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Early film by Welles rediscovered in Italian warehouse

by DAVE KEHR New York Times News Service on August 13, 2013 10:50 AM

In 1941, Orson Welles made his debut as a feature film director with “Citizen Kane,” a fact known to everyone who has ever taken Film 101.

Less known is that “Kane” wasn’t Welles’ debut as a filmmaker. That distinction belongs to “Hearts of Age,” an eight-minute parody of an avant-garde allegory that Welles, as the world’s most precocious teenager, co-directed with a friend, William Vance, at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Ill. Amazingly, that 1934 effort, in which Welles wears old-age makeup that anticipates the elderly Kane, has survived and can even be seen on YouTube.

Three years before his Hollywood debut with “Kane,” he presented about 40 minutes of footage intended to be shown with “Too Much Johnson,” a revival of an 1894 farce that Welles intended to bring to Broadway for the 1938 season of his Mercury Theater.

The cast of “Too Much Johnson” included several members of his Mercury troupe: Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis, Howard Smith, Edgar Barrier, Mary Wickes and Welles’ wife at the time, Virginia Nicholson, billed under her stage name, Anna Stafford. The music was composed by Paul Bowles (who later wrote “The Sheltering Sky”). Legend has it that an aspiring comedian named Judith Tuvim, later Judy Holliday, was one of the extras.

For generations, Welles scholars have been intrigued by “Too Much Johnson,” which would seem to represent Welles’ first real experience composing a film to be seen by a paying public, with the support of a professional cast and a professional crew. But for more than 50 years, no print had been known to exist.

Welles never quite finished editing the large amount of footage he shot for “Too Much Johnson,” and when the show folded out of town, after a disastrous preview in Stony Creek, Conn., he set the film aside and forgot about it.

Sometime in the 1960s, as Welles told Frank Brady for an article in the November 1978 issue of American Film, he came across the material again, in his villa in Spain.

“I can’t remember whether I had it all along and dug it out of the bottom of a trunk, or whether someone brought it to me, but there it was,” Welles recalled. “I screened it, and it was in perfect condition, with not a scratch on it. It had a fine quality. Cotten was magnificent, and I immediately made plans to edit it and send it to Joe as a birthday present.”

Regrettably, while Welles was away for an acting job, a fire destroyed the villa and most of its contents. “Too Much Johnson,” which had been shot on highly inflammable nitrate stock, had apparently been lost to the ages.

But things have turned out otherwise. “Too Much Johnson” has reappeared — discovered not in Spain but in the warehouse of a shipping company in the northern Italian port city of Pordenone, where the footage had apparently been abandoned sometime in the 1970s. Old films turn up with some regularity under similar circumstances — independent filmmakers aren’t always known for promptly paying their storage bills. But because nitrate becomes even more dangerously unstable as it ages, the usual practice is to junk it as quickly as possible.

This time, though, the movie gods were smiling. Pordenone happens to be home to Cinemazero, a cultural organization that regularly screens classic films and which partners with the Cineteca del Friuli each fall to present Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a gathering of scholars and cinephiles with a special dedication to the shadowy corners of film history.

The Cinemazero staff realized what they’d found and turned the footage over to George Eastman House in New York, where the work of stabilizing the film and transferring it to modern safety stock is proceeding with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation. “Too Much Johnson” is scheduled to have its premiere in Pordenone during this year’s festival, which begins on Oct. 5. It will be screened at Eastman House on Oct. 16. If the financing can be found, the foundation will offer the film over the Internet later in the year.

In the meantime, the frame enlargements from “Too Much Johnson” that have been released suggest a young filmmaker — Welles was all of 23 at the time — with a striking command of his medium.

The images are unmistakably his, with their strong, close-cropped compositions, powerful diagonals and insistent, ironic use of the “heroic angle” — the positioning of the camera to look up at the actor as if he were a statue posed on a pedestal.

There are no heroes in “Too Much Johnson” — only a frantic womanizer from Yonkers named Augustus Billings (played by Cotten). Billings has been carrying on an extramarital indiscretion under the invented identity of the owner of a plantation in Cuba named Johnson — a figure who, inconveniently enough, actually exists, as Billings discovers when he arrives in Santiago, Chile, in the company of his wife (Nicholson), his mother-in-law (Wickes) and a jealous husband (Barrier).

Each act of the play — written by the celebrated actor William Gillette as a vehicle for himself — was to begin with a film segment. The first (and most nearly completed in the rediscovered print) was a chase across Lower Manhattan shot in the style of a silent comedy, complete with Keystone Kop-like pursuers, a suffragist parade to barrel through and Cotten tottering on the edge of a skyscraper like Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last.”

Working with Paul Dunbar, a cameraman with Pathé News, Welles shot a large amount of footage for “Too Much Johnson” — some 25,000 feet, nearly four hours’ worth — and apparently had a good time doing it. Home movies of the shoot, taken by a Mercury Theater investor and preserved in the Pacific Film Archive, show Welles wearing a battered straw hat and bellowing orders to his actors, who are splashing around in a flooded Hudson Valley rock quarry meant to represent the Caribbean. Laughing and animated, the slim, young Welles is clearly already under the spell of the apparatus he would call, at the time of “Kane,” “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.”

The education ended abruptly. For reasons that remain unclear — perhaps because a few cast members complained to Actors Equity that they weren’t being paid enough to appear in a film; perhaps because the Connecticut theater couldn’t accommodate a movie projector — the prologue footage was scrapped. The play didn’t make much sense without it, and the decision was made not to take it to Broadway, much to Welles’ disappointment.

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