is not exactly the missing forty minutes of The
Magnificent Ambersons, but for Orson Welles fans it is still quite
significant. Long considered lost to the
ages, the silent short films Welles conceived for an ahead-of-its time stage
production have been found (in Italy, as it happens) and restored by the film
preservation department of the George Eastman House. Despite their strange
genesis, the shorts known collectively as Too
Much Johnson perfectly represent the Welles filmography—they are brash,
innovative, and unfinished. Always fascinating and sometimes genuinely
entertaining, Too Much Johnson, Welles' first stab at filmmaking, had
its long awaited New York premiere last night, courtesy of the Eastman House (promo here).
Gillette’s summer stock staple Too Much
Johnson is not revived very often anymore—and the Mercury Theatre’s
disastrous production probably deserves its share of the blame. It literally bombed in New Haven. Welles’ original
vision was rather ground-breaking. Each
act would be preceded by a short silent film in the Max Sennett tradition that
would dramatize all the play’s exposition and backstories. Of course, Welles never finished any of the
shorts (and it is unclear whether the Stony Creek Theater could have accommodated
them anyway), but since he had cut all the presumably redundant background
information from the text, the production reportedly baffled critics and
help contemporary viewers, the Eastman House’s preservation and curatorial
staff provided running commentary throughout the New York screening, in
addition to the requisite piano accompaniment.
Eastman House made no editorial decisions, preserving every frame that
came in the can. As a result, there are
plenty of gaps, as well as repetitive takes of the same scene. Yet, the finished restoration is a smoother audience
experience than it might sound like. Serendipitously, the multiple versions are
often madcap hi-jinks that when viewed continuously appear as if the characters
are caught in a surreal loop.
first act prelude is the most complete and easiest to follow. Joseph Cotten
plays a man named Billings, who has been romancing another man’s wife under the
assumed name of Johnson. Coming home earlier
than expected, the betrayed Dathis chases the man he thinks is Johnson across
the future Meatpacking District, eventually ending on the ocean liner that will
take both men’s families to Cuba for a dubious vacation. (Once there, Billings looks up an old
friend, only to find his plantation is now owned by a man who really is named
Johnson. Hilarity no doubt ensues.)
Cotten’s prowess for Harold Lloyd comedy is quite impressive. He shimmies across ledges and drags ladders
over rooftops like a rubber-boned pro.
As if that were not enough, the first short also delivers Welles’ ever
indulgent producer, John Houseman, as a bumbling beat cop.
second and third constituent shorts are much more fragmentary, but there are
some striking day-for-night shots of a Hudson Valley quarry, decked out with
palm trees to resemble Cuba.
Periodically, one gets a glimmer of Welles’ developing eye for
composition. Cotten also maintains his energetic good sportsmanship as the
Johnson might be a bunch
of odds and ends compared to Welles later masterpieces, but it is strangely
compelling to watch the bedlam he unleashes with his co-conspirators. The Eastman program also includes a three
minute 16mm film documenting Welles directing Johnson that seems about as chaotic as you would imagine. Yet, there is also something very poignant
about the happy-go-lucky but incomplete work, prefiguring Welles later abortive
attempts to produce his Don Quixote.
Much Johnson is enormously
important as cinematic history but also a good deal of fun. The Eastman House intends to hold future screenings
with live commentary, so cineastes should definitely keep an eye on their
website. They also hope to stage Welles' adaptation of the stage play incorporating excerpts of the shorts, which is
Labels: George Eastman House, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Silent Films