In 1942, Orson Welles made the greatest film that never existed. Coming off the critical success of Citizen Kane—a film that, despite not initially doing well at the box office, is now universally heralded as a masterpiece—he chose to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons. It follows a once-affluent Midwestern family living in the second industrial revolution of the 1870s, who are on the brink of financial ruin and obsoletion. But what might have been Welles’ true masterpiece never quite ended up seeing the light of day. When the director showed up to RKO Pictures with a dense 131-minute cut, the studio proceeded to excise 43 minutes and reshot the ending to be more uplifting. On the striking revision, Welles said, “They destroyed Ambersons and they destroyed me.”
He’s not necessarily being hyperbolic. RKO didn’t just eliminate those 43 minutes—they destroyed them, allegedly melting them down so that the nitrate could be used in the war. A substantial group of optimists believe that the footage is still out there, though. Turner Classic Movies is now sponsoring documentarian and Ambersons footage truther Joshua Grossberg to go to Brazil, where he believes Welles’ version is hiding, and return with the holy grail of cinema. If found, Grossberg and TCM will work together to restore the film.
But what happens if these pioneers actually find these lost negatives collecting dust in a forgotten archive somewhere? In order to truly understand the effect that might have on us looking back at the past from the 21st century, we must first look at Ambersons’ current ending, and the context of the society in which it was Frankensteined.
Part of why RKO changed the ending of Ambersons is because Welles’ cut performed poorly at a test screening. And the truth is, it could very well be the case that the director’s cut was an opaque mess; maybe we’ll never know. But the cultural context tells a different story. Ambersons was shot from October 1941 to January 1942, a time when much of the world was already deep in the throes of World War II. The United States didn’t enter the war until just after Pearl Harbor—which happened mere weeks before production on Ambersons wrapped. It’s not hard to imagine that, because of this, audience demand for happy endings was at an all-time high. More than that, though, American audiences yearned for a story of American prosperity.
By the end of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer-winning novel, the Ambersons are in dire financial decline, and are forced to sell their mansion. During the film’s finale, Amberson heir/spoiled brat extraordinaire George (Tim Holt) is seriously injured in a car accident. But while the novel ends with George being doomed to live a lonely and unfulfilling life, the film sees wealthy automobile manufacturer Eugene (Joseph Cotten) take pity on him and provide him with financial security.
The film gets an undeniably happy ending. It is also one completely at odds with the tone of Ambersons. The film serves, on its face, as a commentary on the effects of the automobile on society, an invention which saw a rise in deaths, a decline in general health and an overall poisoning of the atmosphere. On a smaller scale, the introduction of the car into society made the Ambersons’ real estate depreciate in value, with suburban living (now accessible by car) suddenly taking precedence. Juxtaposed with the Ambersons’ robust mansion, the ever-developing outside world feels flimsy. Foreboding, even. The car also completely devastated a way of life—the slow, ambling life of luxury that the Ambersons enjoyed—and made people like them obsolete, never to be seen again. Given all of this, the optimistic ending of Ambersons makes no sense, and only functions to revise a very real change in society.
It’s likely the case that Welles’ film would have ended like the novel if his cut had made it to theaters. More than anything, then, Ambersons is a testament to how much society bends over backwards to sugarcoat things—even if that means drastically contorting reality. Fiction allows audiences to revise uncomfortable societal truths. As long as that is possible, we would much rather see ourselves in a positive light than hold a mirror up to our unseemly realities.
The mystery of Ambersons’ lost footage isn’t a crucial part of the cinematic zeitgeist because we are frustrated by the way studios made light of the effects the rise of automobiles had on history. Audiences are desperate to discover art in its purest form—whether that be the fought-for Snyder Cut, or the 251-minute cut of Once Upon a Time in America. Part of us hopes that a director’s cut will reveal something deeper about the medium, whatever that might look like. And yet, by searching so fervently for these reels, we are doing exactly what RKO did: Striving to change the way we see the past.
By searching for a lost masterpiece, we are hoping that something out there exists to get us closer to the artistic truth that we crave. Perhaps that truth looks like something in the past that could change our perception of the future. Just as George fears the horseless carriage, we have every reason to be afraid of the upsurge in eerily human-like artificial intelligence, bots that threaten to make millions of jobs obsolete and devices that stop us from relating to one another. Perhaps, then, the best part of the search for Ambersons is the hope of finding something that we can relate to as a roadmap for the present, 80 years later.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.