10 Movies We Wish We’d Seen in Their Original Form

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A fascinating little movie that you not have heard of hit DVD and Blu-ray this week—its debut in either format. A New Leaf was the debut directorial effort of Elaine May, half of the comedy team Nichols and May (with Mike Nichols, who would go on to direct The Graduate, Silkwood, The Birdcage, and many others). She wrote, directed, and co-starred with Walter Matthau; a notorious perfectionist, she went over schedule on the picture, and when she finally turned it over to Paramount, it ran a full three hours. Studio head Robert Evans recut the film, softening its darkly comic tone and shortening it to 102 minutes. (It was an arbiter of things to come; though she had no difficulties with her second film, The Heartbreak Kid, she went over budget and over schedule on Micky & Nicky and the notorious boondoggle Ishtar, her final directorial effort to date.) May tried to both stop the film’s release and have her name removed, to no avail. It’s a pretty great movie, odd and funny, with peculiarly winning performances by May and Matthau; the disappointment is that the new video release has none of those deleted scenes, which studios frequently tossed or lost in the days before bonus features and director’s cuts.

Our longing for the original, extended cut of A New Leaf got us thinking about other films whose longer versions have either vanished or been suppressed. After the jump, we’ve gathered up what we know about ten of them; add your own in the comments, won’t you?

Greed

Perhaps the most famous extended cut of all time was Erich von Stroheim’s original assembly of his 1924 film adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague, which ran 42 reels — approximately eight hours (though some reports say it was as long as ten). Only a handful of people saw that original cut, but those who did said it was likely the greatest film ever made. The director knew it was unreleasable at that length, but he managed to wrench it down to 24 reels, which would be shown in two parts. But the suits weren’t having it; production entity Goldwyn merged with Metro during Greed’s lengthy post-production period, and after von Stroheim’s version was screened once (per contractual obligation), they put their editors to work, hacking it down to the version that exists today: two hours and twenty minutes. Longer versions have been rumored over the years, but never verified, and Turner Entertainment did a “recreation” in 1999, using still footage and an original continuity outline to reconstruct von Stroheim’s film. But the version released in 1924 met with poor reviews and lukewarm box office, and the director continued to see his films reworked (Walking Down Broadway) and buried (Queen Kelly) for the rest of his career.

Freaks

Todd Browning’s massive success as director of the 1931 Dracula got him quite a bit of leeway from MGM for his follow-up feature, a sideshow story that used real performers as its protagonists (rather than actors in make-up). The results were too disturbing for 1932 audiences and studio brass, who chopped the 90-minute film down to barely over an hour after disastrous test screenings. In the years since, Freaks has been recognized as a classic, but that half hour of excised scenes (including an extended version of the thunderstorm rampage and the gruesome death of the strongman) appears to be gone forever.

Lost Horizon

It’s regarded today as a classic, but Lost Horizon was the Waterworld of its day — in making his ambitious adaptation of James Hilton’s novel, Frank Capra ended up nearly doubling his budget by shooting in difficult cold conditions and shooting scenes with multiple cameras. His first cut ran something like six hours, which he chopped down to 210 minutes (three and a half hours) for the first preview. Capra hoped, as von Stroheim had, to release the film in two parts, but his plan was equally doomed, particularly after the preview audience greeted the fantasy/drama with snickers and walkouts. Capra claimed to have taken out the first two reels himself, and destroying them, but his revisions weren’t good enough for Columbia head Harry Cohn, who had studio editors take it down to 132 minutes, and then removed an additional 14 minutes after its initial engagements. The soundtrack of those missing minutes (and some of that footage) was recovered for the American Film Institute’s restoration, but the hour-plus taken out between preview and original release has never been found.

The Magnificent Ambersons

The other most famous lost cut of all time is Orson Welles’ 1942 follow-up to Citizen Kane, which Welles directed, produced, narrated, and adapted (from Booth Tarkington’s novel), but did appear in. Its transformation from the original 148-minute director’s version to the surviving 88-minute cut-and-paste job was, as usual, the result of studio politics and interference, as well as the filmmaker’s own shifting focus. When RKO brought the radio and stage sensation to Hollywood, he was given unprecedented creative control, but Citizen Kane’s thinly veiled attacks on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst made that film a target of his boycott and ad blackouts, and though reviews were ecstatic, it ended up firmly in the red. Its financial failure was one of the reasons why the filmmaker’s primary champion at the studio, president George Schaefer, was asked to resign during Ambersons’ post-production. Welles, meanwhile, had hurried off to Brazil after finishing his cut of the film with editor Robert Wise; at the urging of the government, he had agreed to produce and direct a documentary film called It’s All True there. He planned to fine-tune the film with Wise long distance; instead, after a bad preview screening, the studio ordered Wise to chop out more than forty minutes, and they reshot a happy ending without the director’s involvement. No prints of Welles’ original version survive, and it remains one of the most desired partially-lost films of all time.

Sunset Blvd.

Billy Wilder’s 1950 film is still one of the darkest self-satires Hollywood has ever made; it was also one of the first films to tinker with the narrator convention by having its story told by a character who, it is clear from the beginning, has expired. But the opening scenes, in which William Holden’s Joe Gillis sets up the story as we see his body floating in Norma Desmond’s pool, weren’t how the film initially began. Wilder was nuts about his original opening sequence, a morgue scene in which Gillis’ body rolls in and shares death stories with other corpses via voice-over. But preview audiences didn’t know what the hell to make of that, and ended up laughing uproariously at a scene Wilder hadn’t intended as broadly comic. The film’s release was delayed for several months while Wilder went back and reshot the ending that made the final version, but the morgue sequence was never seen again. (And in an interesting footnote, Sam Mendes shot a similar opening and conclusion to American Beauty, in which Kevin Spacey’s character dreams of flying over his suburb and, later, his daughter and her boyfriend are convicted of his murder. Though Mendes has discussed those deleted scenes at length, they too have never appeared on DVD.)

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Stanley Kubrick was a notorious tinkerer who often removed scenes from his films — sometimes even after release — and made them disappear. He yanked twenty-some minutes out of 2001 in the two days between its premiere and its release; he cut a closing hospital scene from The Shining a week after the film hit theaters (projectionists were instructed to physically remove it and return it to Warner Brothers); and, most famously, he cut an entire comic set piece from the end of Dr. Strangelove. The film originally ended with an elaborate and silly pie-fight sequence in the War Room, and while stories vary as to why it was cut (mostly questions of tone and losing track of who was who), the most intriguing is that it included the following line of dialogue, after the president (Peter Sellers) was struck full in the face with a pie: “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!” The first test screening was scheduled for November 22, 1963. Whatever the reason for the excision of the scene, it was cut and replaced with stock footage of nuclear explosions. True to Kubrick’s form (with the exception of 2001), the footage disappeared; stills from the scene have appeared in the years since, but the pie fight scene (along with the hospital scene in Shining) hasn’t been seen since Kubrick disposed of it.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

As we’ve discussed before, the major studios spent much of the back half of the 1960s trying desperately to recreate the success of The Sound of Music, and mostly failed badly. Legendary musical director Vincente Minelli was brought in to direct the film adaptation of this 1965 stage hit (it was his first musical in a decade, and the second-to-last film he made); he made the picture, which co-starred Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson, as a lavish, three-hour extravaganza for road-show release. But by the time the film was ready for release, so many high-dollar musicals had failed against the low-budget likes of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H that they forced the filmmaker to cut nearly an hour from the film’s running time, including a duet between the stars. The film broke even, but only the music tracks for the deleted scenes have survived.

Annie Hall

Like Kubrick, Woody Allen has never been one for sharing his scraps (or, really, his process) with audiences; he never does commentary tracks or includes deleted scenes on his DVDs. Of all of his films, the one we’d most love to see in its embryonic form is his 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall, which was initially a very different movie. Originally titled Anhedonia (a clinical term for the inability to experience pleasure), it took the film’s stream of consciousness structure much further, going into the nooks and crannies of its maker’s (and protagonist’s) mind. In that form, Alvy Singer’s romance with Annie Hall was only one of the story’s many threads. But when he put together the original two-plus hour cut, as Allen explained (in a vintage interview seen in Woody Allen: A Documentary), “the relationship was so strong that nobody wanted to see what went on in my mind — they wanted to get back to the story of the two people.” No doubt he made the right call — but we’d still love to see all that other stuff.

The Big Chill

It’s well known by now that a young Kevin Costner played the corpse being dressed in the opening credits of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 comedy/drama. But it was supposed to be a much larger role — Costner’s character of Alex, whose suicide brings the film’s ensemble together, was intended to be seen in several flashback scenes with the rest of the cast. But after the film was assembled, Kasdan decided that the flashbacks didn’t work, and set the film entirely in the present (he gave Costner a showcase role in his next film, Silverado, to make up for it). Surprisingly, those scenes have never turned up on the film’s DVD special editions, and Kasdan has steadfastly refused to show them.

The Breakfast Club

Writer/director John Hughes originally envisioned The Breakfast Club as a bigger, broader, harder-edged picture; his director’s cut ran two and a half hours, which he then trimmed to the 97-minute release version. That version reportedly contained a trippy dream sequence for Alison, a scene in which Mr. Vernon spies on female faculty member swimming, a sexier version of Claire and Bender’s seven minutes in heaven, and much more. Hughes told Premiere magazine that the studio destroyed the negatives, and that he owned the only complete print of that 150-minute cut, which Ally Sheedy confirmed at a 2010 anniversary screening after Hughes passed. That would explain why Universal hasn’t done yet another DVD special edition of it; what remains to be seen is if the filmmaker’s widow might finally let that version see the light of day. (Hughes also reportedly shot enough material for a three-hour version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. We’d pay good money to get a look at that.)

Those are the extended versions of great movies we’d like to see… what are yours?