Too Much Johnson (Orson Welles, 1938): Pordenone review

Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli
Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli

I have just attended the world premiere of an Orson Welles movie.

The above statement is almost true. What we saw tonight in Pordenone was the restoration of a work print, not even a rough cut, of a theatrical device. The scenes Welles filmed in New York in 1938 were to be shown as part of a Mercury Theatre production of the 1894 play Too Much Johnson. It’s an elegant solution: replacing pages of expository dialogue with silent prologues, shot slapstick-style to suit the on-stage farce and add a wash of nostalgic charm. Welles never completed editing the prologues, and in any case, the theatre the play first appeared in could not accommodate the projector. In fact, Too Much Johnson folded due to bad reviews before it ever came to New York and these 10 reels were abandoned for decades.

And yet, Too Much Johnson is not just a curio from theatre history. These reels are not quite a film, but something far more than fragments. The experience of watching them on a big screen, projected from 35mm, with expert piano accompaniment from Philip Carli, and commentary from Paolo Cherchi Usai, was dream-like, exhilarating and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious. Because we don’t have a final cut of Too Much Johnson, the footage includes retakes, gaps and mistakes. The extant material is a hint of what might have been – but also the heights that Welles was to achieve later in his career.

Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli
Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli

This is slapstick, ostensibly of the rowdy Keystone school, but from the off it is enlivened by some decidedly arty touches: this is a very good-looking piece of work. All the footage was shot undercranked to create that Keystone feel, a blanket measure that creates some queasy side-effects. An early argument scene is edited so frenetically, with so many extreme closeups, that it is more Eisenstein with Mack Sennett. An anarchic running gag in those first interior scenes has pot plants bursting into the frame, not least in what I can only describe as an arthouse comedy sex scene, an ultra-high-speed bedroom farce. And as Joseph Cotten (our reckless hero) and Edgar Barrier (the outraged husband of his lover) pursue each other up and down fire escapes and across rooftops, the camera records it all from the acute Expressionist angles Welles was so well known for. A scene of Barrier patrolling Manhattan knocking men’s hats off their heads is shot from high overhead – as Barrier attacks the crowds and the crowds form into mobs to attack back, the effect is of a musical dance sequence, a street ballet. And the sight of the ground after his spree littered with discarded bowlers and boaters is almost surreal, surprisingly poignant. In fact, Barrier’s leering, moustache-twirling closeups, which may be intended to evoke melodramatic early cinema villains, are unsettlingly camp. The scenes set in Cuba (actually a quarry in Tomkins Cove, New York) are exercises in economy – and its limits. With a few rented (and comically precarious) palm trees dotted across the rocky ground, Welles shoots from low angles to transform the quarry slopes into cliff-faces, with his actors tiny stick men brawling on the skyline.

When Welles took his crew out on the streets of Manhattan in August 1938 to film the rooftop chases for the first prologue, nearby pavements and windows were soon filled with concerned residents fearing a repeat of John William Warde’s suicidal leap from the Gotham Hotel a few weeks’ previous. You can forgive the misunderstanding. Cotten particularly is a fearless slapstick artiste, overbalancing and twisting on gutters and chimneys, on one occasion pratfalling with a ladder to enact what seems a short homage to Buster Keaton’s Cops – although the clear inspiration for most of these scenes is Harold Lloyd’s vertiginous Safety Last. Those steep camera angles maximise the amount of empty space on screen for Cotten to fall into, but Keaton-style he maintains his dignity at all time, even while wrapping himself around a lamppost. Takes and retakes show him throwing himself full-bodied into his stunts, taking bruising tumbles. He is also seen posing for closeups, young and handsome, with his face framed flatteringly by a high white collar and haloed by a straw hat-brim, against a clear sky.

Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazer /La Cineteca del Friuli
Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazer /La Cineteca del Friuli

Even though he was dealing with such recent history, Welles has an eye for the crucial details that defy his budgetary limitations. The middle sequence features the play’s characters setting off on their journey from New York to Cuba. An early 20th-century datestamp is provided as one party shudders in a shiny new automobile, and the other arrives at the pier in an old-fashioned carriage. The images of passengers waving goodbye from the decks are instantly evocative of newsreel footage – even though the vessels in question are the tourist ferries that run back and forth to Coney Island and the Statue of Liberty.

We know that what editing was done to Too Much Johnson was done by Welles himself on a Moviola in his hotel room in New York. We know that he was in a rush, commuting between radio and theatre and commitments, and the job was left unfinished. Knowing that, it is a surprise to watch this print and see how ambitious were his schemes and how elegant was their execution. When I spoke to Cherchi Usai about the discovery of Too Much Johnson for the Guardian earlier this year, he told me that it represents the “moment when Welles fell in love with the cinema”. That couldn’t be clearer on viewing the footage. Too Much Johnson is haphazard, but buoyant, an experiment in pastiching old-fashioned cinematic styles, but with a passion that energises them. Three years before Citizen Kane and here we can see Welles happily at play with his new favourite toy.

Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazer /La Cineteca del Friuli
Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazer /La Cineteca del Friuli

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