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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Johnson Returns!

We were very excited to be able to report last August that a lost Orson Welles film had resurfaced. But we didn't dare dream that we'd actually get a chance to see it mere months later. The discovered film is not a narrative film; the film is actually about four reels Welles shot of prologues to accompany the Mercury Theatre's 1938 stage production of William Gillette's farce Too Much Johnson. But Monday's screening at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive was certain to be an occasion, the film not to be missed.

The screening was introduced by Paolo Cherchi Usai, a senior curator at George Eastman House and one of the founders of Italy's Pordenone Silent Film Festival. (Bizarrely, the reels were found in Pordenone, with no clear indication of how they got there.) Usai explained that we were going to see the reels as they were found: the reels contain numerous retakes of various shots, left in as raw footage, and not (yet) edited into a format approximating Welles' vision. Usai also indispensably offered a synopsis of the play's plot, and commented throughout the screening on where each scene fit into the overall story, whether it was filling in action commented upon on stage or condensed some of the story.

It's tempting to say that in these reels we see the filmmaking genius that Welles would become (indeed, some have). I wouldn't go that far. Welles created these prologues in the style of silent comedy, recalling especially the climactic rooftop chase of the Harold Lloyd film Safety Last!, and is too preoccupied in these scenes capturing the style of known works to really be said to be developing a style of his own. (Richard Brody's review for the New Yorker explains many compelling details of the reels in the context of Welles' cinema - Brody's outline of the technical details of the reels is persuasive, as they capture the canted camerawork, deep focus shot compositions, and even the documentary elements that would inform Welles' visual style throughout his career. But I think it's a reach to ascribe, as Brody does, Welles' use of period architecture & costumes to the intense nostalgia that would inform Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.) But the reels are still an insanely valuable document of Welles' early years, even if they cast more light on his theatrical work than his work in cinema. Actually, the film offers a nice illustration of how those periods overlap: the ingenuity with which Welles deploys a few rented palm trees in a Hudson Valley quarry to suggest Cuba certainly resurfaced in piecemeal, round-the-world film productions like Othello (where Welles staged a crucial murder in a Turkish bath where his actors would only have to wear towels, rather than the period costumes which had gotten lost in transit).

If the reels are not as revelatory of the specific artist Welles would become, they offer a fantastic impression of the talents of Joseph Cotten. Welles would lament later (in the pages of MY LUNCHES WITH ORSON, if nowhere else) that Cotten never really got the chance he deserved in Hollywood, that his good looks condemned him to leading man roles that didn't honor his range as a character actor. Indeed, none of Cotten's roles in this writer's memory offered him the chance to play the kind of extreme physical comedy that Welles asked of him for the Johnson prologues, which send him across lower New York rooftops, executing numerous retakes of palm-sweatingly physical pieces of business involving ladders and gutters. (At times I thought Welles buried the footage for fear that no insurance company would dare cover the Mercury after seeing it.) More intimately, takes and retakes of smaller bits of business with hat and umbrella show Cotten fully engaging with comedy, and it seems odd in retrospect that he wasn't asked to do more.

The screening was rounded out by three minutes (from PFA's collection) of archival film of Welles at work on Too Much Johnson, clad both in tie & suspenders and a beat-up straw hat. Looking mature for his then 22 years, already hard at work. I'm pleased that other screenings of Too Much Johnson have appended this clip - the package would seem incomplete without it.

If one isn't as convinced that the reels show Welles' singular style already fully formed, then one must admit they show the hand of a passionate artist (literally, in one shot, as he reaches in to steady a wayward ladder for Cotten), one willing to go out of his way to capture period detail, one willing to get his hands dirty (and risk his and his actors' lives, it seems) to get some unforgettable shots. Regardless of one's perspective of the film, it's an invaluable find, and a welcome addition to the corpus of Orson Welles.

EDIT (8/21/14) - the movie is now online for your viewing pleasure!

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