Orson Welles made his feature film debut as a director with Citizen Kane and before that he directed the eight-minute short film Hearts of Age, which you can watch at the bottom of this post. However, Welles worked on another film between those two efforts, which was believed lost forever… until now.
Dave Kehr at the New York Times has posted a feature article on Welles’ Too Much Johnson, a 1938 film he wrote, directed and never finished based on the play by William Gillette, which has recently resurfaced “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.”
Classic film organization Cinemazero is working with George Eastman House and the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve and transfer the nitrate film to safety stock, after which the 40 minutes of surviving footage will be screened at this year’s Pordenone film festival on October 16 with a hope for financing to offer the film on the Internet later this year.
The cast of the film includes Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis, Howard Smith, Edgar Barrier, Mary Wickes and Welles’s wife at the time, Virginia Nicholson, billed under her stage name, Anna Stafford and the following is the plot of the feature via TCM:
In order to conduct a secret dalliance with Mrs. Dathis (Francis) aboard his former yacht, Augustus Billings (Cotten) uses the name “Johnson” and inscribes a photograph of himself with his assumed name. Mrs. Dathis’ jealous husband (Barrier) later tears the photograph and only the curly black hair remains with the inscription “Johnson.” Billings’ mother-in-law, Mrs. Batterson (Wickes), and his wife investigate Billings’ explanation of his absence. Billings accompanies them to Mexico where supposedly he had been called to look after recently acquired oil properties. Billings takes them to a property owned by an intimate friend, but the property has been sold to a man named Joseph Johnson, who is aboard the same ship to Mexico as Billings, his wife and mother-in-law, as well as a revenge-seeking Mr. Dathis. Also on board are Francis Faddish (Eustace Wyatt) and his daughter Leonora, who is to become the bartered wife of Johnson. Johnson knocks out the jealous Mr. Dathis, who has been searching everywhere for the curly-haired philanderer. After Johnson mistakes Billings’ wife for his own bride-to-be, Billings tricks Johnson into a declaration of marriage with Mrs. Batterson. Billings is therefore relieved of the mother-in-law who interfered with his marital happiness.
Kehr adds a little additional description writing:
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.
I have included one of the four images from the film Kehr featured in his piece just above, which is obviously the reference to Cotten he made in comparison to Lloyd’s film.
Welles apparently shot some 25,000 feet (nearly four hours’ worth) of footage for the film and home movies from the shoot were apparently captured by a Mercury Theater investor and preserved in the Pacific Film Archive creating a great possibility for a fascinating Blu-ray release in the future. Criterion, are you listening?
For now we have to wait to see what comes of this news, but if you haven’t seen it, give Welles’ short film Hearts of Age a watch directly below as your patience wears thin and also click here to read Kehr’s full piece and check out a few more pictures from the production.