Too Much Johnson: Orson Welles’s rediscovered debut

- by Tommaso Tronconi -

Thirty years ago, on October 10 1985,  Orson Welles died ,one of the greatest cinema directors ever. Everyone remembers Citizen Kane (1941) as an amazing film debut. But  according to a recent discovery another film kickstarted  Welles ‘s career, considered to be vanished for a long time, brought to light again in  2013 and seen by very few:Too Much Johnson (1938). Words in Freedom has seen it, and to celebrate Orson Welles 30 years after its death tells you about it and analyses it for you.

Orson Welles.

Orson Welles.

1938. Orson Welles is only 23 years old, is already well known in the American theatre and soon would impress everyone with the famous radio programme The War of the Worlds  (from H.G.Wells’s science fiction novel) on CBS. But before that shock on air, young Welles  tries to direct  the production of the theatrical piece Too Much Johnson by William Gillette at  Mercury Theatre in  New York. And he decides to add a film to it, a comedy , with the same title.

Even if it remained unfinished due to serious financial problems  (the same was  for the piece which was never performed on stage), Welles loved that cinema project so much that  he jealously kept its reels in his villa in Madrid. But in 1970, due to a blaze, they  were tragically destroyed and  Welles declared  to have lost the only copy of the film. But  history, after forty years, told us that  the burnt copy in the Spanish capital city  wasn’t the only one to have been released…

Suspended between a fluke and a miracle is indeed  the absolutely casual rediscovery in  2008, in a store in  Pordenone, of a second copy of the film. Restored  by Friuli film library (Cineteca del Friuliand shown on  October 9  2013 on Silent cinema days in Pordenone (Giornate del Cinema Muto di Pordenone, Too Much Johnson, a silent medium length movie (ony 66 minutes), in black and white, is  a real jewel incorporating in itself Orson Welles in all his power who from Citizen Kane onward  would have destabilised not only Hollywood.

It is silent, as we said,  but dating back to 1938.Ten years have passed  from when sound  was first used in the   cinema (in  1927
The Jazz Singer  by Alan Crosland was the first  film to use microphones). In the United States  the  transition from silent to sound wasn’t  radical  nor sudden and silent movies went on for two more years, till  The Kiss by Jacques Feyder in 1929. Too Much Johnson is then outside the deadline. Why this choice? Did Welles want to go back to the past or couldn’t he keep pace with the progress of cinema ? Absolutely not. Welles realised  consciously that it’s an  opera  moving against the tide in terms of history of cinema at that time.

1938 is a real synonym of classic American cinema. Clarity and trasparency are two keywords that every respectable film should have. The viewer is at the centre of classic American cinema and he should never get lost watching a film. Narrative continuity, chronological order of events, narrative content readibility, ranking of plains, dramatization of characters between “good” and “bad”. Everything must be coherent and clear. But with Too Much Johnson  literally breaching every  illusion of reality, Orson Welles stands as a  “scrap dealer” and first rebel  of classic American cinema. To understand why, let’s skip straight to the anlysis of the film.

Un'immagine da "Too Much Johnson".

Un’immagine da “Too Much Johnson”.

Interpreted by  Orson Welles’s future fetish actor, Joseph Cotten, Too Much Johnson  is about a   playboy, Johnson, who finds himself constantly followed by other people  taking his identity.To  escape one of his lovers’ husband, he goes to Cuba and takes  a local landowner’s identity.
A game of identities, then. Many identities, doubles, doppelgangers. Pursuers and pursued chase themselves, exchange their role, go around nonstop in a funny comedy on several occasions. Welles is aware of  American comedy big masters’ teachings : in Too Much Johnson,  slapstick-based gags of keystone cops by Mack Sennet,  Charlie Chaplin’s circus physical prowess in Cotten’s athleticism, the gloomy charm and   Buster Keaton’s hat. But Welles looks even more back: to  “camera” settings of Brighton school in the first years of XX century (when cinema language wasn’t born yet) and to cinema fathers, the Lumière brothers, in the scenes showing goodbyes to ships leaving.

UAn image from

An image from “Too Much Johnson”.

   Welles understood  that fun  comes not only from velocity (as Sennet used to say), but also  from iteration, repetition, real or apparent, of the same event. It is this way we see   Joseph Cotten doing more times the same gag (for example  that with the stair on the roof) or going to and fro more times (with different  angles of  mdp) along the same streets. Actions grow, break themselves down and  pull themselves together, germinate on each other until the trained nowadays viewer, as lost and and “hunted” in a dead end street, ends up giving up  Welles joke. But for him breaching the classic and categoric imperative of action, coherence, constant and close space and time is not enough. While classic cinema refused  the field depth (the close-up is focused as what is against the background) because it distracted the viewer  multiplicating points of focus, Welles uses it systematically. And so we see the close-up of the husband’s cuckolded face and against the background the playboy running on roofs. The same field depth with a narrative value  which we would see three years after  in Citizen Kane, where the viewer at a glance  can see against the background little Charles playing in the garden  with snow and his mum’s close-up inside  talking with banker Thatcher.

In conclusion,Too Much Johnson had and still has today the whole taste of a great  general rehearsal in which Welles tested far and wide the cinematographic means, that is to say  that toy  he would have converted into  Art. In a nutshell, Too Much Johnson was already Too Much Orson.

Cover image from “Too Much Johnson”.

Translation by Giulia Biagi
Proofreading by Antoinette d’Arbela

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