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A fan is reviving Orson Welles' poorly edited 'lost masterpiece' through animation

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Good news for film buffs who are sick of superheroes and movies about toys - we have an update on the work of Orson Welles, one of the greatest American film directors of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")

ORSON WELLES: (As Charles Foster Kane) Rosebud.

ESTRIN: Many of Welles' movies were censored and edited by the studios that released them, most infamously one from 1942 called "The Magnificent Ambersons." Now an Orson Welles stan is using animation to conjure up the director's lost vision. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "The Magnificent Ambersons" is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS")

WELLES: (As narrator) The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873.

ULABY: Orson Welles wanted to tell a story about small-town Americans buffeted by unsettling new technology and economic decline through the fortunes of the town's richest family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There it is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The Amberson mansion, the pride of the town.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Well, well.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Sixty thousand dollars for the woodwork alone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Hot and cold running water...

ULABY: Welles was hot from "Citizen Kane." In 1941, he was given a princely budget and built an entire mansion with movable walls for filming. But costs kept mounting, and the studio hated the film's dark take on American aristocracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS")

WELLES: (As narrator) This was the last walk home he was ever to take up National Avenue to Amberson Edition, the big old house at the foot of Amberson Boulevard.

RAY KELLY: So the studio took his 131-minute version of "The Magnificent Ambersons." They cut it down to 88 minutes.

ULABY: Ray Kelly runs an Orson Welles fan site called Wellesnet.

KELLY: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS")

AGNES MOOREHEAD: (As Fanny Minafer) How is Georgie?

JOSEPH COTTEN: (As Eugene Morgan) He's going to be all right.

ULABY: All in all, only 13 scenes out of more than 70 were left untouched, Kelly says. And in spite of all the reediting and the fake happy ending, "The Magnificent Ambersons" was still a massive flop. The studio, RKO, burned its silver-nitrate negatives to salvage the silver and to make space to store other movies.

KELLY: So Welles' version has been lost to history.

ULABY: Not so fast. Here's forensic filmmaker Brian Rose.

BRIAN ROSE: Fortunately, the film is remarkably well documented for a film that was so badly altered.

ULABY: Rose had access to photographs, to the original storyboards, the original title cards and a detailed description of what was shown, scene by scene, to the first test audiences. And he had new technology.

ROSE: So basically, in a 3D environment, I rebuilt all the sets from diagrams and photographs.

ULABY: And he used black-and-white animation to recreate lost scenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As character) I won't go home now, Harry. Drive to the city hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: (As Harry) Yes, sir.

ULABY: Voice actors speak while the animated images create a sense of what was lost. Rose is the first to say the animation's pretty simple, intended to evoke the pencil and charcoal storyboards they're drawn from.

ROSE: They sort of feel like there's a haze over them, and I wanted to try to recapture that.

ULABY: There is also a bit of a haze over this project when it comes to the intellectual property rights and how legal it is to be animating this fan version of "The Magnificent Ambersons."

ROSE: The thought was to beg forgiveness later.

ULABY: Brian Rose hopes he can eventually legally share his version of "The Magnificent Ambersons" with other Orson Welles fanatics. Later this month, it'll get screened as part of a series at The Free Library, Philadelphia, and he'd love for it to be packaged as part of a Criterion Collection edition. Rose is not expecting to make any money from a version of this project that's more scholarly than commercial. It's a passion project. In the era of TikTok, it's an homage to a wounded film.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.