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An Orson Welles film was horribly edited — will cinematic justice finally be done?

<em>Citizen Kane</em> made Orson Welles a superstar. But his next movie, <em>The Magnificent Ambersons,</em> was edited into incoherence by the studio. Some 80 years later, a Welles fan is taking matters into his own hands. Welles is pictured above in London in May 1973.
Len Trievnor
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Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Citizen Kane made Orson Welles a superstar. But his next movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, was edited into incoherence by the studio. Some 80 years later, a Welles fan is taking matters into his own hands. Welles is pictured above in London in May 1973.

One of the greatest American directors of the 20th century is known for only a few films.

After Orson Welles made his masterpiece Citizen Kane in 1941, he fought bitterly with the studios that released his subsequent films — often after they bowdlerized Welles' work. Films such as The Lady from Shanghai and The Magnificent Ambersons were drastically changed and cut, altering the auteur's vision.

Now, a Welles superfan named Brian Rose — himself an accomplished filmmaker — has used animation and countless hours of painstaking research to recreate missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons.

Welles started filming what was intended to be his second masterpiece in 1941, hot from the success of Citizen Kane. The movie is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington.

Welles, who had already adapted the novel for radio, wanted to tell a timeless story about Americans buffeted by unsettling new technology and economic decline through the fortunes of a small town's richest family. He was given a princely budget and built an entire mansion with moveable walls for filming. But costs kept mounting and RKO studio executives disliked the film's dark take on American aristocracy, especially in the jingoistic era before World War II.

"The studio took his 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons. They cut it down to 88 minutes," says Ray Kelly, who runs the Orson Welles fansite Wellesnet. "Not only that, they took out the ending, which was rather bleak, and replaced it with a very Hollywood happy ending that doesn't seem to fit the mood of the film in total."

All in all, Kelly says, only 13 scenes out of 73 were left untouched. And despite all the studio's re-editing and the unconvincing happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons was still a massive flop. RKO burned its silver nitrate negatives to salvage the silver and make space to store other movies.

"So Welles' version has been lost to history," Kelly says.

Not so fast, says filmmaker Brian Rose. "Fortunately, the film is remarkably well-documented for a film that was so badly altered," he says. "There is quite a lot that can be inferred from the surviving materials."

So that's what he's doing, using animation and voice actors to fill the gaps.

Rose is not the first to attempt to reconstruct The Magnificent Ambersons. Several other Welles enthusiasts have attempted to correct what Kelly calls "the challenge of undoing a cinematic injustice" through various means. But none have used animation.

"A lot of it was based on photographs and on diagrams of camera placements and descriptions of scenes," Rose explains. Plus, new technology.

"Basically, in a 3D environment, I rebuilt all the sets from diagrams and photographs," he continues. "The challenge was populating them with characters. I took for inspiration the original storyboards, which were hand-drawn pencil and charcoal, very ethereal looking, kind of like the world of the Ambersons. They feel like there's a haze over them. So even when I do take the artistic license of creating these scenes in animation, they still are referencing they still draw a reference to Welles' original artistic vision."

There is also a bit of a haze over this project regarding intellectual property rights and how legal it is to be animating this fan version of The Magnificent Ambersons. "The thought was to beg forgiveness later," Rose admits.

The filmmaker is not going to get rich with this passion project. Indeed, he's sunk a considerable amount of his own resources into what he hopes is a respectful and scholarly transformational work.

Rose hopes to eventually share his version of The Magnificent Ambersons with other Orson Welles fanatics. A screening is planned as part of a series at the Free Library of Philadelphia. And he'd love for it to be packaged as part of a Criterion Collection edition. In the era of TikTok, it's an homage to a wounded film.

Edited by Ciera Crawford

Produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 2, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous web version of this story included an incorrect link to filmmaker Brian Rose's website.
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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.