous production.

It also gives them a chance to rethink the legacy of Orson Welles, because what is this original version about? If we can actually restore the director’s cut and get it out there, how will Welles’ legacy be thought of? This was a man who, at one point, had trouble finishing some of his projects and he was scrounging for money. This was really a turning point for his career. So, that’s a fascinating story of this exile from Hollywood by RKO, unceremoniously, and just because he was out of the country when they held the test screenings.

How do you think finding this print will change film history and how we think of Welles?

Greenblatt: I think it will cause many fights at trivia nights with “What is Orson Welles’ best movie?”

Grossberg: Because film scholars and people who had seen the director’s cut say that, in many ways, it was superior to Citizen Kane. If only they had just left it alone. To be able to find it and stir that debate would be a delight.

Schroeder: There’s this great quote from Welles: “They destroyed Ambersons, and it destroyed me.”

Why do you think the original version didn’t resonate with the audiences in the test screenings back then, and do you think it would have been viewed differently post-World War II?

Grossberg: For starters, the film was shot before Pearl Harbor, and then post-production and the test screenings happened after Pearl Harbor. Imagine: we’ve gone from a nation that wanted to stay out of the war to a nation fully engaged in defeating the Japanese and the Nazis. What the public needs are films that enliven their spirits, and the problem for Orson was that he made a dark, brooding family drama. As beautiful an artistic achievement as that was, the timing was bad, especially for RKO. They needed to make back their investment, and they were concerned that they wouldn’t. I think if Ambersons would have come out before Pearl Harbor, it would have been a different story. As it stands, it still received Oscar nominations. Let’s not forget that. And it is still viewed as a masterpiece. But imagine seeing the original version. It would be ten times better.

Schroeder: I think something like The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, you’ve got a receptive audience to that movie then. If Ambersons came just a few years later, then we were starting to see some kind of sympathy for history as opposed to just wanting to see John Ford blow stuff up. I love John Ford, but still.

Greenblatt: The international markets were closed off at that time. Welles’ reputation sort of grew post-war when Europe finally saw Citizen Kane. I think this [original version] would have made him an even bigger star and respected auteur because the worldwide market would have been massive.

Grossberg: The film might have been a little more successful had Welles starred in the picture, but to go from starring as Kane and then going back to portraying a young George Minafer who is college age, perhaps Welles thought that the audience wouldn’t buy it after seeing Citizen Kane. Therefore, they cast Tim Holt. The audience comments from the test previews weren’t kind to Tim Holt’s performance. Although in retrospect, I would say he was fairly exceptional. This was an actor who was mostly known for Westerns at the time.

What do you think this version will say about Welles as an auteur and the people who went into making the cut we know today?

Greenblatt: I think if you’ve watched the film, you can see where it kind of goes off the rails. Filmmaking is a director medium, and great filmmakers are the authors of great movies. In this movie, you can really tell when other hands are on it and what it did to the movie.

Grossberg: Let’s compare it to the Snyder cut and what happened with Justice League. A lot of people liked the theatrical version of Justice League, but there is [this] tension between what Joss Whedon and what Zack Snyder worked on. As long as it is — some may say too long — but I liked it, you really see the artist’s vision. With Welles, I think this story of the making of Ambersons and his loss of control of it is emblematic of the age-old conflict between a director’s personal expression, his authorship of the film, and the commerce or business end of the show business. There will always be that tension between directors wanting to make the film that they want to make and whether they can make it within the context of an art form that is reliant on a mass audience to justify the expense.

Schroeder: RKO was kind of regarded as the auteur-driven studio of the big five. They were the ones that took the chances and gave Welles final cut. They were at that level and doing that thing before a place like A24. What is the equivalent to this big studio taking a chance on all these unproven, talented directors? Even the guys who come in and do the big Jurassic World kind of movies are warded over. We’re seeing that more in independent spaces, and I think at one point in history that didn’t have to be the case. There was a place for an auteur to make the kind of movie they wanted to make within an actual system.

This wouldn’t be the first lost film found in a small archive somewhere. How important do you think amateur collectors and small archives are to maintaining film history and finding more lost films?

Greenblatt: Brazil has a great passion for cinema in their history, so if we do find the print, it’s because of that. There are these passionate people who love cinema and so they’re supremely important.

Grossberg: I think one thing about this documentary and this expedition is how it speaks to the importance of preservation. We are in an age now where the theatrical exposition is threatened by people staying at home watching their big screen TV. Why go out to the movies? To be able to bring back an original version of a lost Orson Welles classic and hopefully show that on a big screen, perhaps that’ll bring people back to the theater and get them excited about cinema again — cinema as entertainment and as something where you’d go to a coffee shop afterward and talk about it, or an art form. Film was the 20th century’s greatest art form, and part of our mission in terms of preserving Welles’ vision is to ensure that cinema is also the 21st century’s greatest art form.

You can keep up with the team’s search for the original director’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons by following them on Twitter, Instagram, and on their website.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_