Jack Garner: Cinema gods smiling at Rochester on Wednesday

05:00 AM, Oct 13, 2013

Too Much Johnson (1938) is a silent, slapstick comedy by Orson Welles. (pHOTO provided by George Eastman House)/

Written By Jack Garner

The cinema gods will be smiling big-time on Rochester on Wednesday. On the same night, the George Eastman House is presenting — in a members-only screening — a long-lost film created by Orson Welles three years before Citizen Kane, and The Little is hosting the last and greatest of its four-film Alfred Hitchcock festival, the breathtaking Rear Window.

Eastman House members should definitely check out this extremely rare Welles opportunity. However, if you can’t get into the Dryden Wednesday night, console yourself with Hitch’s masterpiece.

Too Much Johnson, the Welles film, incorporates some 40 minutes of silent footage starring Welles Mercury Theatre cohorts Joseph Cotton, Arlene Frances and Ruth Ford, and will be accompanied by live piano from Philip C. Carli, and explanatory narration from senior film archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai.

Welles created Too Much Johnson as part of a stage-and-cinema project under his direction. It was designed to front the three acts of the play by then-noted playwright William Gillette. However, the play closed after failed out-of-town tryouts, and the film was considered lost. Decades later Welles found a clean copy in his possession in his home in Spain, only to have it lost in a house fire. Finally, another copy was discovered in a warehouse by the staff of Cinemazero, an art house in Pordenone, Italy.

They shipped the fragile nitrate print to Eastman House for meticulous restoration. “This is by far the most important film restoration by George Eastman House in a very long time,” Cherchi Usai says. The first showing was at Cinemazero earlier this month, and the U.S. premiere will be at the Dryden Theatre at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) stars Jimmy Stewart as wheelchair-bound photographer L.B. Jeffries, who uses his telephoto lens to watch various stories unfold among his neighbors in a half-dozen apartments outside his window. Since they’re all vignettes framed small within the context of the larger movie — similar to the picture-within-picture option on some of today’s television sets — Rear Window benefits from a large screen more than most classic films.

The mystery arises when Jeffries discovers suspicious behavior in an apartment across the courtyard and suspects the tenant may have murdered his wife. Add to that one of Hitchcock’s most delicious romances: The elegant Grace Kelly is Lisa Fremont, a Madison Avenue society woman who’s deeply in love with Jeffries. He feels the same, but sees little hope for their affair. Delightfully, the mystery and the romance dovetail, when Lisa proves her mettle as an amateur sleuth.

When it was released in 1954, Rear Window prompted a critic to complain that Stewart’s character was nothing but a peeping Tom. Hitchcock responded: “Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all? I’ll bet you that nine out of 10 people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look.”

The film, part of the festival jointly sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, The Little and WXXI Public Broadcasting Council, is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

GRAVITY. This ultra-intense, life-and-death space thriller with cinematic tricks will honestly astonish you. It’s easily the most exciting film of the year, so far. Sandra Bullock plays a medical engineer — and space rookie on a special mission — while George Clooney plays a veteran astronaut. As the film opens, space debris is baring down on their spacecraft while the two astronauts are engaged outside the ship in a space walk. It only takes five minutes for Gravity to put you on a treadmill of break-neck action.

Clooney is fine, but it is Bullock’s film. She is fabulous, emotionally complex and physically buff. It’s her best performance to date, and might earn her an Oscar nomination. Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and his co-writer and son, Jonas Cuarón, even add a perfect bit of Mexico’s famous magic realism at just the right moment.

I initially saw the film in 2-D, but plan to see the 3-D version as soon as possible — I can tell it’ll be a great 3-D film.

CENTERSTAGE. The Last Five Years, which has opened the Jewish Community Center’s CenterStage season and plays through next weekend, is a thoroughly enjoyable play about the five-year relationship between a successful writer (Carl DelBuono) and a struggling actress (Janine Mercandetti).

The tale employs a rare narrative prism: His story runs chronologically and hers runs in reverse order, a bit like Sondheim’s more famous Merrily We Roll Along. I’m still working out for myself the value of that device, but I loved the dynamic performances of Mercandetti and DelBuono, and especially their very impressive singing. (It’s a sing-through musical — with lots of singing.)

Ralph Meranto’s direction — which involves quite a bit of crossover movement — also is impressive, and the musical support is excellent.