If Orson Welles had known that RKO were going to mangle his follow up to "Citizen Kane", he probably would have burnt the negative as soon as the last reel was in the can. In an attempt to make the film more commercially viable, the studio cut (and destroyed) 50 minutes of the original movie while Welles was out of the country. The end result looked, in the director's own words, as if it had been "edited by a lawnmower".
The adaptation of Booth Tarkington's tragic novel about the life of the Amberson family in 1870s America deserved much better treatment. Welles' screenplay is a marvellous distillation of the novel's main themes - both the story of the doomed love between Eugene (Cotton) and Isobel (Costello) and, on a grander scale, the story of America's progress into the 20th century as the new 'horseless carriage' takes over the country.
But at just 88 minutes long, "The Magnificent Ambersons" has lost much of its power. Random chunks of the story are missing, so that the finished film only barely makes sense and, in a movie where the characters' relationships hold centre stage, that's disastrous. Instead of gradual change and growth we get sudden, jarring shifts - it's like watching a compressed version of the original script. And, if that weren't enough, there's a sentimental ending thrown in by RKO for good measure.
Fortunately, Welles' technical brilliance shines through, securing the film its classic status. Displaying the kind of virtuoso technique that would make him a legend, Welles brands both the story, the striking camerawork (the ballroom scene is a classic of cinematography) and the set design with his own inimitable style.
It should have been one of the world's greatest films - even better than "Citizen Kane" - but all we've been left with are the fragments.
"The Magnificent Ambersons" is on BBC2 at 3.35pm, Saturday 9th March 2001. It is preceded by "Citizen Kane".