My direct experience with the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, to give it its full name, began with their latest major restoration project, the recently rediscovered footage Orson Welles shot for the cinematic interludes in his Mercury production of Too Much Johnson. Apart from being a tour de force of conservation, the project underscored one inspiring aspect of the institution. George Eastman House is a museum, but, unlike virtually all art museums, which pride themselves on avoiding acquisitions in compromised condition, it actively seeks out films in need of conservation—that being its primary function, both to fill in the documentation of the history of photography and cinema, and to make lost works of art available to the public. This activity justifies itself of course, but its importance is heightened by the fact that motion pictures in particular were not considered worthy of preservation.
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..." 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.
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.