Since Orson Welles' death almost 30 years ago on Oct. 10, 1985, his life and work continue to fascinate historians and filmmakers like no other figure in the cinema canon. It’s as if the enigmatic figures that haunt his work as an actor, along with the labyrinthine myth of his directing career, are illusions created by a shape-shifting magician, the same one that in later years appeared as a TV talk-show guest and pitchman for indifferent wine. An ever-expanding shelf of scholarly, historical and biographical texts, along with websites like Wellesnet, keep even the most avid fan supplied with fresh material. And the public release of a thought-to-be-lost early film, an adaptation of William Gillette’s 1894 play Too Much Johnson, has stoked anew the flames of Welles scholarship.
Some critics aver that Welles knew little about filmmaking when he embarked on his first feature, Citizen Kane. It is further said that the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, fresh off his Academy Award for Wuthering Heights (and with the recent credits of Dead End, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath), phoned Welles, offered his services (with a dispensation from his contract to producer Sam Goldwyn), took Welles in hand, and explained camera lenses, composition, lighting and especially “deep focus” to the tyro movie director during a booze-filled weekend. But we now can see that Welles’ pre-Kane movies, though somewhat rudimentary, disprove the assertion that Welles was a cinematic naif unschooled in the basic grammar of film. Striking compositions and extreme high and low angles abound in the silent short Too Much Johnson (1938); Toland’s vaunted wide-angle, deep-focus style is very much on display in the short's lengthy rooftop chase sequence involving Joseph Cotten and Edgar Barrier, proving Welles employed such devices several years before working with Toland.
Last year the National Film Preservation Foundation posted 66 minutes of raw footage from the unfinished Too Much Johnson, and there also have been multiple YouTube postings of Welles' even earlier, 8-minute experimental film, The Hearts of Age. A reconsideration of previously aired critical perspectives now seems to be in order.
The initial cinematic exercise of The Hearts of Age, made by Welles when he was a 19-year-old student at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Ill., evokes images from Wiene, Cocteau, Clair, Buñuel and Eisenstein. Together with Too Much Johnson, it proves that even in Welles’ earliest work, he was well acquainted with American commercial two-reel Max Sennett and Hal Roach comedies, as well as European avant-garde cinema of the 1920s. Too Much Johnson is also an explicit homage to the tradition of several great American silent comedians such as Harold Lloyd (especially in Safety Last) and Buster Keaton. Welles’ love of classic American silent cinema remained constant throughout his life and has been discussed by many writers, especially Joseph McBride, who wrote an absorbing essay about Too Much Johnson’s production history, its decades-long disappearance, and its eventual discovery several years ago in an Italian warehouse. After an intricate restoration that involved the George Eastman House and the Cinema Arts laboratory in Pennsylvania, the film was premiered on Oct. 9, 2013, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy. McBride’s article was published online in Bright Lights Film Journal on Aug. 24, 2014, and has since been updated by the author.
McBride reveals how Welles told Peter Bogdanovich of his fascination with films of the silent era:
He was spellbound by the movies of his childhood and suitably appreciative of the artistry of that first era of filmmaking, as well as saddened by the neglect of the films and filmmakers who led the way, pioneers to whom he gravitated during his early days in Hollywood. So Welles’ pre-Hollywood filmmaking experimentation in Too Much Johnson was a youthful tribute not only in the spirited tradition of exuberant low comedy, but also to the past of the medium he was about to enter.
Some of the nostalgia for that nearly lost era fairly saturates The Magnificent Ambersons, the movie Welles made after Citizen Kane, and it is an ethos you would not expect from a director not yet 30 years old. Welles always downplayed the importance of his two early short films, possibly because of what McBride calls the “creation myth,” espoused by directors who want people to believe that their first masterwork sprang from whole cinematic cloth rather than from the patchwork fabric of other filmmakers.
Welles planned to stage Too Much Johnson in the summer of 1938 for his own Mercury Theatre players, but, unlike author Gillette, who had starred in the 1894 production, Welles had no intention to perform in the show. The play’s first-act exposition and second- and third-act opening scenes were to be replaced by filmed sequences directed by Welles; these would be projected on a screen as framing segments during the play’s production in the Stony Creek Theater in Branford, Conn. However, the film sequences were never shown, and the theatrical production failed when Welles and the actors had to quickly reconceive and rehearse the whole play after dropping the film sequences. There has been much speculation as to why these sequences were not presented in the Stony Creek production, ranging from technical (or financial) problems with putting projectors in the theater, to McBride’s suggestion that the editing was simply too challenging for Welles to pull off in the one month he had before the play opened.
The plot of the film of Too Much Johnson is fairly simple: Once the characters are introduced in a flimsily built bedroom set, it’s pretty much a Mack Sennett-style chase after Cotten’s character is discovered in flagrante delicto with Barrier’s wife, played by a sexually flirtatious Arlene Francis.
The chase ranges over lower Manhattan rooftops, empty streets around the old Meatpacking District and an area then called Little Syria (near today’s World Trade Center), and the jungles of Cuba (actually a quarry near the Hudson River at Tomkins Cove, sparsely propped with potted palm trees). The apartment interior where the opening tryst takes place was built in an open lot in Yonkers. In deliberate imitation of very early one-reel comedies, the ceilings are open to the sky and existing hard-shadowed sunlight lights the actors. Actual wind off the river blows onto the curtains and actors, causing the set walls at times to shake. This deliberate conceit of primitive art direction, along with the slapstick acting and sometimes undercranked camera style during the chase, are evocative of early Hollywood run-and-gun moviemaking; but the 10-day shooting schedule, and the 25,000’ of film Welles exposed, was not typical of other pre-World War I flickers.
At one time, two cinematographers were credited for Too Much Johnson (due to confusion in names), but McBride is convinced that sole credit goes to Harry Dunham, a politically active leftist who made films for the Communist Party of America before he was killed in 1943 during a bombing raid over Borneo. McBride discusses the adroit use of tilted camera and high and low angles during the chase, as well as:
Extreme contrasts between foreground and background in shots with considerable depth of field. That is a device most associated with Gregg Toland, the master cinematographer of Citizen Kane who first noticed Welles’ talent when he attended a performance of his Mercury Caesar in 1937 and was impressed by the bold slashes of its ‘Nuremberg’-style lighting.
And again, Too Much Johnson was shot before Welles met Toland.
It makes an interesting comparison to consider the dynamic angles in Too Much Johnson alongside the climactic nighttime sequence in Touch of Evil when Welles and Charlton Heston play cat-and-mouse among the oil derricks in Venice, Calif. Welles no doubt relied strongly on Toland during Citizen Kane, both on set and as his guiding mentor in preproduction, but even in 1938, pre-Toland, Welles had an "eye."
McBride’s analysis of how the surviving film elements of Too Much Johnson ended up in an Italian warehouse takes up the last section of his article, and it’s an object lesson about the labyrinthine path that film historians, restorers and archivists trek to rediscover “lost” movies. An odd footnote to this story is that the footage was 35mm film. It had long been believed that the film was photographed on 16mm; this was based on production photos that included the camera. In fact, the 16mm Bell and Howell camera looks remarkably like the 35mm Eyemo, the actual camera used. Both take 100’ daylight load film spools, and both cameras feature a prominent spring wind on the right side; the eyepieces are also similar.
The 66 minutes of unedited footage that the National Film Preservation Foundation posted online has been carefully edited into a 34-minute “cut” developed from notes in Welles' papers at the Lilly Library of Indiana University. Film historian Scott Simmon has done a laudable recreation, and this version also features a wonderfully supportive score performed by pianist Michael D. Mortilla. This version was also screened by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences at LACMA’s Bing Theater on May 3, 2014, with Mortilla at the piano. A post-screening discussion included centenarian actor/producer Norman Lloyd and Annette Melville, director of the NFPF.
Originally, Too Much Johnson was meant to have music by Paul Bowles, a little recognized composer who is better known as the novelist of The Sheltering Sky. Here is a sample of his score for small orchestra (later titled “Music for a Farce”); it captures the amateur-band quality that would have been so appropriate for the film.
After I watched Simmon’s edit of Too Much Johnson, several questions came to mind, even allowing for the perhaps uneasy mix of staged theater and film projection that had been intended for the Stony Creek production.
1. Why would Welles choose an old, creaky, melodramatic stage play for his highly innovative Mercury Theatre players?
2. Why would Welles choose to make a silent movie for the film sequences a full decade after sound movies had become commonplace?
3. Why would Welles choose to direct the movie’s action and actors in a Sennett style, mixing static, staged tableaus with flimsy, windblown sets, yet juxtapose all this with camera compositions and angles evocative of modernist European experimental and surrealist photographers like Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray?
4. Why did this ambitious but hardly unprecedented combination of film and theater not come together in a fully realized production?
Unlike McBride, Simon Callow, Bogdanovich, Peter Conrad or even Barbara Leaming, I am no Welles scholar, just a cinematographer. I never worked with Welles. My sole encounter with him was on the sidewalk in front of the legendary Lucy’s El Adobe restaurant on Melrose Avenue, across from Paramount Studios. I don’t recall the year, but I was yet to become a director of photography.
I was about to enter the restaurant for a lunch meeting when I saw an obese man dressed in a very loose caftan, his back to me, impatiently pacing along the sidewalk. As he turned, I saw it was Welles. I’d heard that when he was in town, he often ate at Lucy’s and at another Mexican joint, Echo Park’s El Nayarit. Shyly, I approached the great man. “Is anything wrong, Mr. Welles?” He looked at me, clearly judged that I was not an industry mover or shaker, then said, “I’m supposed to meet a producer, but it looks as if the SOB’s standing me up.” Instantly forgetting my own lunch appointment, I blurted out, “Mr. Welles, may I take you to lunch?” I knew he was considered unmanageable by the studios, that he had a string of incomplete films long enough to fill a normal filmography, and that he had exhausted the expense accounts of many producers — but, hell, how much could a measly lunch cost me? Welles regarded me carefully, then answered simply, “I think not.”
That experience may not qualify me to address the above questions with any degree of credibility, but here goes. (I’m wide open for your comments and notes.)
1. By many accounts, Welles wasn’t much interested in conventional realistic theater, especially the Waiting for Lefty school of proletarian drama of Harold Clurman’s Group Theatre. Even when Mercury undertook classic dramas, they were often wrapped in stylized productions. So, Welles may have been attracted to a creaky warhorse like Too Much Johnson simply because he could fiddle with it with impunity.
2. From the very beginning, the history of cinema has had two parallel streams that flow into and out of each other: the realistic documentary stream of the Lumières and the fanciful, magical one of Méliès. Welles’ lifelong love of magic and illusion found full expression in the camera tricks of the chase and stunt two-reel comedy shorts of his childhood. In Too Much Johnson, unburdened by dialogue and sound, the actors could sweep across the screen in crazed moves, with the camera as a magical accessory to bend and warp space and time. In addition to the in-camera tricks, Welles fell in love with the possibilities of the editing process to create gold from dross. John Houseman, in his 1972 memoir, writes that Welles surrounded himself with the film footage along with numerous apprentices, “laughing at his own footage while the slaves hunted in vain for the bits of film that would enable him to put his chases together into some kind of intelligible sequence.” According to Callow, Welles was so enamored with editing that his actual stage rehearsals with the actors were “fitful.” Callow also finds the mix of clownish slapstick comedy with the strictures of classic French farce à la Feydeau to be problematic: “It is to be wondered whether the great silent movie comedians provided the right model for a play … set in the world of the wealthy bourgeoisie. Welles was clearly trying to make a certain kind of play become a play of a different order altogether.” It may be argued that the choice of making a silent film was, for Welles, simply an adroit counterpoint to the fulsome stage dialogue, with the play serving as a pretext for the film experiment.
3. It may be that the startling juxtaposition of modernist compositions, extreme angles and deep focus lensing, played as deliberate contrast to the patently artificial sets and static angles, is partly what grabbed Welles’ attention. Callow also indicates that in this second and ultimately failed season of the Mercury Theatre, Welles had become bored, and “the shooting of the film was a joyous lark, replete with all the delights of location filming.” The film was simply a new toy for Welles’s restless, inventive mind.
4. There are many reasons why the film/stage production never coalesced. A) Paramount may have owned the film rights to the play. B) Equity demanded more money be given the actors for filming. C) Either there were no projection facilities in the theater (unlikely), or the booth was not properly fireproofed (more likely). D) There is the very credible possibility that the 23-year-old Welles took on a more complex sleight-of-hand than he had anticipated by mixing film and theater.
All this matters little to us now, more than 75 years later. What does matter is that we have been granted a totally unexpected window into the early work of one of America’s greatest filmmakers. And this is a revelation.
Here is Simmon’s version of Too Much Johnson. Perhaps film students will download all 66 minutes of footage and then create their own films of Too Much Johnson.
(Note: TCM will air Too Much Johnson on May 1, 2015, at 10:45 p.m. PDT. Visit their website for confirmation of your local time. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons will screen earlier that same evening.)
NEXT: Lynsey Addario's It's What I Do, a memoir of her life in "conflict photography."