We still think of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the most impressive debut in film history. In an alternate cinematic reality, however, Welles might have debuted not with a revolutionarily fragmented portrait of a tormented newspaper magnate, but a slapstick farce. This real 1938 production, titled — spare us your jokes — Too Much Johnson, ran aground on not just financial problems, but logistical ones. Welles conceived the film as part of a stage show for his Mercury Theatre company, they of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. An adaptation of William Gillette’s 1894 play of the same name about a philandering playboy on the run in Cuba, this then-state-of-the-art Too Much Johnson would have given its audiences a filmed as well as a live experience in one. Alas, when Welles had the money to complete post production, he found that the Connecticut theater in which he’d planned a pre-Broadway run didn’t have the ceiling height to accommodate projection.
Long presumed lost after a 1970 fire took Welles’ only print, Too Much Johnson resurfaced in 2008. After a restoration by the George Eastman House museum of film and photography (along with collaborators like Cinemazero and the National Film Preservation Foundation), the film made its debut at last year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Though without its intended context — and for that reason never screened by Welles himself — the film nonetheless won no modest critical acclaim. The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw calls it “breathlessly enjoyable viewing,” praising not just Welles but star Joseph Cotten’s “tremendous movie debut,” an ” affectionate romp through Keystone two-reelers, Harold Lloyd’s stunt slapstick, European serials, Soviet montage and, notably, Welles’s favoured steep expressionist-influenced camera angles.” Bright Lights Film Journal‘s Joseph McBride frames it as “a youthful tribute not only to the spirited tradition of exuberant low comedy but also to the past of the medium [Welles] was about to enter.”
You can download the restored Too Much Johnson footage, and read more about the film and the project of bringing it back to light, at the National Film Preservation Foundation’s site. Or simply click here. (Don’t forget to spend a little time at their donation page as well, given the expense of a restoration like this.) Have a look at the 23-year-old Welles’ handiwork, laugh at its comedy, appreciate its ambition, and ask yourself: does this kid have what it takes to make it in show business?
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
If you’re going to call something “Too Much Johnson” in 2014, everyone is going to be disappointed.