Saturday, May 2, 2015

Too Much Johnson (Mercury Theatre, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Too Much Johnson is a Welles project with an even weirder genesis than Jane Eyre: made in 1938, two years before Welles signed with RKO and made Citizen Kane, the film was originally part of a multi-media spectacle Welles wanted to stage based on a play actor-writer William Gillette wrote in 1894. The play features a woman who’s dating three guys named (or at least using the name of) Johnson, and takes place both in New York City and Cuba, where the main Johnson (played in Welles’ production by the almost unrecognizably young Joseph Cotten) flees and is confronted by his girlfriend’s husband and several other characters. Welles decided to shoot filmed prologues for each of the play’s three acts, deciding that the movie medium would work better to set the stage for Gillette’s complicated plot than long, dialogue-drenched expository scenes. Alas, though Welles had legally licensed the stage rights to Gillette’s copyrighted play, he hadn’t taken into account that movie rights were an entirely separate matter; what eventually became Paramount studios had purchased the film rights to Too Much Johnson in 1912 and made a silent film of the play in 1919, and when they got word that Welles was planning to show his own film adaptations of scenes from Too Much Johnson as part of a production of the play, they went to court and slapped an injunction on him forbidding him from doing so.

In 1969 Welles sat for an interview with Charles Higham for a book called The Films of Orson Welles — though when the book was published two years later Welles angrily severed ties with Higham, saying the book had misrepresented him and in particular objecting to Higham’s allegation that Welles didn’t properly finish his films because he had a psychological block against doing so — and showed Higham a fully edited version of Too Much Johnson. (This was probably the same print Welles had shown the RKO bigwigs back in 1940 before he signed with them to prove to them that he did know how to direct a film. This is important because much of the promotion around the Too Much Johnson rediscovery argued that Welles never properly edited the footage.) Higham had frame enlargements made from the movie and published them in his book, but in 1970 that print of the film was destroyed when Welles’ villa in Madrid burned. Too Much Johnson was assumed to be a lost movie until 2005, when a work print from which Welles had worked on his editing in an archive in the small Italian town of Pordenone. The Pordenone archive worked with the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York on preserving and restoring the film, and publicly premiered a 67-minute version which is fascinating for film scholars and Welles fans but almost unwatchable by a general audience. The reason is that instead of attempting to duplicate Welles’ editing (such as we know about it) or do anything else to make the footage coherent, they simply ran all 67 minutes as it stood, with the result that for no apparent reason we see multiple takes of many scenes and it’s almost impossible to discern what is happening or why.

It occurred to me that the only way to present Welles’ Too Much Johnson in an audience-friendly way would be to try to reconstruct Welles’ combined film-stage production, hiring modern actors to perform the play live, making them up to look as much like the people in the movie as possible, and showing Welles’ footage in the context for which he intended it. What survives is a surprise mainly because it’s a comedy — as much as I love Welles’ films, one thing they are noticeably deficient in is humor, but here he’s shooting al fresco on the streets of New York (and letting in a few anachronisms in a film that’s supposed to be set in the past — Gillette wrote the play in 1894 but in the scene in which the characters drive to the dock to take a steamer to Cuba, which Gillette called the Tropic Queen but Welles changed to the Munificent, we see a car that looks to be from about 1912) and clearly evoking the greats of silent comedy in general and Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin in particular. There are some shots that strikingly anticipate scenes in later Welles films, including a chase scene shot overhead in a storage room full of crates and barrels (the resemblance to the scene in Kane’s junkroom towards the end of Citizen Kane is instantly discernible to any Welles fan), a sequence in which people are shown in extreme close-up wearing forbidding hats that a malicious character goes about knocking off their heads that anticipates the sequences of neighbors gossiping in The Magnificent Ambersons, and some final vertiginous shots of the cliffs around Cuba that (even though the locale was undoubtedly somewhere in upstate New York) Welles repeated in The Lady from Shanghai. But most of it is a rambunctious farce comedy that, properly edited, scored (the archive that re-released the film included a dreary “modern” score by Italian pop musicians instead of the 1920’s silent-comedy score the film clearly called for) and shown in context with scenes from the play would probably make an excellent viewing experience — but as it is, just a bunch of rough cuts strung together with virtually no clue for the non-cognoscenti about exactly what’s supposed to be going on, Too Much Johnson is at least as oppressive as it is entertaining.