Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson, restored by George Eastman House
Simon Callow, in his biography of Orson Welles, cites the Mercury actor, William Alland, on Welles’ personal devastation caused by the failure the company’s 1938 revival of William Gillette’s (1853-1937) Too Much Johnson (1894). According to Alland, who was with him most of the time, Welles “retired into his air-conditioned tent at the St. Regis, where he lay in darkness surrounded by 25,000 feet of film…convinced that he was going to die, racked by asthma and fear and despair.” Alland reported “the self-vilifications and the remorse for what he had done to those around him…”1 Although Welles returned to work and to his favorite diversions soon enough, it is clear that the failure of Too Much Johnson was a major defeat for him.
The author of the play, who was one of the most renowned actors of his time, had made his last appearance on stage at the age of 82 in 1936, and had done a three-year tour in his signature role, Sherlock Holmes, in his own stage adaptation in 1929-32, but Too Much Johnson, a farce about a philandering New York lawyer and his voyage to Cuba, would have been seen as a period piece at the time, and Welles, who professed to love the play, treated it as such. He cut out quite a lot of exposition and even entire characters, and intended to substitute filmed introductions to each act. The first was to be twenty minutes long and the last two ten minutes each. It was to be part of a season which included Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death and Welles’ own Falstaff concoction from Shakespeare, called Five Kings, which he was to make into one of his greatest films some thirty years later. The failure of Too Much Johnson resulted from Welles’ inability to complete the filmed segments, partly because Paramount Pictures owned the film rights and demanded payment and partly because it was impossible to project film in the Stony Creek (Connecticut) Theater where it was premiered. Since much of the exposition was contained in the film, the stage production, which was presented without it, was incoherent, and the critics immolated the show. The frustrated audience threw objects at the stage on opening night.2
Welles at least kept the working print of the film, but he lost track of it over the years. It resurfaced in his villa outside Madrid in the late 1960s. He was delighted with its excellent condition, but he refused to allow it to be seen because he thought it was incomprehensible without the play. In August 1970 a fire broke out in the house and destroyed the film. The nitrate working print restored and preserved by The George Eastman House was found in a warehouse in Pordenone by a film aficionado associated with Cinezero, a non-profit cinema in the city. Cinezero turned the film over to the Cineteca del Friuli in Gemona, which decided to transfer it to the George Eastman House for conservation. Splices in the film, some of them rather hastily done, indicate that this was the working print Welles himself produced, working on a moviola in his room in the St. Regis. Most of the reels were in excellent condition. One reel, however, had decayed severely. It seemed a long shot that it could be saved, but the Eastman House conservators decided to send it to Haghe Film Digitaal in Amsterdam, which specializes in the restoration of severely damaged film. Miraculously they were able to save 96% of the reel. As Paolo Cherchi Usai, the Senior Curator of Film at GEH, who was in charge of the project, said, “This is by far the most important film restoration by George Eastman House in a very long time. Holding in one’s hands the very same print that had been personally edited by Orson Welles 75 years ago provokes an emotion that’s just impossible to describe.”
Although the concept and the production were developed in haste, Too Much Johnson has every appearance of an ambitious attempt to forge a new genre combining live performance and cinema, rather than a light foil to the serious German play on the Mercury’s schedule. Welles cut and rewrote Gillette’s book extensively in order to integrate his film own filmed exposition, to the point that, when it became necessary to mount the play without it, all that was left was a senseless farcical torso. Forty minutes of the show was intended to be on film, a twenty-minute prelude at the beginning of the first act, and ten-minute introductions to Acts II and III. As we saw at the screening, he asked the cinematographer to undercrank the scenes to create the accelerated effect of the silent comedies which had made their exit less than a decade before. Not all silent films were shot at slower speeds than the standardized 24 fps of talkies. Their speed was in fact variable, with sped up action usual for the excitement or humor of chase scenes and fights. Chaplin’s Modern Times, his 1936 throwback to the silent era was filmed at 18 fps and was usually shown, it seems, at 24 fps. Movie audiences by this time associated silent comedy with generally sped up action. This is just what Welles filmed in these segments, with the possible exception of a boudoir scene—which, by the way, paid scant attention to the Production Code enforced in Hollywood.
It seems that Welles conceived the parts on stage in tight integration with the filmed parts. One was to flow seamlessly into the other. He also conceived the stage action in the style of filmed slapstick comedy, with the mood and the laughs depending on fast, precisely timed routines and gags, and this is what he stressed in rehearsal, dedicating the little time he had to perfecting complex ensemble work. Otherwise Welles was obsessed with editing the film. The rest of the production was neglected, and the general feeling of the Mercury cast was that the show failed because it was under-rehearsed.3
While most of the sixty-six minutes of footage which have survived in this work print are devoted to chases and fights, the boudoir scene, the departure of the steamer for Cuba, with the embarkation of the Faddish family, and some establishing shots of “Cuba” (actually filmed in a quarry with some unprepossessing stage palm trees), and a scene with a plantation worker mourning at the grave of his master are in fact exposition, and it is in these that Welles simplified the plot and cast of the old farce for modern consumption. In the sparest outline…the young lawyer Augusts Billings (Joseph Cotten) has been pursuing an affair with the wife (Arlene Francis) of a French businessman, Leon Dathis (Edgar Barrier). M. Dathis returns home at an inopportune moment, and, while Billings himself escapes, the husband discovers a photograph of him. In his struggle with his wife to obtain it, the photograph is torn, and he has only the top of the head to go by in his pursuit of the adulterer, who has been using the name and identity of a Cuban planter named Johnson, that is the man in the grave. Billings manages to escape after Dathis has chased him all over lower Manhattan. Billings, Mrs. Billings, Dathis, and a Canadian family named Faddish (Their daughter Lenore loves a young man of whom her father disapproves—a subplot I’ll ignore here.) all board a steamship for Cuba, where their fates intermesh in continued pursuit and conflict.
In this working print we see Orson Welles at work as an editor, a craft he practised with much dedication, but slowly, later in his career, much to the frustration of his producers and investors. There are several takes for almost every major scene, often edited into a montage, and there are often several montages. Different takes sometimes succeed one another within the montages. In other words they show the film at an entirely fluid state, and it is by no means clear, especially on a single viewing, what might have been Welles’ final selections. That will probably remain mostly a guessing game. The action and slapstick humor are robust, however, and the acting full of life. Apart from his privileged role in cinematography and cutting as the star of the show, Joseph Cotten projects his own charismatic presence, as he did in movies for decades to come. Welles, with only an eight-minute film behind him, made in an avant-garde style at the age of nineteen, while he was still a pupil at the Todd School for Boys, showed a strong grasp of silent comedy style. (In preparation he is said to have immersed himself in Mack Sennett, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin comedies. At the end of Safety Last there is a rooftop chase photographed from far above that could well have provided some inspiration for Welles’ much longer sequence.)
The scenes are artfully centered around particular objects, which become a visual theme within them: the withered bunch of flowers Billings brings for his paramour, which he casts to the floor in his excitement at the sight of her in her lingerie, wooden fruit-baskets at the market, a ladder, hats (crucial because the injured cuckold only has the hair to go by), and a battered umbrella. The designs created by these objects are quite striking—even a bit arty—and in the final collapse of baskets and crates…into an avalanche of cubist forms. Who can blame us for seeing Léger in this as well as a harbinger of the fun house scene in The Lady from Shanghai?
The film is full of extreme camera angles, not only the upward-looking shots which are a trademark in his later works, but downward views which show the action from above. Perhaps the narrow streets of lower Manhattan gave him few interesting angles in his crowd scenes; perhaps he was exploiting the various levels afforded him by the market; but it is also clear that as many camera angles as possible differ radically from the slightly lower than head-on perspective offered by the orchestra in a theater. In these downward shots the action plays out against the backdrop of of the streets themselves. The excellent state of preservation of most of the reels allows us to see the marvellous textures and light effects of the battered New York streets. Similarly the weathered walls and roofs of the old buildings (almost all of them long gone) on which the chase continues is spectacular. Sgr. Usai meticulously identified them in his commentary, and I was delighted that he did that. Too Much Johnson is at the very least a thrill for architectural historians and preservationists.
The sixty-six minutes of film, then, are terrifically entertaining in themselves, and have their moments of elegance. After this, film was soon to supersede radio and the stage as Welles’ primary medium. As George Eastman House presented it at the Director’s Guild Theater, it was followed by a fascinating home movie showing Welles directing Too Much Johnson, preceded by valuable introductory talks Paolo Cherchi Usai and colleagues, and accompanied by his commentary, partly intended to guide us through the complicated plot of the farce, and partly pointing out important moments and background. Philip Carli provided a rich piano accompaniment based on Paul Bowles’ original score for the Mercury production. The whole occasion was a polished event—a sober, precise exposition by specialists in film preservation and history, with a good measure of wit, enthusiasm, and justified pride. One can only be grateful to George Eastman House for making this lost Welles incunabulum available so early in its new life.
What lies ahead? Eastman House will move on to a digital restoration in order to produce a version more watchable for general audiences, and then there will be an attempt to show the footage with a production of the play, so that audiences can see Too Much Johnson as Welles intended it—or at least as close to that as possible.
- Simon Callow, Orson Welles. The Road to Xanadu, New York, 1996. Vol. 1, p. 387. ↩
- Welles, who never wasted an idea which in practice was aborted or missed an opportunity to develop an old project further, used film interludes in a similar expository way in the 1946 Broadway musical Around the World on which he collaborated with Cole Porter. These were also filmed in the style of silent comedy. Successful at first, Around the World enjoyed only a short run. Welles then resurrected the title for a series of television documentaries he made for the BBC a decade later. ↩
- Andrea Nouryeh, The Mercury Theater – a History, diss. NYU 1987, pp. 224f. ↩