Lost Orson Welles Silent Short Uncovered

Too Much Johnson surfaces in Italy

Orson Welles

It isn't The Merchant Of Venice or the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons, but the discovery of an Orson Welles work thought lost for forty years is still cause for celebration. So it's great news that the silent short Too Much Johnson (stop sniggering at the back) has been unearthed and restored in Italy, in time for this year's silent film festival in Pordonone in October. It was thought that the only copy was destroyed in a fire at Welles' Madrid home in 1970, but he always insisted another copy still existed somewhere. He was right!

Too Much Johnson was filmed in 1938, three years before Citizen Kane and in the same year as Welles' infamous War Of The Worlds radio broadcast. A pastiche slapstick comedy, it stars Joseph Cotten along with other members of Welles' Mercury Theatre troupe, and was intended to form part of a theatre production, from which it took its title.

"Too Much Johnson [the play] had an elaborate farce plot that required a lot of old-fashioned, boring exposition to set it up," Welles explained to Peter Bogdanovich for the book This Is Orson Welles. "The idea was to take all that out and do the explaining in a movie. We got some kind of a silent camera and just went out and started cranking. Lots of fun."

Again according to Welles, the film has "a big chase over the roofs of the old chicken market in New York. Then there's a sequence in Cuba with a volcano erupting and Joseph in a lovely white suit, carrying a big white umbrella and riding a big white horse. The horse had been Valentino's in The Sheik, and this was Joseph's first experience as an equestrian. It was all quite dreamlike."

Typically, given Welles' oft-thwarted ambitions, it transpired that it was impossible to show the film due to a lack of projection facilities in the theatre where Too Much Johnson was being staged. It turned out to be a moot point anyway: Welles and Mercury decided to perform Too Much Johnson second in a season, following a production of Georg Buchner's Danton's Death. Then Danton proved so costly and problematic that Johnson had to be abandoned.

So it's fair to say that not many people have seen this early Welles work, not least because he himself, before the fire, wouldn't allow it to be publicly shown outside its theatrical context. Pordonone attendees will finally get to discover the film on October 9, and it'll be shown a week later in New York at the George Eastman House, where its restoration from the uncovered 35mm nitrate stock has taken place. For the rest of us, there are plans afoot to get the film online in due course.