Friday, August 29, 2014

Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (1938)

Orson Welles' first foray into cinema was a silent romantic farce envisaged as a multi-media backdrop to a theatrical revival of the 19th-century William Gillette play Too Much Johnson by Welles' Mercury Theatre Company.  The project was never realised.

A work print of the scenes filmed by Welles on location in New York restored from reels found in Italy has been released by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The restored film is a bit too much of everything, yet there is a wry humour and the naïve exuberance of the neophyte discovering what he can do with a camera and a surrealist approach to editing. Scene cuts and unedited repetitions are dada-like, especially chaotic chase scenes where a woman's lover is pursuing a rival on the streets and over the rooftops of  Manhattan. Sequences in the Meatpacking District of New York featuring fruit boxes and hats are truly inspired. Joseph Cotton as the pursued paramour is a comic delight, and his rooftop antics really impress. Two "broads" the subject of amorous fancy are gorgeous and cheeky. An early bedroom scene between lovers is a lot of fun and has a rare post-Code sauciness . The final reel set in "Cuba" - fake palms stuck in the sand of a riverbed - is repetitious and lacks focus, though I imagine if Welles had finished the editing, it would have been a lot tighter. The added piano score by Michael D. Mortilla is brilliant.

The film can be viewed or downloaded on the National Film Preservation Foundation web site.