Jack Garner: Lucky to witness Orson Welles premiere
03:22 PM, Oct 17, 2013
An historic night has come and gone at the George Eastman House, and I’m glad I was there to witness it. A select members-only audience witnessed the American premiere of an Orson Welles film, created two years before what is considered his auspicious debut with the great Citizen Kane.
Too Much Johnson is a compilation of footage shot by Welles and his cohorts in 1938. It was to be used by Welles in three parts, introducing an accompanying a William Gillette stage play Welles was then directing for his Mercury Theatre. For whatever reason, the footage was never used (or seen) and the play closed out of town. Too Much Johnson was considered a lost “orphan film” until it showed up, shockingly, in an Italian warehouse. The George Eastman House was selected to restore, which they did, working with two special labs. A week earlier in Italy and Wednesday in Rochester, after a 75-year delay, projector bulbs finally poured light through Welles’ images.
So, what did we have? Too Much Johnson is a work print for a slapstick comedy unlike anything Welles ever attempted in his known professional film career. Though shot in 1938, Welles created the settings and film style of a silent film, circa 1922, in New York and Cuba. Thus, the film is purposefully a bit jerky and the action rushed, in the tradition of the Keystone Cops.
The plot is a classic romantic triangle, turned zany, with fake identities making it more complicated than it needs to be. Leon Dathis (Edgar Barrier) catches the philandering Augustus Billings aka Johnson (the great Joseph Cotten) in bed with Mrs. Dathis (a young and sexy Arlene Francis). The rest of the film is one long chase through the streets and over the rooftops of Manhattan, on board a ship to Cuba, and on a Cuban plantation. Others in the cast include Welles’ wife at the time, Virginia Nicholson, the great character actress Mary Wickes, and, in two cameos, producer (and eventual actor) John Houseman.
The best and most exciting sequences occur during the chase across lower Manhattan rooftops, where Cotten displays comic athleticism and daring that equals silent movie legend Harold Lloyd. It was clear from this film that Cotten would be a star. Indeed, he went on to make Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, The Third Man and The Magnificent Ambersons, among many films.
Cinema buffs will also enjoy various clever camera angles and other filmmaking skills that would show up in more polished form in Kane. Especially notable is an involved sequence amid a large bunch of cartons and crates, stacked and photographed from on high, foreshadowing the famous ending shot of Kane.
It’s not clear what’s next for Too Much Johnson, but hopefully a more general public screening will be held, plus perhaps a DVD release. Meanwhile, Senior Film Curator Paolo Cherchi-Usai hinted from the podium Wednesday that he’d love to join efforts with a local theater company to create Welles original intention the combination of the footage with William Gillette’s original play.