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.
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.