If anyone needs no introduction, it is Orson Welles, although he in fact introduced himself countless times to movie and television audiences, above all in his many appearances in commercials, and even to live audiences. There is as much misinformation about him as there is about George Washington. (For one thing, Citizen Kane is not his best film, as impressive as it is.) As with any artist, we have to understand his life work as a whole, as compromised as some of it may be, before making judgments and creating hierarchies. The varied activities he pursued—in some cases with substantial success—before he made Citizen Kane are familiar enough, even outside the world of cinephiles, but not everyone has thought about how they worked together to bring him within reach of the innovations of Kane. Welles painted, edited Shakespeare (Everybody’s Shakespeare; three plays edited for reading and arranged for staging), acted, and soon directed and produced on stage and on radio through his own group, the Mercury Theater. As Clinton Heylin argued in his valuable book, Despite the system: Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studios (Chicago Review Press, 2005), Welles’ sophisticated understanding of the effect of sounds and speech over the airwaves played a crucial role in his formation as a cinéaste. The recently (2008) rediscovered film segments from Too Much Johnson, a 1938 Mercury Theater revival of William Gillette’s 1894 comedy shows another aspect of his pre-Hollywood work which pointed the way to Kane.
The film segments were intended to be a substantial part of the show, but not as a self-sufficient film. Neither were they mere vignettes or an isolated part of a scene like the film sequence in Berg’s Lulu. Welles actually wanted to create a new genre, in which live action and film could work symbiotically on stage. The segments have a clear place in the action. Of the forty minutes planned, twenty were to come first, as an introduction to the play, and two ten-minute sequences were to introduce Acts II and III. Adopting a cinematic equivalent for Gillette’s period piece, Welles filmed the segments in the style of silent film comedy—a genre which reached its peak some fifteen years before, with silent films disappearing less than a decade earlier. It will be fascinating to see how Welles recreated this not at all distant style. (Had audiences, many of whom still remembered the variable projection speeds of silent film, come to think of silent film as comical figures in fast motion under the fixed 24 fps required by sound synchronization?} Consider that the master of silent comedy, Charlie Chaplin, showed a rather distant, mediated view of it in The Great Dictator (basically a sound film with reminiscences of Chaplin’s silent style folded in), on which he had begun work while the Mercurians were giving their best to Too Much Johnson. (The Great Dictator premiered in New York on October 15, 1940, roughly six months before that of Citizen Kane, on May 1, 1941).
While all of us yearn to see The Other Side of the Wind (1972), and many of his finished films are unavailable in a form worthy of Welles’ intentions (Yes, we need Othello in all three versions!), the discovery of Welles’ first professional film is just as important, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing it. The first New York screening of Orson Welles’ film sequences for Too Much Johnson are an event not to be missed.
When: Monday, November 25, 2013
Where: Directors Guild of America Theater, 110 West 57th Street in Manhattan
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: Tickets are available for $50 and can be purchased at eastmanhouse.org.
About the restoration: