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Orson Welles Discovery Now Online

Orson Welles Discovery Now Online

Reading about a rare film “find” is one thing: seeing it is
another. The National Film Preservation Foundation is now streaming the
long-lost Orson Welles Mercury Theatre footage of Too Much Johnson. Shot in New York City in 1938, it was part of
Welles’ high-concept revival of an 1894 play featuring a young Joseph Cotten
and other Mercury actors.

This footage has intrigued Welles buffs for years, but it
was said to have been lost in a house fire decades ago. Imagine how exciting it
must have been to discover 10 reels of the original work print last year in a
warehouse in Pordenone, Italy! Film scholars owe a debt of thanks to the
Cineteca del Friuli and Cinemazero, which took possession of the material, The
George Eastman House
, which preserved it, and the NFPF, which helped fund its
restoration and is now making it available online at (Full
disclosure: I am on the board of the Foundation…but I can take no credit for
this wonderful turn of events.)

The Foundation is presenting two separate iterations of Too Much Johnson: the full 10 reels, running
66 minutes, just as discovered, without the title cards Welles planned to
insert, and a 34-minute “re-imagining” of the material in more presentable form.
Both versions feature new music composed and played by silent-film accompanist
Michael Mortilla. High definition versions will stream on Fandor, which is sponsoring the NFPF

As NFPF director Annette Melville explains, “The three comic
shorts were planned as part of the Mercury Theatre’s multimedia revival of
William Gillette’s 1894 warhorse, Too
Much Johnson
. For this production Welles red-penciled out most of Gillette
script, reducing it by half and turning the long-in-the-tooth marital farce
into a lightning-paced screwball comedy. Given the complexity of the tangled
plot, the Mercury Theatre intended to use the movies to give the backstory
before each act.”

If the name William Gillette sounds vaguely familiar, it may
be because he was a noted actor-playwright of his time who famously portrayed
Sherlock Holmes on Broadway and on film. Connecticut residents are familiar
with his palatial home, known as Gillette Castle, on the border of East Haddam
and Lyme, which is now a state park (and well worth visiting). Orson Welles had
his leading man, Joseph Cotten, costumed in an exact replica of Gillette’s
original wardrobe for Too Much Johnson.

The NFPF has also published, on its website, two significant
essays by its DVD curator Scott Simmon: “Too Much Johnson in Context” about the
1938 film-and-stage production, and “Too Much Johnson: The Films Reimagined,”
on the rationale behind the 2014 reconstruction. 

Simmon has done an impressive amount of research on the
original play and Welles’ plans for the integration of film in the presentation,
which ultimately came to naught: apparently the footage was abandoned and never
shown in the Mercury Theatre’s aborted run. “Why were the films never fully
edited and screened, when they came so close?,” he asks, in the first essay. “Later
explanations were never terribly convincing. It’s been said that the Mercury
company learned that the movie rights to Too
Much Johnson
were owned by Paramount (whose 1920 five-reel version,
directed by Donald Crisp, is lost), but presumably some financial arrangement
could have been reached if that was the major impediment. (Paramount’s legal
department made a thorough search of its archives in 2014 without finding any
such warning to Mercury.) It has also been said that everyone discovered late
that the Stony Creek Theater did not have a fireproof projection booth able to
show the flammable nitrate film, but there are at least two problems with this
explanation. The theater was built as a nickelodeon (in 1903, as the Lyric
Theater), so it would have had such a booth, and even had it been removed, it
would have been easy enough to strike a film print on nonflammable diacetate
stock, as was regularly done to show films in schools, churches and other such

Simmon has added valuable information, and understanding, to
the already formidable scholarship that exists on the subject of Orson Welles.
By examining Welles’ papers at the Indiana University and the University of
Michigan, and Gillette’s original play, and summarizing his findings so clearly
and eloquently, he has made the Too Much
episode more than a mere footnote to Welles’ career. Nicely done. 

Throwback Thursday will return next week!

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