"“Too Much Johnson,” All Welles"
November 26th, 2013
The New Yorker
News of the rediscovery and preservation of sixty-six minutes of footage shot by Orson Welles in 1938 made me both eager and skeptical. The film was intended to serve as prologues to the three acts of Welles’s stage production of the play “Too Much Johnson”; its seemingly miraculous reappearance and restoration could, I feared, prove to be of greater interest than the material itself, which was unveiled at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival last month. Monday night’s New York première, at the DGA Theatre, allayed any such fears. The film is far more than a curiosity; it’s a major rediscovery, one that deeply traces the roots of Welles’s art, both stylistically and thematically—and its importance is revealed all the more by the magnificent scholarship that went into the restoration, which was done under the auspices of the George Eastman House.
The 1894 play that Welles staged was an elaborate romantic farce starring Joseph Cotten as a philandering New York playboy who flees to Cuba with his mistress’s husband in hot pursuit. It involves mistaken identity, sudden revelations, an elaborate batch of side stories that Welles trimmed out, and a complex setup that the film footage was intended to supplant. The rediscovered footage was a work print that Welles edited with his own hands, but it still had a long way to go—some sequences feature unedited multiple takes. Nonetheless, the footage, both as shot and as edited, reveals a distinctive visual preoccupation that would flourish there and throughout his career. Already in early 1938, at the age of twenty-two, Welles had a cinematic sensibility that went radically against the grain of prevailing Hollywood practices, defying and outrunning—by means of an extreme pictorialism—the finely tuned, script-centered classicism of the studios’ golden age.
The screening was augmented both by Philip C. Carli’s live electric-piano accompaniment, based on the original score by Paul Bowles, and by live commentary from Eastman House specialists who worked on the project, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Daniela Currò, Anthony L’Abbate, and Caroline Yeager. And what they unearth is astonishing and moving—especially for a native New Yorker.
Welles staged the play as a period piece, and the movie was intended as an homage to silent cinema, with references to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last”—and with the action sped up to resemble silent-film projection—but there are hints of Sergei Eisenstein throughout. The opening sequence features Cotten and the woman in question (Arlene Francis) in her bedroom, a cardboard contrivance of explicit artifice from which Cotten climbs through the rickety window to come out—with a visual jolt—on the fire escape of a big Manhattan building.
That’s where the true wonder begins. The mustachioed husband chases Cotten through the Washington Market (now the meatpacking district); amid the comedy, Welles delights in pure geometric form, with overhead shots that flatten the characters against enormous numbers of circular baskets and rectangular crates. (There’s also an ingenious jump-cut sequence in which the action leaps from foreground to background along an array of parallel alleys.) Then the “Safety Last” chills, done with overt realism, kick in: Cotten takes to the sloping roofs of old buildings in the market district, running along them with an intrepid indifference and clambering atop them while wrestling with a heavy extension ladder that threatens to hurl him to the ground with its counterweight. It’s not a sequence for acrophobes to watch.
The chase continues along the fire escapes and roofs farther down on the lower West Side, in what was then the Syrian neighborhood, near what is now the World Trade Center. (In their commentary, the scholars explain the meticulous detective work that went into their identification of the exact locations where Welles filmed.) The buildings are from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Welles films them at cocked angles that make the rooflines slashing diagonals of dynamic vectors and turn a series of chimneys into a jagged cutout of abstraction against the sky. For all its visual invention, there’s an essential element of documentary at work, a fascination with the tones and textures, the forms and moods of the teeming, clotted, already old-fashioned neighborhood.
The old-city sequence, together with other, even more overtly historicized scenes featuring a comical restaging of a suffragette march and the arrival of an already antique automobile at a dock (followed, pointedly, by a horse-drawn carriage) reveal that, for Welles, their essential subject was their antiquity. At the age of twenty-two, Welles was already making a film suffused with nostalgia. He depicts a raw, rough-and-tumble city and the changes afoot, summoning childhood memories and family lore to conjure a world that was vanishing. With his unpolished but highly confected comedy, he was already looking ahead to the regretful retrospective tragedies of “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
The “Cuban” sequences were filmed in upstate New York, in a quarry near the Hudson River, with rented palm trees serving as the outdoor décor. Here, Welles emphasizes another aspect of his visual imagination: the contrast between foreground and background. He puts Cotten in closeup, on a side of the screen, while his pursuer is clearly seen in the deep background; or there’s a palm frond in the foreground, action in the middle ground, the river shimmering far away. Welles was anticipating the extreme deep-focus methods of his first features. Above all, he was already detaching the image from dialogue, creating images that weren’t merely illustrative but highly expressive; his sense of visual storytelling was based on an intensity of rhetorical inflection. He wasn’t just filming a story, he was creating a picture-track to which his radio-based soundtracks would line up contrapuntally.
Had Welles made no films but the footage for “Too Much Johnson,” he would have been an inspiration to assiduous filmmakers in search of artistic liberation. With this occasional footage—which was never completed and never used in Welles’s actual stage production’s two-week run—Welles was already, secretly, a filmmaker for the ages.
The footage of “Too Much Johnson” was preserved in its very incompletion, including its essentially unedited sequences. I hope that a DVD of it becomes available soon—and that it remains intact and is presented exactly as it was last night, with Carli’s music and a commentary track. The unexpected discovery was too good not to be widely known, and to enter belatedly into the history of cinema intact.
Orson Welles' film “Too Much Johnson” discovered
"Too Much Johnson" redux