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Too Much Johnson

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Too Much Johnson

Too Much Johnson
Virginia Nicolson, Joseph Cotten and
Ruth Ford in Too Much Johnson (1938)
Directed by Orson Welles
Produced by John Houseman
Orson Welles
Written by Orson Welles
Based on Too Much Johnson
by William Gillette
Starring Joseph Cotten
Virginia Nicolson
Edgar Barrier
Arlene Francis
Music by Paul Bowles
(Music for a Farce)
Cinematography Paul Dunbar
Harry Dunham
Edited by William Alland
Orson Welles
Richard Wilson
Release dates
  • 1938 (1938)
Running time
66 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $10,000

Too Much Johnson is a 1938 American silent comedy film written and directed by Orson Welles. The film was made three years before Welles directed Citizen Kane, but it was never publicly screened. The film was shot to be integrated into Welles's Mercury Theatre stage presentation of William Gillette's 1894 comedy, but the motion picture sequences could not be shown due to the absence of projection facilities at the venue, the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut. The resulting plot confusion reportedly contributed to the stage production's failure.

The film was believed to be lost, but in 2008 a print was discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy.[1][2] The film premiered Wednesday, October 9, 2013, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.[2] In 2014 the film was made available online by the National Film Preservation Foundation.[3]

Two previous films had been made of this play, a short film in 1900 and a feature length Paramount film in 1919 starring Lois Wilson and Bryant Washburn. Both of these films are now lost.


  • Cast 1
  • Production 2
  • Post-production and exhibition problems 3
  • Loss and rediscovery 4
  • Reception 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8



The film was not intended to stand by itself, but was designed as the cinematic aspect of Welles's Mercury Theatre stage presentation of William Gillette's 1894 comedy about a New York playboy who flees from the violent husband of his mistress and borrows the identity of a plantation owner in Cuba who is expecting the arrival of a mail order bride.[4][5]

Welles planned to mix live action and film for this production. The film was designed to run 40 minutes, with 20 minutes devoted to the play's prologue and two 10-minute introductions for the second and third act. Welles planned to create a silent film in the tradition of the Mack Sennett slapstick comedies, in order to enhance the various chases, duels and comic conflicts of the Gillette play.[6]

"The multi-media concept was a throwback to the early age of cinema when vaudeville shows were punctuated by quick cinematic vignettes," wrote Welles biographer Bret Wood.[7]:51

Welles thought highly of Joseph Cotten (Horse Eats Hat) as a comic actor, and cast him as the lead in the farce. Other Mercury Theatre actors included Ruth Ford, Arlene Francis, Howard Smith, Mary Wickes and Eustace Wyatt. Welles's wife, Virginia Nicolson, appeared in the film under her professional pseudonym Anna Stafford. Bit parts were given to Welles's Mercury Theatre producer John Houseman, assistant director John Berry, composer Marc Blitzstein and the New York Herald Tribune's drama critic Herbert Drake; Welles gave himself a small role as a Keystone Kop.[4] Among the uncredited extras for a crowd sequence was a young Judy Holliday.[8]

Paul Dunbar, a newsreel cameraman for Pathé News, was the film's cinematographer. Location photography took place in New York City's Battery Park and Central Park. Additional shooting took place on a Hudson River day-trip excursion boat and at locations in Yonkers, New York, and Haverstraw, New York.[4] Interior shots were set up at a studio in the Bronx, New York.[9] For the Cuban plantation, Welles created a miniature structure next to a papier-mâché volcano, with store-bought tropical plants to suggest the exotic Caribbean flora.[4]

Post-production and exhibition problems

Welles and his crew spent ten days shooting Too Much Johnson, which resulted in approximately 25,000 feet of film. He edited the footage on a Moviola in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, and John Houseman later recalled visitors had to "wade knee-deep through a crackling sea of flammable [nitrate] film."[10]

Welles was assisted by

External links

  1. ^ "Film Threat’s Top 10 Lost Films". Film Threat ( January 25, 2001. 
  2. ^ a b c Kehr, Dave. "Early Film by Orson Welles Is Rediscovered". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 August 2013. 
  3. ^ a b "Preserved Films: "Too Much Johnson" Work Print (1938, 66 min.)".  
  4. ^ a b c d e  
  5. ^ "Too Much Johnson".  
  6. ^ “Orson Welles” by Charles Higham, Google Books
  7. ^ Wood, Bret, Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990 ISBN 0-313-26538-0
  8. ^ McBride, Frank, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006 ISBN 978-0-8131-2410-0 page 103
  9. ^ Cowie, Peter. "The Cinema of Orson Welles." 1973, A.S. Barnes & Co.
  10. ^ a b c Brady, Frank,Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989 ISBN 0-684-18982-8
  11. ^ a b McGilligan, Patrick, Paul M. Buhle, Alison Morle, and William B. Winburn, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. ISBN 9780312170462
  12. ^ Kelly, Ray (September 7, 2013). Too Much Johnson'—Searching for press coverage from August 1938"'". Wellesnet. Retrieved 2015-08-15. 
  13. ^ “Welles Before Kane” by Joseph McBride, University of California Press
  14. ^ Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9
  15. ^ Heylen, Clinton, Despite the System, Chicago Review Press, 2005 p 10.
  16. ^ "Lost Orson Welles Film Restored by George Eastman House". George Eastman House. Retrieved 8 August 2013. 
  17. ^ "Lost Orson Welles Film Found in Italy". SHOOTonline. 1938-08-16. Retrieved 2013-08-08. 
  18. ^ "Eastman House restores lost Welles film". YouTube. Retrieved 2013-08-08. 
  19. ^ McKenna, Josephine. "Unfinished Orson Welles film found in Italy". The Telegraph. Retrieved 8 August 2013. 
  20. ^ "Lost Orson Welles Film Restored by George Eastman House". George Eastman House. Retrieved 2013-11-01. 
  21. ^ "Preserved Films: "Too Much Johnson": The Films Reimagined". National Film Preservation Foundation. Retrieved 2014-08-21. 
  22. ^ "Orson Welles' unfinished film 'Too Much Johnson' now available online". Bacle, Ariana,  
  23. ^ "Orson Welles lost film screened in Italy". Martin Chilton,  
  24. ^ "Orson Welles and a Spanish Snow White make for a diverse Pordenone". Pamela Hutchinson,  
  25. ^ "Critic's Notebook: Early gems from Sweden, Ukraine and Berlin bolstered a rich 32nd edition for the world's most important silent-cinema festival.". Jay Weissberg ,  
  26. ^ "Too Much Johnson: Recovering Orson Welles’s Dream of Early Cinema.". Joseph McBride,  


See also

a youthful tribute not only to the spirited tradition of exuberant low comedy but also to the past of the medium he was about to enter. Welles was always enamored of the past, though more, he said, of the mythical past we prefer to revere in fantasy than the actual messy past that was, e.g., “Merrie Old England” and “Camelot” rather than the real England of those days. He explores that theme in deeply personal ways in The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight, and Too Much Johnson is also reflective of his obsession with bygone times, cultural mores, and means of expression.[26]

Writing for Bright Lights Film Journal, film historian Joseph McBride categorizes Too Much Johnson as Welles’s pre-Hollywood filmmaking experiment,

There are moments of ultra-broad comedy — Arlene Francis, looking ravishing, hams it up with evident delight at the start — yet the outdoor footage, much of it shot in the Meatpacking District and further south, is a delightful spin on slapstick chase conventions, and a dashing Joseph Cotten, in Harold Lloyd mode, demonstrates a remarkable lack of vertigo along with physical grace. Genuinely funny rather than derivative, the film as seen, complete with multiple takes, feels fresh and spirited up until the last section, when scenes meant to take place in Cuba (but shot near the Hudson, with a few rented palm trees) lose a bit of steam before the amusing final shots.[25]

Variety called the unedited footage "an unanticipated delight":

And while it is a work print, not a finished film, Too Much Johnson offers breathlessly enjoyable viewing. Joseph Cotten makes a tremendous movie debut as the play's philandering lead, displaying unimagined guts and agility in a series of tumbles and leaps across Manhattan rooftops, pursued by a prancing, moustache-twirling Edgar Barrier. And Too Much Johnson is itself an affectionate romp through Keystone two-reelers, Harold Lloyd's stunt slapstick, European serials, Soviet montage and, notably, Welles's favoured steep expressionist-influenced camera angles.[24]

Demand to see Too Much Johnson at its world premiere at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival warranted two additional showings.[23] Reporting the "snaking queues outside the auditorium", The Guardian described the film as "a gleeful experiment in silent cinema pastiche":


On August 21, 2014, the complete 66-minute work print of the film was posted online by the National Film Preservation Foundation.[3] An edited version running about 34 minutes including intertitles, with new music composed and performed by Michael Mortilla, was also made available.[21] "If this edit is only a guess, it strives to be an educated one," stated the foundation, "informed by research into the unpublished play scripts left behind by Welles and the Mercury Theatre company."[22]

[20] premiered October 9, 2013, at the Too Much Johnson

A copy was discovered in Italy in 2008.[2][16] and on August 5, 2013, the black-and-white photo-chemical preservation and restoration." [18]

Welles never completed editing the film component for Too Much Johnson and put the footage in storage. He rediscovered it three decades later at his home outside of Madrid, Spain. "I can't remember whether I had it all along and dug it out of the bottom of a trunk, or whether someone brought it to me, but there it was", he later recalled. "I screened it, and it was in perfect condition, with not a scratch on it, as though it had only been through a projector once or twice before. It had a fine quality."[4] Welles, however, never allowed the footage to be seen publicly, stating the film would not make sense outside of the full context of the Gillette play.[13] In August 1970,[14]:439a fire broke out at Welles's villa and the only known complete print of Too Much Johnson was destroyed.[15]

Loss and rediscovery

Welles initially planned to present the stage-and-film mix of Too Much Johnson at the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut as a pre-Broadway trial run, but discovered that the theater's ceiling was too low to allow for film projection. The show opened on August 16, 1938, without the filmed sequences.[10] Most modern sources report that audience and critical reaction to the show was poor and caused Welles to abandon the production, but a search of press coverage at the time indicates no negative published reports and no reviews from major critics. The Branford Review reported that interest in the stage production was strong as it began its second week.[12]

During post-production, Welles ran into financial problems relating to his cast (who were not originally paid for the film shoot) and the film laboratory, which refused to deliver the processed film until it received payment. Welles also received an attorney's letter from Paramount Pictures informing him that the studio owned the film rights to Too Much Johnson, and that public presentation of his film would require payment to the studio.[10]

"Orson had a wonderful time making the film," Berry said, reporting that Welles was so absorbed in the cutting that he took little note when the film caught fire in the projector. "What I remember, most remarkably, is me running with the projector in my hand, burning, trying to get out of the door into the goddamn hallway, and Houseman racing for the door at the same time … while Orson, with absolutely no concern whatsoever, was back inside, standing and looking at some piece of film in his hand, smoking his pipe.[11]:65

:62, 64–65[11]

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