Joseph Cotten, left, in “Too Much Johnson.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened their salute to Orson Welles Saturday, May 3, 2014, by screening the first films ever made by the famous director, “The Hearts of Age” and “Too Much Johnson.” Both demonstrated his great visual flair and theatrical storytelling while also providing evidence of his propensity for overreaching. “Too Much Johnson” shows a young filmmaker finding his way and gaining a love of his craft while also attempting to juggle too many plates.
ORIGINAL MUSIC (via Spotify)
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” I
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” II
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” III
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” IV
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” V
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” VI
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” VII
Paul Bowles’ “Music for a Farce” VIII
Before the films, AMPAS’ managing director of programming and education, Randy Haberkamp, led a panel discussion featuring Annette Melville of the National Film Preservation Foundation, Andrea Kalas of Paramount and Bruce Barnes, director of the George Eastman House, relating the background and history of this film, once believed to be lost. Discovered serendipitously in a Pordenone, Italy, warehouse in 2005, “Too Much Johnson” was repatriated to the United States and given to George Eastman House. After major damage was discovered to Reel 2, Haghefilm in the Netherlands executed a magnificent restoration and preservation, saving the reel. 99-year-young Norman Lloyd stole the show, however, regaling the audience with humorous tales of working with Welles as part of the Mercury Theatre in 1938.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
“Too Much Johnson,” courtesy of Wikipedia.
Welles’ 1934 short, “Hearts of Age,” screened first, made when the future director was only 19, demonstrated the wunderkind’s black humor and discerning eye. “Hearts of Age,” co-directed with William Vaught, features Welles’ first wife, Virginia Nicholson, playing an old woman and Keystone Kop, while Welles himself steals proceedings as a twinkly eyed Faustus-like character. The director considered the short an amusing lark, telling a 1982 interviewer that it was ultimately “a send-up…just a charade. Sunday afternoon fun out on the lawn.”
“Too Much Johnson,” on the other hand, reveals a young Welles falling in love with filmmaking, creating a loving pastiche of cinematic comedy styles that also displays evidence of his playful use of camera angles, smart editing and a gripping story. An unfinished work print, “Too Much Johnson” was intended as a tongue-in-cheek prologue and entr’actes to William Gillette’s hoary1894 play, “Too Much Johnson,” after Welles excised the convoluted plot and looked for something to jazz up proceedings for the Mercury Theatre’s intended production.
Shooting on Sundays around his crowded theatrical and radio broadcasting duties, Welles spent $10,000 to film the Mercury Theatre cast down around the Fulton Street Fish Market, Battery Park and lower Manhattan. The Aug. 10, 1938, New York Times reported that five minutes of “Too Much Johnson,” “already screened and rumored to be in the old Mack Sennett style of pie-throwing and Keystone cops, will tell the audience of events preceding the first act of the play…,” would premiere in two weeks with the play at Stonybrook, Conn.
For reasons unknown, the film never accompanied the play, perhaps because the theater possessed no projection booth, the film was shot on nitrate, or much more likely, Welles never finished editing it, becoming obsessed with the possibilities and art of film editing. In any rate, “Too Much Johnson” flopped in Connecticut and never made it to Broadway.
“Too Much Johnson” stars a young, handsome Joseph Cotten exhibiting the physical flexibility and dexterity of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in performing moving tricks, escaping chasing hordes, and climbing and dangling over roofs and chimneys. Cotten, playing an adulterous August Billings posing as ranch owner Johnson from Cuba, is almost discovered when the cuckolded husband (Edgar Barrier) returns home, and begins chasing him around Manhattan.
Director Welles smartly plays on early silent film conventions, undercranking the film in places, and aping acting and comedy styles. The opening shots copy primitive cinema, shooting interior shots outside in broad daylight, and showing Arlene Francis broadly reacting to the footsteps of her returning husband, Edgar Barrier, who resembles Sennett’s Billy Bevan with his walrus-style mustache and James Finlayson with his stunned double takes. The chase sequences follow slapstick comedy style conventions — bumbling cops, quick misses and reaction shots, and ironic chase sequences. John Houseman even lets himself go as a frantic Keystone Kop-style policeman.
Welles throws in surrealist touches with arty/diagonal angles, mood lighting, ironic juxtapositions, and an overhead, slow-motion dance of hat removal by Barrier, as he madly slaps hats off of unsuspecting men’s heads, which they all later dance and run through and over.
Cotten and Barrier, performing their own stunts, bring athletic good humor to their extended chase up, over, and around buildings and markets in lower Manhattan. Their final, surrealist moments in a pond of water also strike the funny bone. The large cast includes Mary Wickes, Ruth Ford, Arlene Francis, Guy Kingsley, Erskine Sanford, and Howard L. Smith, all of whom seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, bringing a great lighthearted charm to proceedings.
“Too Much Johnson” acts as a vintage time machine, capturing images of soon-to-be demolished buildings and complexes in lower Manhattan thankfully preserved on film. It also shows large groups of people watching the guerrilla-style independent filmmaking, some because of a recent suicide plunge in the area, and others because of the intriguing novelty of filmmaking.
Concluding the evening, the program screened home movie footage presenting Welles as an energetic, hammy director on the film, and a 30-minute edited version presenting what the final product might actually have looked like. Michael Mortilla’s lovely piano accompaniment brought the right touch of vigor and nostalgia to the films.
“Too Much Johnson” reveals passionate young filmmaker Welles testing out the possibilities of theatrical lighting, editing, and camera setups to tell a crackling story that entertains as well as intrigues.
AMPAS and LACMA will be continuing their Orson Welles film series Saturday nights at 7:30 pm through May at LACMA’s Bing Theatre, with Academy Award-winning effects men Ben Burtt and Craig Barron explaining the intricate special effects employed in “Citizen Kane” on Saturday, May 10.