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 www.filmpreservation.org. (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 presentation.
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 venues.”
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 Johnson episode more than a mere footnote to Welles’ career. Nicely done.
Throwback Thursday will return next week!