Orson Welles was the “enfant terrible” of cinema for years. His debut film Citizen Kane with his, then, avant garde style of movie making and his lampooning of William Randolph Hearst in the film. Caused the newspaper magnate to boycott Welles for the remainder of his career until Hearst’s death in 1951. But Citizen Kane was not the first time Welles directed a film. The eight minute parody film Hearts of Age has always held that honour. But it has now emerged that a missing film has been found that actually predates Hearts of Age.
Too Much Johnson was Orson Welles’ debut feature and it is a 40 minute “prelude” of a revival that Welles planned of the 1894 play that he intended to bring to Broadway in the 1938 season of his Mercury Theatre players.
The film has footage of several Welles “regulars, most notably Joseph Cotten, who was Welles favourite and it is rumoured that the great comedic actress Judy Holliday had a part as an extra in the film under her pre-stardom name of Judith Tuvim. The film Too Much Johnson has been missing presumed lost for 50 years.
Despite this being Welles first time directing a film, he got around to finishing the editing process for the footage he shot for the film. But after a disastrous preview in Stony Creek, Connecticut Welles put the film away and forgot about it.
But in November 1978 Welles did remember the film and he told Frank Brady, as part of an interview for American Film magazine, that he’d found the film in his Spanish villa. He said, “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. It had a fine quality. Cotten was magnificent, and I immediately made plans to edit it and send it to Joe as a birthday present.”
But while Welles was gone on an acting job, the villa caught fire and most of its contents were lost. The fact that the film had been shot on the highly inflammable nitrate film stock of the time, meant that it had been apparently destroyed with everything else in the villa.
But Too Much Johnson had a guardian angel who must have deposited the film elsewhere. Specifically in the warehouse of a shipping company in the northern Italy. In Pordenone, Italy the footage appeared after having apparently been abandoned in a warehouse in the 1970s. So Orson Welles “missing film” was found and restored.
Cinemazero, a cultural organization that regularly screens classic films took control of it and once they realised what they had in their possession, they turned the footage over to George Eastman House in Rochester, where the film was stabilised and they then transferred it to modern safety stock.
The lost film, Too Much Johnson is scheduled to have its world premiere in Pordenone during this year’s film festival on October 5, and it will also be screened at Eastman House on October 16. If the money can be raised, the National Film Preservation Foundation will make the film available on the internet later this year.
Welles was 23 years-old when he made Too Much Johnson and he’d not yet made a name for himself in the industry. His talent was still raw and unparalleled. But he also hadn’t reached the heights of frustration that marked the rest of his career after Citizen Kane.
On Too Much Johnson, Welles worked with cameraman Paul Dunbar and they shot around 25,000 feet of film, almost four hours in length. There are home movies of the film shoot that were taken by a Mercury Theater investor. Welles looks to be enjoying himself playing with, as he called it, “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.”
Simon Callow, British actor, director and Welles biographer – who wrote Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu – points out that Too Much Johnson introduced Welles to the editing process. Callow explained in an email to the New York Times that, “The great thing that happened to him on ‘Too Much Johnson’ was that he discovered editing, and began to see the possibilities. I suspect that at that point he suddenly lost interest in the production altogether and would have loved to have continued his celluloid self-education.”
Unfortunately, as Callow says, Welles had to stop playing with his “electric train” and the film was abandoned. Several theories about the reason have been introduced. It was either a complaint to Actors Equity about remuneration for the actors or the fact that the Connecticut theater did not have a movie projector, whatever the reason the play and the film were both abandoned.
In October a small part of the film community will see the missing Orson Welles film that was found in a warehouse in Italy. Hopefully funds will become available and the rest of world can see the gem from the enfant terrible that has been hidden for so long.
By Michael Smith