Download Footage from Orson Welles’ Long Lost Early Film, Too Much Johnson (1938)

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?

Find many more silent clas­sic films in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Lost Films of Orson Welles

Watch Orson Welles’ The Stranger Free Online, Where 1940s Film Noir Meets Real Hor­rors of WWII

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

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.

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