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As such, the movie lost much of its complexity and resonance, becoming more about the basic mechanics of its plot than the greater themes that had drawn Welles to Tarkington’s novel in the first place. Another casualty of the severe editing was the film’s greatest technical accomplishment, the ball sequence, which included a continuous, carefully choreographed crane shot that wended up the three floors of the Amberson mansion to the ballroom at the top, with various characters moving in and out of the frame as the camera wove around them.

David Shepard knew her many years ago, and he says it’s entirely plausible that she would have incinerated the negative; studios in those days often burned unneeded nitrate film to salvage the silver in the emulsion. (Although there’s also a persistent rumor, which I was unable to verify, that Desilu indiscriminately dumped loads of RKO materials, including Ambersons footage, into the Santa Monica Bay upon its acquisition of the studio’s lot in the 1950s. ) Welles got the bad news from Chandler just a year before his 1985 death.

It is clearly the grail now,” says the director William Friedkin, a card-carrying Ambersons buff. ” That scenario never panned out, but now one not unlike it has: this January, A&E will broadcast a three-hour telefilm version of The Magnificent Ambersons, directed by Alfonso Arau (who’s best known for Like Water for Chocolate) and based on Welles’s original shooting script. Gene Kirkwood, one of the new film’s producers, says he first came across the script 10 years ago, when he was allowed access to an old RKO storehouse on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood.

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