Too Much Johnson (1938) | Orson Welles Centenary |BLU-RAY

May 8th, 2015
Author: Meredith Taylor

Cast: Joseph Cotton, Virginia Nicholson, Edgar Barrier, Arlene Francis, Mary Wickes

US Silent Comedy

At the 2013 Pordenone Film Festival a remarkable premiere took place. Orson Welles’s second film Too Much Johnson (1938) was finally revealed. A mint copy of this long-considered lost silent comedy displayed the ‘boy wonder’ Orson having cinematic fun with his new toy – the movie camera. Too Much Johnson is a chase movie. Joseph Cotton plays an elusive philanderer being pursued by his rival, in romance, across Manhattan rooftops, a meatpacking market and a Cuban desert.

The film was intended to be screened as an integral part of a Welles Mercury Theatre production of an 1894 stage comedy written by William Gillette. You have to keep this multi media idea in mind and realise that only a very small portion of the film was edited by Welles. What survives is an unfinished 66 minute work print that even to avid fans of Orson Welles does feel, on first viewing, a chore to sit through. True there are delightful pastiches of the Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd, German expressionism, Harold and early Soviet cinema. Yet this is all un-edited stuff in need of a more dynamic momentum. However a newly-edited, cut down alternative cut (or intelligent guess) lasting 34 minutes has been done by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

This speculative edit of Johnson allows Welles’s fans to have more fun in seeing how much (if any) of a youthful auteur’s signature is here. Citizen Kane did come next, and there are low and quirky camera angles on rooftops (before Welles did his Kane ceiling images), some mischief with the novelty of the automobile and a sophisticated organisation of crowd scenes. These shots look like ideas to be fully realised in The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger and The Trial. But any possible Wellesian ‘look’ is still very much grounded in his personal love of the past and early cinema.

Greed,_1924,_19_epilogoThere is an amazing scene involving barrels and hats. This has the flavour of the René Clair silent The Italian Straw Hat. Group compositions combined with deft cutting, where guys scramble for their boater hats and trilbies after chaos amidst rolling barrels, lend a frenetic charm. These moments are matched by Johnson’s later scenes where the hunter and the hunted splash, fully clothed, around a lake near a desert. Here we are pushed into something a little odder, more absurd, even darker, than a knockabout comedy. I wonder if Welles intended some mad comic take on the final scenes of Stroheim’s Greed? (left).

Too Much Johnson is more of a fascinating, re-discovered curiosity than a lost gem.But it’s still wonderful to have it back in circulation. As for the acting, well Joseph Cotton reveals a gift for comedy that was never properly realised in his other films. Both versions of Too Much Johnson are now freely available, from the National Film Preservation Foundation, and can be viewed online. Now, I wonder if the discovery of the lost Magnificent Ambersons footage is just round the corner? Just a cineaste’s improbable hope! AP

CELEBRATING THE CENTENERY OF THE BIRTH OF ORSON WELLES | DVD / BLU| Screened at 2013 Pordenone Silent Film Festival – Cinema del Muto | Courtesy of Mr Bongo Films 

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