It was already exciting to learn that Too Much Johnson—the filmed prologues, designed to form part of the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 revival of William Gillette’s antique farce, that supposedly perished in a fire at Orson Welles’s villa in Spain—had been discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone and restored by the George Eastman House. More than that of any other filmmaker, Welles’s oeuvre trails off into films withheld from view, films unfinished, films lost or stolen or destroyed, and films not made at all. And anyone who loves Welles has doubtless spent time staring at the surviving fragments—the sketches for Heart of Darkness, the script with the missing scenes from The Magnificent Ambersons, the remnants of It’s All True or The Merchant of Venice, the fragments of a proposed adaptation of Moby-Dick—attempting to conjure up a further glimpse of what has gone unseen or was never there in the first place: all those spaces from which we’ve been barred forever. Rarely has the process worked the other way, with the lost coming back into view.
In the event, Too Much Johnson turns out to be a much more extraordinary piece of work than might have been anticipated. The recovered reels constitute a partially edited work print, 66 minutes long, of something that was never meant to be a freestanding work, and was never completed in any case. (The play went on without the prologues and closed after a very brief run.) While the footage is broadly sequential, there are multiple takes of a number of scenes. Not precisely a film, then, but without a doubt one of the most exhilarating and moving chunks of recovered cinema imaginable.
Gillette’s play was evidently a perfect touring-company vehicle, one of those hyperactive farces that once carried the tonic of silliness from one end of America to another until the movies began to erode the franchise. Welles undertook to cut the script drastically and relegate much of its elaborate backstory to the film segments, and in the process pay homage to the silent-comedy traditions of Sennett, Chaplin, and Keaton. The most fully realized portion of Too Much Johnson consists of an extended chase scene—a philandering Joseph Cotten pursued by Edgar Barrier as his mistress’s irate husband—tearing through a succession of Manhattan locations. It’s a period piece, and the straw hats, bloomers, and outsized mustaches are all designed to foster the uncomplicated exhilaration of a dress-up game.
From the start—in the interrupted bedroom rendezvous that sets the action going—Welles captures the look of a 1912 movie with the same precision he would bring, with much greater technical resources, to the newsreel footage in Citizen Kane. But Cotten and an impossibly young Arlene Francis are no sooner framed with Biograph theatricality than the interpolation of extreme close-ups breaks the illusion. In a moment the lovers are engaged in a sex scene that, although fully clothed, is a good deal friskier than anything one would have been likely to see on a movie screen in 1938. Then the husband intrudes, and the long chase is on.
From the outset, the mood of freewheeling improvisation gives Too Much Johnson the effect less of any commercial film of the period than of home-movie clowning by a 23-year-old novice filmmaker just having fun. Indeed, by the time we get to the final “Cuban” sequence—Cuba being represented by an upstate New York quarry with rented palm trees—the production looks to have devolved into fairly disorganized horsing around, with Cotten and Barrier flailing in a large pond while Ruth Ford and Virginia Nicolson (Welles’s wife at the time) mime screams of horror from the shore. But in an atmosphere loose enough to try anything, Welles pushes beyond pastiche or parody, and as the chase scene stretches on, it seems to become the catalyst for an astonishing succession of inventions. The re-creation of the atmosphere of old-time filmmaking may have begun in the spirit of an easily grasped joke, but it becomes something like a New Wave movie arriving quite a few years ahead of schedule.
Some of these inventions are homages to traditional gags. The one-shot sequence in which pursued and pursuers (a crowd of policemen and onlookers having now gotten into the act) continually exit and re-enter on one side street or another is a device worthy of Keaton. Even better is the business involving Barrier knocking men’s hats off, one after another (he only knows Cotten by the top half of his head), which culminates in a gorgeous shot of scattered straw boaters. The circuitous game of hide-and-seek among the baskets and barrels of Washington Market is executed with similar elegance, topped off with a burst of tumbling chaos. Some of Cotten’s daredevil moves, as he notably risks his neck lugging a ladder along a narrow ledge or leaps from one building to another only to hang precariously from the far roof, are breathtaking in the manner of the earliest movie thrills. The locations in which Welles set up these exploits hark back too, as he sought out neighborhoods, in West Washington Market (today’s Meatpacking District), Battery Park, and a section of the area leveled for the construction of the World Trade Center, that evoke an (even) older New York.
Too Much Johnson becomes a city movie like Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s 1921 Manhatta, reveling in architectural forms even as it exploits their comic potential. These forms are enlisted not as a means to static pictorialism but as dynamic arenas for dramas yet unstaged. It is like looking at a notebook in which Welles is sketching out visual ideas for later use, so that we recognize little pieces of The Lady from Shanghai or Othello or Mr. Arkadin taking shape amid the antics. The Wellesian compositional space—that enthralling maelstrom of sprawling angles and beckoning abysses—is already fully apparent, constructed out of the found materials of roofs and fire escapes and alleyways, demonstrating how few resources Welles needed to create effects of such depth and complexity. He did not require Hollywood’s electric train set to turn lower Manhattan into an abstract maze.
There is a piercing nostalgia for us in this footage, since so many of these places have vanished or been utterly transformed, but the nostalgia was already there for Welles. The care with which he evokes a pre–World War I New York prefigures the sense of the past that pervades Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and goes well past the farcical limits of his source material. Some haunting shots taken on the Hudson and intended to stand in for a Cuban sunset likewise transcend the comic business at hand. Perhaps Welles lost interest in the prologues for Too Much Johnson because they were finally too fragile a vehicle to support the kind of exploration they elicited from him. But even in their unfinished state they offer the remarkable and unexpected opportunity to experience the first blossoming of his filmmaking art.