A 35mm print of an early Orson Welles film long believed lost turned up in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy. Welles scholar and collaborator Joseph McBride analyzes the film’s style, history, and production, the still-puzzling circumstances of its discovery, and its place in the work of one of cinema’s titans. This article was originally published on April 7, 2014, but has been updated by the author since the work print of the film and an edited version have gone online and further information has become available about one of the mysteries surrounding the film’s survival.
Orson Welles’s lifelong love of what he considered innocent entertainment – also manifest in his fascination with magic and vaudeville and early cinema – drew the young director in 1938 to William Gillette’s energetically silly but nimble and adroitly conceived (if also casually racist) 1894 farce Too Much Johnson as a vehicle for his Mercury Theatre. Gillette, most famous for his long-running stage rendition of Sherlock Holmes, was borrowing from a French farce called La Plantation Thomassin for Too Much Johnson. Welles’s plan to use silent film interludes with the play was not the first time this kind of blending of cinema and theater had been tried, but it was experimental nonetheless, as Welles always was. Simon Callow somewhat disparagingly argues in the first volume of his Welles biography that Welles always felt adrift as a theater director unless he had a “concept” he could play with; that may be only partially true, but it helps explain this particular attempt to mix media for stylistic and comic effect. And one of Welles’s early Hollywood projects, as the director told Peter Bogdanovich, would have been a film about the silent period. He was spellbound by the movies of his childhood and suitably appreciative of the artistry of that first era of filmmaking, as well as saddened by the neglect of the films and filmmakers who led the way, pioneers to whom he gravitated during his own early days in Hollywood.
So Welles’s pre-Hollywood filmmaking experimentation in Too Much Johnson was a youthful tribute not only to the spirited tradition of exuberant low comedy but also to the past of the medium he was about to enter. Welles was always enamored of the past, though more, he said, of the mythical past we prefer to revere in fantasy than the actual messy past that was, e.g., “Merrie Old England” and “Camelot” rather than the real England of those days. He explores that theme in deeply personal ways in The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight, and Too Much Johnson is also reflective of his obsession with bygone times, cultural mores, and means of expression.
Using an exuberantly naughty sex farce from the Victorian era (complete with repeated phallic jokes around the name “Johnson”) as a vehicle for a late-1930s stage production was also a means of having sport with sexual anxieties at a time when the twenty-three-year-old Welles was himself an energetic philanderer like the play’s central character, a dapper New York lawyer,
Augustus Billings, who pretends he is named Alfred (Al) Johnson. Billings is deftly played by the suave young Joseph Cotten in the recently rediscovered film segments intended to accompany the stage production of Too Much Johnson. It’s refreshing to see in this early work the overt sexual focus that would surface again in Welles’s later films, in what my 2006 book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career calls his “Oja [Kodar] period.” That is a nod to the influence of the actress, writer, and sculptor who was his personal companion and professional collaborator from 1962 until his death in 1985. Sexual themes became far more prevalent in the later Welles work (such as The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, and the unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep, and The Dreamers) than they were in most of his professional film work from the 1940s and ’50s. The features and television shows from his middle years tend to be somewhat modest, even puritanical, in presenting the sexual intrigue that sometimes helps fuel his stories, or turns violent and grotesque in certain films, but there’s a youthful playfulness about the treatment of sex in Too Much Johnson that is a sheer delight. The way Billings’s infidelity with a saucy young married woman, Clairette Dathis (Arlene Francis), results in a frantic, prolonged chase all the way from New York to Cuba also drolly satirizes the exhausting toll sexual infidelities can bring to the participants, especially in a hypocritically puritanical but still sexually lively time and place such as the film’s setting of 1910 New York.
The myth Welles liked to foster was that he had begun as a cinematic virgin in 1940-41 with Citizen Kane, a tall tale that is part of what I like to call a director’s “creation myth” to wow people with what a genius a supposedly first-time director is (e.g., Frank Capra claimed he found his first job as a director by responding to a newspaper “column” in San Francisco in 1921, but I found in my research for my biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success that he had been working for several years in the business before that). The creation myth fostered by Welles was dispelled by my discovery in 1970 (thanks to a tip from my film professor at the University of Wisconsin, Russell Merritt) of his 1934 short The Hearts of Age at the Greenwich, Connecticut, Public Library. Welles would moan periodically to his cinematographer Gary Graver, “Why did Joe have to discover that film?” In my Spring 1970 Film Quarterly article, “Welles Before Kane,” I reported on that discovery and analyzed the short film at length, while also mentioning Too Much Johnson and another stage-and-film hybrid of Welles’s, the 1939 vaudeville show The Green Goddess. The article was published before I met Welles in August 1970, just before we began working together on The Other Side of the Wind, in which I play a satirical version of myself as an earnest young film critic.
During our first extended conversation, Welles claimed that The Hearts of Age was simply a spoof of avant-garde cinema, particularly Jean Cocteau’s surrealistic 1930 film Le sang d’une poète (Blood of a Poet), but though the parodistic elements in Hearts are obvious (camera trickery, nods to the Keystone Kops, and other youthful pranks), other parts seem at least marginally more serious, with Welles playing a figure of Death, looking like a cross between Dr. Caligari and a comic Irishman from the vaudeville stage. Contrary to his claims of innocence, The Hearts of Age shows that Welles by the age of nineteen was cognizant enough of certain key works of avant-garde cinema, such as the Cocteau film and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Un Chien Andalou, to be able to play off them with some knowingness and cleverness. As I reported, he had also experimented with cinema before that by filming a dress rehearsal of his May 1933 Todd School production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in color and without sound but with narration added; that film apparently is lost. Welles speaks in his interview book with Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, of an even earlier misadventure in “documentary” filmmaking when he visited Vatican City as a boy (evidently in 1929, not, as Welles implies, around 1924). And though Welles liked to claim he was not influenced by German Expressionist cinema, despite the evidence of these early works and Kane itself, I believe that the influence of German Expressionism came to him more through Hilton Edwards, whose stage direction was heavily influenced by the German and other continental directors of the 1920s, an influence Welles in turn imbibed while apprenticing with Edwards at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the early 1930s. Another early stylistic influence on Welles that is apparent in Too Much Johnson is René Clair’s zany, free-wheeling 1928 silent comedy The Italian Straw Hat, based on the 1851 play by Eugene Labiche and Marc-Michel, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, that Welles and Edwin Denby adapted for the Mercury Theatre in 1936 as Horse Eats Hat.
Too Much Johnson is far more elaborate than any of Welles’s other early film ventures. He reportedly shot as much as four and a half hours of footage during a ten-day period in July 1938, although only sixty-six minutes of partially edited 35mm footage survives in an apparent work print (one missing section tantalizingly described by Welles to biographer Frank Brady used miniatures to introduce the Cuban section with a fog-shrouded plantation house, a volcano, and a steamboat, a precursor of both Kane‘s opening and his unrealized 1939 feature film Heart of Darkness). But a sixty-six-minute film can be considered a feature of sorts even if some of the length is made up of repeated takes and though it was to have been shown in three parts, as a lengthy prologue and shorter introductions to the second and third acts of Too Much Johnson at the August 1938 stage production at the Stony Creek Theater in Connecticut, a summer stock house at the time (now The Puppet House Theater). The abbreviated two-week run of the play that began August 16 (sans film segments) was not a success and ended the plan of Welles and his producing partner John Houseman (who not only plays a Keystone Kop in the film but also doubles in a duel) to start the Mercury’s fall season in New York with Too Much Johnson.
Fortunately, the film has come down to us mostly in remarkably good shape. Ten reels of nitrate film, in varying lengths (not a negative but a positive print), were found in Italy under somewhat cloudy circumstances (more on that later), and a duplicate negative used for making new copies was made from the rediscovered print, mostly by the Cinema Arts laboratory in Pennsylvania. The rediscovered footage totals less than 6,000 feet, about a fourth of the material originally shot; the rest, it’s presumed, was discarded by Welles during the initial editing in 1938. The existing film was premiered on October 9, 2013, at Italy’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. While presenting the West Coast premiere at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California, on March 3, 2014, Paolo Cherchi Usai – senior curator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and co-founder of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto – said that one reel that had severe nitrate decomposition was saved (other than fifteen feet that had to be discarded) by splendid work at the Haghefilm Digitaal in Amsterdam, the leading laboratory in the world for the delicate process of rescuing decomposing film via a chemical process of rehydration. The restoration, which was otherwise funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation and the Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia, was carried out by the Eastman House in conjunction with the Pordenone film club Cinemazero and the Cineteca del Friuli, which are partners in the Italian festival. The original work print is being housed at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center of the Eastman House because of the nitrate preservation facilities there. It is likely that Welles intended to use intertitles when the film was to have been shown at Stony Creek, but the existing print has none (there are some brief handwritten notes by Welles between scenes, apparently about footage he wanted inserted). There was to have been live music by the composer and author Paul Bowles, later most famous for his novel The Sheltering Sky; Bowles turned the accompaniment he had written for Welles into “Music for a Farce,” an eight-part 1938 composition for a small orchestra.
I asked Jeff Lambert, assistant director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, about a report that Welles could not show the film as part of that stage production because it was belatedly discovered that Paramount held the film rights (the studio had made a now-lost 1919 feature directed by Donald Crisp). Lambert said that is not a problem for showing the Welles footage now. The foundation reports the claim that Paramount quashed Welles’s film adaptation “could not be substantiated by Paramount in a recent search of its archives.” Various Welles biographers are skeptical of the different excuses offered in 1938 for not showing the film during the out-of-town tryout of the play; these also include a claim that the Connecticut theater, which originally had been a silent film house, The Lyric Theater, wasn’t equipped to show 35mm film. More skeptical observers believe that Welles had overextended himself by trying to put together a complicated stage-and-film farce in only about a month. The film was shot during the same hectic period when the Mercury inaugurated its ambitious Mercury Theatre on the Air CBS Radio series, then titled First Person Singular, with its memorable production of Dracula on July 11. Lambert said the current plans for a wider distribution of Too Much Johnson are to make it available online at the foundation’s website, www.filmpreservation.org, for everyone to see, perhaps later in 2014.[AUGUST 2014 POSTSCRIPT: The work print went online at that site on August 21, 2014. Also included there is a 34-minute edited version put together by film historian Scott Simmon with the help of research into the play scripts in the Welles/Mercury papers at the Lilly Library of Indiana University, Bloomington. Both versions now have music by Michael D. Mortilla. Simmon’s edited version is a reasonable facsimile of how Welles might have finished the film segments for presentation with the stage play. While adding some explanatory intertitles (comprising four minutes of the running time), Simmon eliminates the frequent repetitions of takes and some of the differing angles Welles shot while working through the filming of scenes, as well as some clumsy or irrelevant material of the kind found in any rough cut. The Simmon edit also effectively rearranges some material in the work print that had been out of order in the storyline, which suggests that Welles simply had run out of time to finish his editing. Simmon commendably preserves the characteristically fast pace of Welles’s cutting style, particularly in this silent-film pastiche, and the director’s penchant for conceiving sequences with a rich variety of angles from often intentionally jarring perspectives. And by eliminating redundancies and false starts, etc., the edited version is more coherent and entertaining, without losing anything of major importance (although I missed a little extra bit of erotic leg-kicking byplay between Joseph Cotten and Arlene Francis and a silhouetted shot of Howard L. Smith watching the bay in Cuba). The Cuban sequences, in which Welles’s imagination seems to flag, are much tighter, to their benefit, but the wonderfully inventive New York section is allowed to play out much more fully. In Simmon’s edit, the exquisite rhythms of Welles’s blocking and editing, already apparent in this early stage of his film work and always one of the major pleasures of watching his films, come through even more strongly. It is good that the Film Preservation Foundation has made the full work print available as well as the shorter edit; the only downside to including Simmon’s version is that it might wind up being mistakenly regarded by some people as the “definitive” version, although it is only a scholarly approximation of what Welles might have done with the material. The history of Welles’s career has often been marred by such misapprehensions.]
In my 1972 book Orson Welles, which reproduces some photos of the shooting of Too Much Johnson, including a picture of Welles with a camera, I mistakenly reported that the film was shot in 16mm. However, Cherchi Usai said the print they found was in 35mm nitrate, and the reports about the film having been shot in 16mm are wrong. A photo of the shooting, he noted, actually shows the filmmakers using a Bell & Howell Eyemo 35mm camera, which looks something like a 16mm camera (the 35mm Eyemo was widely used by newsreel cameramen, including those documenting World War II). Another, even odder error has long existed about the identity of the cameraman who shot Too Much Johnson. Drawing on 1938 sources, I reported in 1972 (as other writers have since then) that the film was shot by two cameramen, Paul Dunbar and Harry Dunham. In fact, according to the extensive research conducted by the Eastman House, “Paul Dunbar” never existed. Cherchi Usai said that evidently stemmed from a mispronunciation somewhere along the way of the name of the actual cameraman, Dunham, whose name is marked on the heads and/or tails of the print’s film leaders. An old friend and colleague of Paul Bowles, Dunham was a documentary and newsreel cameraman who had made a short film in China in 1937 about Mao Zedong’s Red Army, China Strikes Back, and made campaign films for U.S. Communist Party presidential candidate Earl Browder as well as a 1936 art film, Venus and Adonis, with music by Bowles; Dunham was killed in a World War II bombing raid over Borneo in 1943. Cherchi Usai said Welles had called Dunham in Paris and invited him to shoot Too Much Johnson. Dunham’s camerawork for the film has the rich texture one associates with the finest uses of nitrate black-and-white 35mm from the silent days. Thankfully left in its original state by the restorers, with no attempt at reediting or altering the grading of images, Too Much Johnson captures a variety of lighting effects and times of day and, perhaps most nostalgically, immortalizes a bygone cityscape of old New York. [AUGUST 2014 POSTSCRIPT: Some grading to lighten or darken images and make the film look more consistent is evident in the Simmon edit; that work presents only benefits for the viewer.]
Welles updated the play to 1910, shortly before his birth in 1915 (significantly, this is around the time Ambersons ends, in 1912). It’s a well-known psychological syndrome that we are often most nostalgic for the period just before we were born, the time we did not get to see but when our parents were young. The youthful prodigy sought out for filming parts of New York City that were already very old and antiquated, even including one neighborhood dating to the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, what was in 1938 the Little Syria section (or Syrian Quarter) of Manhattan’s Lower West Side. That neighborhood no longer exists and now is part of the land used for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Welles also staged part of a chase on the fire escape of a building whose side contains a large sign proclaiming it was “ESTABLISHED IN 1862.” Other locations include dilapidated tenements with intricate webwork of fire escapes and eccentrically angled rooftops, and market districts with weathered brick warehouses, deep wooden promenades, and dusty alleyways. This sense of vanishing antiquity gives Too Much Johnson a haunting documentary quality along with its farcical aspects, making it a wondrous time capsule of old New York.
As Cherchi Usai reported in his commentary along with the film at the Pacific Film Archive, the restorers managed to identify many of the settings, almost all of which are long gone now. The buildings have been lost to modernization of the kind Welles decries in Ambersons. Perhaps most fascinating is the film’s use of the intricately shaped rooftops and windows of the Little Syria section for part of the prolonged chase of Cotten’s Augustus Billings by the cuckolded French husband, Leon Dathis, played with relished outrage by Edgar Barrier. Other scenes were shot in the Washington Market (now the meatpacking district), Greenwich Village, and Battery Park, and on a pier on the Hudson River. With his many takes elaborating on the chase in continually fresh visual ways, Welles revels in the elaborate roofs and chimneys and the intricate play of architectural shapes he uses as settings for the tomfoolery. The baroque visual style we associate with the mature Welles is seen here in somewhat embryonic but already well-developing form as he plays with tilted angles and an adventurous variety of vantage points on his locations.
He and Dunham employ what would become another Wellesian trademark, extreme contrasts between foreground and background in shots with considerable depth of field. That is a device most associated with Gregg Toland, the master cinematographer of Citizen Kane, who first noticed Welles’s talent when he attended a performance of his Mercury Caesar in 1937 and was impressed by the bold slashes of its “Nuremberg”-style lighting. In Too Much Johnson, we often see shots of Cotten or Barrier crawling around a rooftop in the foreground while the other actor is frantically running across another rooftop in the background on a different plane of action, oblivious to the other participant in this hilariously elongated and circular chase. Another sequence shows Cotten and Barrier pursuing each other confusedly, shown mostly from above, in the mazelike Washington Market setting through piles of crates and barrels, a chase in which the pursued often absurdly becomes the pursuer. We are reminded of the final sequence at Xanadu in Citizen Kane, of the camera tracking above the crates and boxes containing the detritus of Charles Foster Kane’s existence, and of Jorge Luis Borges’s celebrated comment on Kane, which applies metaphorically to all of Welles’s work, “In one of the tales of Chesterton, ‘The Head of Caesar,’ I believe, the hero observes that nothing is more frightening than a centreless labyrinth. This film is just like that labyrinth.”
Welles’s penchant for high overhead angles looking down from a cool, godlike perspective on tiny figures scurrying around, antlike, is already on full view in Too Much Johnson. He shoots most of the bravura four-minute “hats off” sequence (as Cherchi Usai calls it) from overhead angles that lend a fascinating formalism to the wonderfully choreographed geometrical chasing-around. Dathis is running amok, knocking off the straw hats and bowlers of anonymous men to see if they might be Billings, whom he knows only from the top half of a ripped photograph (early in the film, Dathis surprises his wife almost in flagrante delicto and struggles with her over the photo of Billings, managing to get away with only a torn upper half that triggers the chase). Welles was already a master at choreographing actors in his stage work and was adept at handling crowd scenes; and he once said, correctly, that in moving the actors in relation to the camera, “I have no peer.”
In this tour de force sequence, about twenty men are being accosted by Dathis as he knocks off their hats in turn, and they round on him in anger and start chasing him around in delightfully curving wave patterns through the mostly straw hats littering the pavement. Welles occasionally cuts to a ground-level angle to show the wildly zigzagging Dathis and the other men arranged in quickly cut angular patterns. These compositions often foreshadow the intricate compositions of the early scenes depicting the life of the town in Ambersons; the later film even includes a “hats off” shot of Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) having his top hat being knocked off by a snowball. Now that we know about the rescued “hats off” sequence in Too Much Johnson – directly influenced, Cherchi Usai thinks, by a lost 1927 Laurel & Hardy comedy for Hal Roach, Hats Off – we can see some of the roots of the nostalgic portrait of a bygone time in Ambersons, just as the use of actual urban settings in Too Much Johnson to serve as the stylized backdrop for baroque pursuits points forward to Welles’s non-studio independent work and his film noir style in such modern films as The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, and Touch of Evil.
According to Welles biographer Frank Brady, who interviewed Welles about Too Much Johnson for a 1978 American Film article entitled “The Lost Film of Orson Welles,” Welles and his staff immersed themselves in Mack Sennett, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin films in “a screening room in midtown Manhattan” while preparing for Too Much Johnson (Brady’s book Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles  repeats much of the information from his article). Those cinematic influences are strong and obvious. Lloyd’s Safety Last clearly inspired many of the rooftop chases, though Welles’s derring-do with Cotten and Barrier had to be more real, since he was working on a low budget (the entire stage and film production was budgeted at $10,000). Welles told Brady, “One direct influence on me and on Too Much Johnson was Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. I loved that film and think it was one of the greatest, simplest comedies ever made.”
Others have noted the influence of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1923 comedy Glumov’s Diary, the Soviet director’s first venture into cinema, similarly made as part of a stage production. Integrated into his modernized staging of Ostrovskiy’s nineteenth-century play The Wise Man, Glumov’s Diary contains a broad mixture of rooftop and street antics with actors mixing it up with street bystanders, plenty of farcical hat business, and playful clown-faced mugging in close-up. In Too Much Johnson you can also see particularly vivid traces of a filmmaker Welles revered, Buster Keaton, and his glorious Cops in the repeated shots of empty or virtually empty cityscapes into which the action gracefully erupts – characters running in and out of frame, a horse cart inadvertently rescuing the hero, and creative use of street geography. There’s a brilliant sequence in the Welles film (one of its few uses of camera trickery) with people and the horse cart chasing each other from all sides, in and out of frame, left to right and then right to left and vice versa, using stop-motion photography with a static camera in long shot, followed by closer perspectives on the action. The sometimes hazy cinematography of these dusty old buildings is beautiful in its own right, as was the look of Keaton’s films (The General was another of Welles’s favorites, and some of the culs-de-sac here resemble Sherlock Jr.). Welles loves old buildings just as he loves old people. He knows how to transform a cityscape into a place of magic with his endlessly creative geography and editing and camera angles.
The acting is perfectly judged farcical behavior. The handsome young Cotten is suave and not only a daredevil (apparently actually doing some hairy stunts on tall buildings) but also a center of gravity for the story and its antic carryings-on. The play by Gillette comments about Billings: “NOTE. – Endeavor to work BILLINGS on the easy, nonchalant idea, as far as possible, confident, cool, not too anxious – always confident he’ll pull through all right.” We get some of that sense of tranquility from the character in the film, although Welles, already characteristically, pauses for relatively few close-ups of Cotten’s and other people’s faces, favoring more dynamic shots with two or more actors in wider or deeper settings.
Cotten’s somewhat hapless bumbling as a would-be dashing romantic swain and his reckless attempts to escape from the consequences of his tryst can be seen as a rehearsal for his thwarted roué Jed Leland in Kane (hopelessly in love with Emily Monroe Norton at dancing school – “I was very graceful” – before she bypasses him for Charlie Kane, to whom Leland transfers his love) and for his tragically bumbling young inventor Eugene Morgan in Ambersons, whose emotional life is ruined because he gets drunk one night and falls into a bass viol while trying to serenade the richest girl in town, Isabel Amberson, “makin’ a clown of himself in her own front yard.” There’s a poignant charm and constant tinge of melancholy to Cotten’s portrayals in Welles’s work. And Too Much Johnson helped make him a star even before Kane, since Katharine Hepburn saw him in the brief run of the play in Connecticut and chose him as her once and future husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, in the long-running stage production of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (even if he lost the film role to a bigger name, Cary Grant).
Edgar Barrier makes a suitably ludicrous, mustache-twirling stage villain, described by Billings in the play as “One of those crazy Frenchmen – wine business – importer and all that” who actually imports his “French” wine from San Francisco, while his wife is cheating on him back east with Billings. The play script adapted by Welles has Billings, using his cigar for Lubitschean innuendo, tell another character, “Every time he went West [PUFFS], we stayed East.” Arlene Francis, long before her reincarnation as a glib TV performer and her wisecracking role as James Cagney’s wryly long-suffering wife in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, is startlingly fresh and sexy as Clairette, Billings’s corset-clad paramour. The “sex scene” of Cotten and Francis writhing around with a giant plant getting in their way is quite hysterical.
Welles’s first wife, Virginia Nicolson (acting under her stage name, Anna Stafford), is decorative in stylish hats but has a mostly thankless, underdeveloped role (at least in the film segments) as the well-to-do bride, Leonore Faddish, being brought to Cuba by her father, Francis Faddish (Eustace Wyatt), in an arranged marriage (mistakenly) with the villainous plantation overseer, Joseph Johnson (Howard L. Smith). This casting and situation perhaps has some autobiographical overtones for Welles, who plucked Virginia from her affluent Chicago family and did not entirely meet the approval of her businessman grandfather, who offered him a job as a stockbroker. The gadabout Billings pretends to his mistress that he is the plantation owner, but he doesn’t realize that his friend who owned the plantation has died, and that the place is being run by the beefy Smith, who brandishes a whip and struts around like an early draft for Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (in the Gillette play, the overseer crudely lords it over his black workers, who are called “niggers,” but those characters have been eliminated from the film by Welles, who was always sensitive to racial issues; instead, this Johnson seems abstractly evil).
The first segment of the three-part Too Much Johnson shows much more evidence of editing by Welles than the other two. Contemporary reports in various magazines (including The New Yorker) refer to Welles somewhat frantically editing the film in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel in New York as his marriage to Virginia was foundering and the original production plans for the play were falling apart. Welles wanted to use the first part of the Too Much Johnson film as a prologue giving backstory to the play. Cherchi Usai thinks this would probably have run about twenty minutes; the repetitive, though constantly inventive, quality of some of the footage suggests it would have been tightened somewhat if Welles had finished editing it. Welles, however, told Brady that he planned the prologue (“in effect, the whole first act”) to run as long as thirty-five minutes (it takes up forty-seven minutes in the work print). [AUGUST 2014 POSTSCRIPT: In Simmon’s edit, the New York prologue runs twenty-five minutes and seems just right at that length.] And Welles explained to Bogdanovich, “Too Much Johnson had an elaborate farce plot that required a lot of old-fashioned, boring exposition to set it up. The idea was to take all that out and do the explaining in a movie. That way you could start right with the slamming doors.” As often has been the case with Welles, the differing estimates about length no doubt reflect the constant fluidity of his editing process, his penchant for frequently changing his mind about editing and reworking his films, sometimes even after their release (as, for example, he did more than once with Othello). This trait of Welles’s has created dilemmas for people trying to reconstruct his unfinished films, especially The Other Side of the Wind.
The characters’ long journey through the streets of New York in the prologue of Too Much Johnson also includes an eccentrically filmed suffragist parade, shot mostly from behind the spectators’ backs and legs as Barrier pursues Cotten, while women and a single man carry such signs as “LET US VOTE” and “LIBERTY EQUALITY FEMININITY.” Cotten then joins the end of the parade and carries a sign (“WOMEN’S RIGHTS/We want them”) to escape from the crowd and onto the dock where a cruise ship takes off for Cuba (called in the film the S.S. Munificent, but actually a combination of two boats that usually took tourists to the Statue of Liberty, the S.S. Bear Mountain and the S.S. Yankee). Then the stage portion of Too Much Johnson would have begun with Barrier jumping off the ship onto the stage set of the deck.
There follow in the work print two lengthy film assemblages set in Cuba, shot at a quarry near the Hudson River at Tomkins Cove, New York, with some fake palm trees and a single white horse for Cotten to ride as he dandyishly carries a white parasol and wears a white hat. These sections (the first focusing on a duel on a hilltop, and the second on a struggle in a pond between Cotten and Barrier) contain the most leisurely longueurs and the least visible editing in Too Much Johnson. No doubt these parts would have been subjected to a lot of editing by Welles; throughout his career he liked to trim his most striking shots as short as possible (with the exception of his contrasting long takes in his Hollywood studio films), and he declared once that the difference between the men and the boys in editing is the ability to throw out your most beautiful shots.
Some of the existing shots in the Cuba sequences are indeed rather beautiful. Welles uses some mysterious-looking sunset shots with trees and a plantation-hatted man silhouetted in the foreground and light glittering off the water to help set the mood. The long shots often comedically show frantic action (especially the mistaken duel between Barrier and Smith, with Cotten desperately intervening) with the characters extremely far from the camera at the top of a hill. Welles is clearly using this section of the film to add scenic values to his stage-and-film production. There are many repeated takes in the Cuba sections. The camera is moved closer to the dueling, and then the men run down the hill around a pond and wind up in it, flailing around. We see repeated two-shots of Cotten and Barrier’s heads in the brackish pond, looking realistically bedraggled, with Cotten (who reportedly complained about the multiple takes in the muck) forlornly raising his umbrella and the two men sinking into the water. It seems Welles wanted to use those shots to help end the filmed sequences, followed by a couple of cuts to longer and longer vistas of the men vanishing into the water.
As Welles described this footage to me in 1970, “We created a sort of dream Cuba in New York.” Another critic who saw the film earlier derided this comment when he gave me his account of the footage, but I think if the sequence had been cut fast and short as Welles usually did, it would have had that effect. [AUGUST 2014 POSTSCRIPT: In the Simmon edit, the effect still is not quite of a “dream Cuba,” but of a rough-and-ready evocation of a tropical island.] Welles suggests Cuba in broad strokes and with extreme perspectives and ludicrous action that would have been funny to witness from a fixed seat in a theater during a play. The contrast between the rustic locale of “Cuba” and the urban streets and boat dock of the prologue would have been effective, making the production seem to open up in fresh-aired expansiveness. But it’s hard to know how the whole production would have come together, since it never was exhibited in the form Welles intended. Cherchi Usai said the Eastman House is thinking of mounting a production in Rochester incorporating the film sequences. Those would have to be edited for a stage production, although Cherchi Usai stressed that the original Welles work print would always be archivally preserved without changes at the Eastman House and that the editing would be done on a high-quality digital transfer. What he calls this “imaginary reconstruction” may also play at the Pordenone festival and “wherever there’s interest.” [AUGUST 2014 POSTSCRIPT: Simmon notes on the Film Preservation Foundation website, “Of course, there are any number of ways that the films might now be pulled together from the partially edited footage. . . . Now that the work print is available for streaming and downloading, let’s hope that other reconstructions will follow and inspire a staging of the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 multimedia production.”]
So Too Much Johnson is a major find for Welles scholarship, showing not only how actively interested he was in film at age twenty-three (contrary to his later denials) but also how clever he was with the medium at that early age and how sophisticated he was in pastiching bygone film style. One touch I found especially enjoyable is the way he filmed the opening scenes in the homes of the Faddishes and the Dathises on an outdoor stage, on an empty lot in Yonkers, with no ceilings (contrary to what he later so famously did with the ceilinged sets in Kane) and with wind ruffling the window curtains and plants and costumes, as was common in early Hollywood and New York cinema shot on outdoor platforms. You can even see part of the door of one room swaying in the wind. As was also the case with many “interiors” in early silent film, the lighting is obviously natural in these scenes – gloriously so, for as the great cinematographer James Wong Howe put it, “God is the greatest cameraman, and he has only one light source.” Welles is having fun with a quirky convention that reveals a magician’s tricks. He clearly is familiar with D. W. Griffith’s brilliant early Biograph shorts, which generally filmed their interior scenes outside, with wind rippling the tablecloths and drapery.
The economy of action within each frame in Too Much Johnson – and the comical elaboration of gesture by the actors, aided by an occasionally undercranked camera – helps add to the sense of a knowing and loving pastiche rather than an ignorant mockery, as was too often the case with other filmmakers trying to imitate silent films. Welles loves the silent medium, just as he loves the old costumes, cars, ships, horses, and buildings he films. The unbridled joy he took in filming Too Much Johnson is evident in a three-minute 16mm film about its making, shot by a Mercury investor, Myron Falk, and held by the University of California Berkeley Art Museum/PFA Collection (excerpts can be viewed online at www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/falk-home-movie). The young filmmaker, wearing a big straw hat, tie, and braces, and carrying a cigar, waves his actors around strenuously at the “Cuban” quarry, thoroughly relishing his role behind the camera. That joy in filmmaking, which I witnessed as constantly in evidence during the six years I worked with Welles as an actor in The Other Side of the Wind, is conspicuously absent from most of the skewed fictionalized portrayals of Welles, which tend to depict him on set as a dour and forbidding ogre, which was far from the case but befits the bias still largely prevalent in the American mainstream media against him as a maverick artist.
There remains something of a mystery about how Too Much Johnson survived after all those years of being thought lost. I wrote in my “Welles Before Kane” article, “Welles has [a print of the film], but he says that it is not worth seeing without the play.” I am not sure now what my source was for that claim, but Welles told Bogdanovich around that time, “Hey, do you know, that film still exists! . . . Somewhere. I think in Madrid.” When I first met Welles, on August 21, 1970, I asked him about The Hearts of Age and Too Much Johnson. He told me Johnson had been burned up in a fire at his home outside Madrid about three weeks earlier that he said had also consumed several unpublished books and unproduced scripts. “It’s probably a good thing,” he said. “I never cared much for possessions, but over the years I accumulated a few. Now I can tell everybody how great those scripts were! I wish you could have seen Too Much Johnson, though. It was a beautiful film. We created a sort of dream Cuba in New York. I looked at it four years ago and the print was in wonderful condition. You know, I never [fully] edited it. I meant to put it together to give to Jo Cotten as a Christmas present one year, but I never got around to it.” Variety reported from Europe in August 1970, not long after I met Welles, that there had been a fire at his home in Madrid while the actor Robert Shaw was renting it.
I later came to wonder if that fire actually happened or if the damage was exaggerated and if the story was an excuse for Welles to hide or get rid of materials he didn’t want people to see for one reason or another. Those materials perhaps also included a book he reported having written about international government in the early 1950s but then destroyed; such a project could have contributed to his political problems during the blacklist years, and he was wary about his political involvements after that. He said in 1978, “I write in secret. I’ve got closets full of bad stuff.” That secretiveness also extended to many aspects of his film work; he made a habit of mislabeling film sequences so only he and his editor could identify them. The 1995 documentary film Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, co-directed (with Vassili Silovic) by Oja Kodar, casts doubt on the fire story involving Too Much Johnson by showing precious Welles photos and other materials, including film cans, seemingly being consumed in a fire, seen through a window, and then pulls back to reveal that it is only a scene being filmed on a sound stage. The narrator says over this, “Welles loved making up stories. But simply touch his life story, and legends invented by others come up. They become inextricably mixed up with his own overgrown story. For example, a fire is said to have destroyed his house in Spain. He’s said to have lost his dearest childhood keepsakes, photos, letters, documents and unfinished films. But his house is still standing, undamaged, in Madrid. Fact cannot be separated from fiction.” As the staged fire burns itself out, the film cans are shown to be undamaged.[AUGUST 2014 POSTSCRIPT: With the help of the Spanish Welles scholar Esteve Riambau, whose works include the 1993 book Orson Welles: Una España immortal with Welles’s former assistant Juan Cobos, I was able to learn more about the fire. Riambau turned up a lengthy report on the fire by Ana Alda from the August 4, 1970, issue of the Spanish newspaper Andalucia. According to that report, the fire, which took place early that month and was discovered by Robert Shaw’s wife, Mary Ure, when she got up to get a glass of water at 1:10 in the morning, took place when eleven people – Shaw, Ure, five of their eight children, and others in their retinue, as well as a caretaker – were staying at Welles’s home, Mi Gustos, in suburban Aravaca. Shaw was in Madrid starring with Telly Savalas and Stella Stevens in the film A Town Called Bastard (aka A Town Called Hell). Ure and the caretaker, Enrique Montero, put out the fire, whose origins are not disclosed in the article; the fire department was then summoned. The damage was confined to the study of the home. Alda reports that “more than a thousand books, most of them signed by their authors, were reduced to ashes.” Shaw also lost the manuscript of a film script he was adapting from a novel by John le Carré. Alda’s article does not mention any of Welles’s film prints being lost in the fire. [Cobos, a writer-director who worked for Welles in Spain as an assistant on Chimes at Midnight, told Riambau that the fire damage to the home was not extensive and that Welles kept his films in the basement, which served as his editing workshop, an area untouched by the fire. Parts of his long-in-the-works unfinished feature Don Quixote were among the surviving material. Whether Too Much Johnson was also there or not is unknown. It is possible that Welles already had carried the work print or sent it to Rome for purposes of editing and storage and lost track of it when he left for the U.S. earlier in 1970. So, thanks to help from Riambau and Cobos, we can now conclude that the “fire story” is partly true and partly mythical; it did not destroy any of Too Much Johnson, despite what Welles told me soon thereafter, perhaps sincerely, but perhaps adopting that as a convenient fiction to explain its missing status. (The National Film Preservation Foundation website erroneously and confusingly claims that “the single known copy reportedly burned” before the work print turned up in Italy.) The more precise information about the fire and about the work print’s rediscovery strengthen the impression that the negative had been lost or discarded long before 1970, and all that Welles had left was the work print that has recently been made public.]
Welles told Brady somewhat cryptically for his 1978 article that a print of Too Much Johnson had turned up in the late 1960s at his home outside Madrid: “I can’t remember whether I had it all along and dug it out of the bottom of a trunk, or whether someone brought it to me, but there it was. I screened it, and it was in perfect condition, with not a scratch on it, as though it had only been through a projector once or twice before. It had a fine quality. Cotten was magnificent, and I immediately made plans to edit it and send it to Jo as a birthday present. I then went off to act in a picture, possibly The Kremlin Letter [that film was shot in 1969 and released on February 1, 1970], and rented my house to Robert Shaw. Unfortunately, while I was gone, there was a fire, and almost everything I had was lost. Supposedly there are some of my belongings still intact, so it is possible, although highly unlikely, that the film still exists.” That last comment, somewhat out of keeping with his other remarks to Brady, lends credence to the theory that Welles may simply have hidden away the print. But then how and why did it wind up in Pordenone?
The story Cherchi Usai told in his Pacific Film Archive commentary on the film and its rediscovery, and press reports about the rediscovery, left some questions tantalizingly unresolved. Variety critic Jay Weissberg wrote from Pordenone in October 2013, “Alongside an appreciation of the find’s importance lies a nagging mystery: How did the reels get to Pordenone?” The National Film Preservation Foundation’s Lambert admitted to me that the rediscovery “is also confusing to us.” The foundation didn’t hear about the film’s rediscovery until early 2013, when the Eastman House came to them for funding. I called Cherchi Usai in April to ask further questions about the account of the rediscovery he had given at the PFA. Cherchi Usai said that the nitrate film work print had turned up abandoned in a Pordenone shipping warehouse in 2005 after having been transferred there from Rome and then Vicenza along with the other contents of a warehouse that had gone out of business. “We have no idea” why the film had been stored in the Rome warehouse, Cherchi Usai told me, although he speculated that Welles may have had it stored there, since he spent time in Rome in 1969-70. The 2013 book Welles in Italy by Alberto Anile (translated by Marcus Perryman) reports that Welles fled Rome in early 1970 when word of his long-running affair with Kodar hit the press. That could have caused him to hastily deposit materials in a warehouse before departing for France. But all the paperwork about the work print’s deposit in Rome has been lost. Cherchi Usai told me the work print bears evidence that Welles made a “faint attempt” at doing some additional editing in the 1960s on the prologue, possibly as part of his plan to give it to Cotten. The Eastman House has identified some of the splices as being from 1938 and others as being from a splicer used in the later period.
The manager of the Pordenone warehouse eventually brought the decaying nitrate footage to the attention of a part-time worker there, a cinephile and filmmaker named Mario Catto, who was a subscriber of Cinemazero. The manager said he was thinking of throwing the stinking cans into a dumpster. Catto alerted his friends at Cinemazero about the print’s existence. But it’s a sad irony that he died in 2012 without ever knowing he had found a lost Welles film. The find eventually (in December of that year) was verified with the help of former Welles film editor Ciro Giorgini in Rome, and only then did the restoration process begin.
The August 2013 press release from the Eastman House announcing the film’s rediscovery bought into the fire story that Welles had spun: “According to published sources, until now the only known print of Too Much Johnson had burnt in a fire that destroyed the home of Orson Welles in the outskirts of Madrid in 1970.” Since I was one of those early published sources – I had repeated what Welles had told me in the first edition of my critical study Orson Welles (1972) before beginning to doubt the story – I brought up the issue during Cherchi Usai’s question-and-answer period at the PFA in March 2014. I asked if he thought the story was true and/or if there might have been another print that survived. Cherchi Usai replied only, “I don’t see a reason why Orson Welles would lie about it.”
I followed up by offering my theory that Welles might have hidden away Too Much Johnson because he did not want people to know about his early work, just as he had regretted that I and Russell Merritt (who was seated in the audience at the PFA) had found The Hearts of Age and thereby dispelled the myth that Kane was his first film. Cherchi Usai simply shrugged. But when I discussed my theory with him again in April, he conceded that it was “plausible. Given the person, that’s not surprising.” In previous interviews, Cherchi Usai said, “We may never fully understand the mystery of why it was abandoned,” but that “The great thing about film history is that the key word is patience. Patience, persistence, research: we will gradually uncover bits and pieces of information and then what really matters to us is that the film exists.” Although the strange saga of Too Much Johnson is no longer as mysterious as it once was, part of it remains, as Andrew Sarris would put it, “a subject for further research.”
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all images included with this piece (primarily frame enlargements) are provided through the courtesy of George Eastman House & Cineteca del Friuli.