Too Much Johnson: Becoming Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten in Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (1938)

A missing piece of the puzzle in Orson Welles‘ career could be found at The George Eastman House in Rochester, NY last Wednesday evening. Hundreds of fortunate film lovers witnessed a bit of cinematic history at the North American premiere of the recently restored work print that comprises Too Much Johnson in The Dryden Theatre on October 16th. Never completed by the wondrously ambitious, over-scheduled, and often under-financed young Welles, the real beginnings of the prodigy’s love affair with movies can be glimpsed in these three chaotic, often funny and engaging silent scenes, alive with the raw curiosity of Welles with a new toy and the high spirits of his talented company of players. Too Much Johnson doesn’t have the astonishing verve or visual polish of Citizen Kane or the depth of The Magnificent Ambersons, but the existence of this film confirms the remarkable creativity pouring from Welles during his early career.

Welles had made a surreal, striking eight minute film, The Hearts of Age (1934) while still in his teens, experimenting with makeup, technical effects and symbolism, but his eye and enchantment with the medium’s real possibilities jumps off the screen when viewing the disparate images in Too Much Johnson, even today. Long believed lost, the last copy of this unfinished film was thought to have been consumed (“rosebud”-like) in a fire in 1970 at the Welles home in Madrid, Spain until it was found five years ago in Italy. How these films wound up moldering away, neglected and unknown in a warehouse in Italy is still a mystery.

Being lucky enough to be in attendance on this occasion was a singular joy, but one of the more memorable moments that evening was not on the screen. Instead, it was the moment when Senior Curator Paolo Cherchi Usai asked the audience to pause in memory of an ordinary man, Mario Catto. This individual, working in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, found the nitrate film stock of about 40 minutes length in several boxes that were about to be thrown away. The discoverer was not a trained film historian, a restorer, or a film student. He was–like many of us reading this post–a person who just loved movies and knew that someone ought to take a look at this decaying celluloid before tossing it away. I like to think that Welles himself might have been amused to learn that twenty years after his death, a non-professional sensed that there something of value in this rusting container and brought it to the attention of Cinemazero, an art house cinema in Pordenone, the community that is the home of the world-renowned Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Fittingly, that festival hosted the world premiere of Too Much Johnson a week before The George Eastman House screening narrated by Eastman film preservationists led by Mr. Usai, with live piano accompaniment by Philip C. Carli.

Mario Catto, who died last year, never saw the working print that has now been lovingly restored by a collaborative international team under the direction of The George Eastman House, funded in part by the National Film Preservation Foundation, and with the extraordinary technical assistance of Cinema Arts in Pennsylvania and Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands. The footage found in the containers, described by Welles as “an imitation silent comedy,” were originally intended as part of a play that The Mercury Theatre was presenting in summer stock in a small theatre in Stony Creek, Connecticut managed by two Mercury Theatre associates. Based on the brief but dazzling track record of The Mercury Theatre and Orson Welles‘ reputation at the time, the two week tryout was sold out.

Already famous at 20 for his innovative Harlem staging of a Haitian MacBeth with African-American actors in 1936, the controversial landmark production of The Cradle Will Rock the year before, and the brilliant re-imagining of Julius Caesar as a fascist nightmare on Broadway, Welles was also voicing The Shadow on the radio (in part for the money, which helped to finance the Mercury). He was only months away from the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in October of 1938, a gesture that would haunt him and raise his stature nationally. No wonder people were eager to see this play and to feel a part of The Mercury Theatre’s future.

Originally intended to complement a Mercury Theatre revival of actor William Gillette‘s 1894 convoluted marital farce, “Too Much Johnson,” Welles had planned to use the silent films as a prologue before each act of the play, circumventing the fustian plot while attempting to fuse film and stage in a fresh and electrifying way. (As a former member of the Roosevelt Administration’s Federal Theatre Project, Welles was naturally familiar with the theatrical experiments in the ’30s, notably those multimedia experiences created by The Living Newspaper to dramatize issues of the day). Welles’ goal however, appears to have been injecting a certain jaunty fun into a dated play with a certain ribald drollery from the perspective of a uniquely cheerful and worldly point-of-view.  Too Much Johnson was filmed in ten days in mid-summer all over New York, from The Bronx to Hudson River locales, with Welles and his actors scampering from spots such as the Fulton Fish Market and the meat-packing district chosen for their 19th century look.

Orson Welles directing at age 22

Never a director to spare his actors, the hectic plot centered on a chase across New York to Cuba by an outraged husband (Mercury Theatre regular Edgar Barrier) in pursuit of the dastardly Lothario (Joseph Cotten, making his film debut) who had seduced his wife, (played by Arlene Francis, who was once young and frisky, based on her appearance here). An escape by boat, mail order brides, suffragettes on parade, a Cuban plantation owner, a mother-in-law, and dueling adversaries all make appearances in this overstuffed story. Much of the action paid affectionate homage to the rowdy slapstick found in Mack Sennett and Harold Lloyd silents as well as harking back to the flamboyantly theatrical conventions of the turn-of-the-century generation that clearly tickled the budding director. His goal, as it often was in this period when he alternated profoundly serious theatricality with a simultaneous desire to be popular, appears to have been encapsulated in one phrase that Welles’ biographer Simon Callow mentions as part of the young Orson’s persona: let’s have fun.

That element of fun amid what looks like very hard work for the actors came across vividly in a few minutes of a 16mm film included in the program last Wednesday. The home movie filmed by a relative of Mercury Theatre’s investor Myron S. Falk was created while Orson Welles and his crew worked on the third act in a spot doubling for Cuba (complete with potted palms, some of which tipped over at key moments). The scenes show an impossibly young Welles capering, roaring orders at Cotten and Barrier, while also demonstrating a silent movie walk and run in a good-natured way with his actors. This film, a snippet of which can be seen here, was preserved as a black-and-white print by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Of course, farcical fun on stage and screen requires restraint, timing, and discipline, not merely a merry heart, as Welles and company eventually learned after shooting about 25,000 feet of film (about four hours worth)   The co-founder of The Mercury Theatre, producer John Houseman was recruited as an actor in this film who appears as a Keystone Cop-type and a duelist on a cliff, eventually characterized the entire production as ultimately, “trivial, tedious, and underrehearsed,” though not everyone felt it was entirely a waste of time. Looking at what the 23 year old had already achieved by 1938 leaves a person awestruck in admiration for the chutzpah and talent he possessed. And this is when the work that has had the most lasting impact was still ahead of him.

John Houseman as a cop in Too Much Johnson

Above: Producer John Houseman as a cop in Too Much Johnson

Welles‘ intense interest in filming appears to have been an indication of the director’s waning interest in the stage exclusively as he expanded his experimentation in radio and cinema. For anyone trying to concentrate on organizing the theater group on a sound basis, this flirtation with film may have seemed a passing fancy, yet in that same year, the youthful director told an audience at The National Council of Teachers of English that the theatre “is not worth your attention” and was largely ” a place to come in out of the rain.” In entertainment value, he asserted his new-found belief that the stage “is vastly inferior to the movies.”

A casual viewer can readily trace the outlines of scenes to come in his use of the camera in Too Much Johnson. Welles already appeared to have been particularly skilled in capturing crowd movement, giving them a comical and slightly menacing cohesion (an artistry he had honed while directing the “Vudu MacBeth” and “Julius Caesar” on stage prior to this production). In one of the many chase scenes, particularly one sequence shot from a great height amid towering baskets and packing crates in an old market, the POV and the camera’s lofty placement appears to be quite similar to the closing scene of Citizen Kane (1941) when the camera pulls back to reveal the stacks of stuff accumulated by Charles Foster Kane. In a frantic chase scene, there is even a fairly leisurely pan following a moving wagon in the distance that appeared to echo the masterful opening sequence in Touch of Evil (1958). There is even a series of complex shots during a chase down a tenement fire escape with the image intersected by a tangled cluster of electrical wires in the foreground–not unlike the shattered image in the fun house mirror that Welles would use so memorably in The Lady From Shanghai (1947). No wonder there is reportedly some evidence that RKO’s management may have signed Welles to direct Citizen Kane after seeing this raw footage and immediately discerning the deft hand of a potentially great film director.  All that was in the unseen future three years down the road for the twenty-three year old.

Things to Come: Too Much Johnson chase (left) & a shot of the last sequence of Citizen Kane

Above: A glimpse of a chase scene in Too Much Johnson (left) & a shot of the last sequence of Citizen Kane (right).

Several of those involved appear to have seen the film and the play as a bit of “a lark.” Most scenes were filmed on the fly, with the crew and cast rarely asking permission of anyone before shooting. The director was aided enormously by the ability of the work of cameraman Harry Dunham,  (the same Harry Dunham who shot the footage of a young Mao Tse Tung and which would later be the source footage for Frontier Films’ China Strikes Back in 1937),  though the work of the invaluable Pathé newsreel cameraman Paul Dunbar is credited in some sources as well.  Accustomed to capturing spontaneous action in any situation, Welles asked the cinematographer to undercrank the camera to “achieve a jerky, fantastic action at normal projection speed,” which was done for certain sequences. The seemingly deliberate chaos of their working manner was vividly described by Mercury actress Ruth Ford, who explained that one day filming would concentrate on the actors vaulting up and down a fire escape in a one hundred fifty year old building in lower Manhattan. The next they would decamp for a spot in Yonkers. The latter, Ford said, was “where we set up to photograph on a vacant lot. We set up a scene and got in our costumes. I can’t recall how far we got, but the police came and chased us away because we didn’t have permission to do this.” 

Joeph Cotten precariously perched above lower Manhattan

Above: Joseph Cotten precariously perched above lower Manhattan (credit: GEH.org)

During another of their improvised shoots in New York, the police were called after crowds gathered to gape at the outlandishly costumed and somewhat disturbing sight of actors scampering across the rooftops of the city. Welles turned on the charm with the authorities and the hoi polloi. The city dwellers were understandably leery of individuals seemingly in distress on rooftops. A suicidal young man had held the city spellbound for hours until leaping to his death only a week before Welles filmed his precarious actors aloft. Joseph Cotten, a figure I really had not considered to be a particularly physical actor prior to this, displayed a worrisome derring-do during the extended rooftop chases up, down, around chimneys and scrambling across slippery looking tiles–sometimes while carrying a ladder and usually keeping his straw hat firmly clamped on his head! (I was glad that I spied what looked rubber-soled shoes on his feet). The game Cotten, chased by Edgar Barrier‘s maddened cuckold up and down streets, buildings and various urban obstacle courses, really shines during this movie. His deadpan nimbleness and acrobatic presence energizes every scene he appears in, and at the premiere the crowd in the Dryden gasped and laughed occasionally as the actor literally threw himself into his work, even falling two stories onto a moving cabbage truck as it rolled along. Not surprisingly, Cotten‘s work in this play on stage was one that attracted the attention of Katharine Hepburn, who attended the play twice, hiring the appealing actor to appear opposite her in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story on Broadway. 

Above: Marc Blitzstein, Ruth Ford & Mary Wickes (back to camera) in Too Much Johnson (1938)

Above: Marc Blitzstein, Ruth Ford & Mary Wickes (back to camera) in Too Much Johnson (1938)
(Credit: Stage magazine, 1938 & Steve Taravella)

Fellow actor James O’Rear recalled that the Cuba sequences, which appear to have been filmed in an active rock quarry in Haverstraw, New York,  brimmed over with action. “We did it like Keystone cops,” he explained, “with lots of jumping around. We had a wonderful time, a lot of laughs. Orson was fun to work for.” Several actors (and non-actors) played various parts in the films. Other actors pressed into duty for Welles first attempt at storytelling on film included Welles’ first wife, Virginia Nicholson, (who was acting under the name of Anna Stafford), who was apparently recruited for involvement to distract her from her husband’s infidelity and to provide transportation for others in the staff.  Composer Marc Blitzstein wrote that “I played 1) a stevedore 2) a masculine sympathizer in a suffragette parade 3) a passenger waving goodby from a steamer, and 4) a man on the dock waving back goodby…” Future director John Berry as well as then-switchboard operator Judith Tuvim (later Judy Holliday) are also said to be among the cast, though I was unable to spot either of them.  Most easily identified in the cast due to her clear-cut manner,  height and startling youthfulness,  was the presence of the essential character actress Mary Wickes whose services Orson Welles had sought since first spying her in a featured role in the Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman Broadway smash, Stage Door

The Mercury Players outside the Stony Creek Theater, Aug., 1938. (l-r): Howard Smith, Mary Wickes, Orson Welles with his wife Virginia Nicholson on his lap, Bill Herz, Erskine Sanford, Eustace Wyatt, and Joseph Cotten

The Mercury Players outside the Stony Creek Theater, Aug., 1938. (l-r): Howard Smith, Mary Wickes, Orson Welles with his wife Virginia Nicholson on his lap, Bill Herz, Erskine Sanford, Eustace Wyatt, Joseph Cotten.
(Credit: “The Theatre of Orson Welles” by Richard France, Bucknell Univ. Press/Associated Presses, 1977 & Steve Taravella).

Mary Wickes is actually the only reason I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the event at the Eastman House thanks to the generosity of my friend, Steve Taravella, the author of the entertaining and insightful biography, Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (University Press of Mississippi). Steve, whose incredible detailed research into Mary’s life and career helped to inform the narrative provided by the Eastman staffers during the film premiere and the Q & A with the audience after the film, had become a friend thanks to our correspondence about the great Ms. Wickes (the audience expressed their fondness for her immediately when she came into view). As it turned out, her time at The Mercury Theatre was an interesting interlude for Mary, but her career–before and after Welles–continued to develop in its unique way. 

As Steve described it in the biography, Welles spotted Mary shining in a featured role in the company of the hit Broadway smash of 1936, Stage Door, by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. He tried to hire her repeatedly for several of his productions for The Mercury Theatre, but fate (and the in-demand Wickes’ schedule) first brought her into his company for Too Much Johnson. Welles was so eager to have her as part of the company, he had “offered to send a car for her every night after her performance [in a play in Stockbridge, MA] and to get her back in time for her next performance the following day— a four-hour drive each way. ‘Orson had a one-track mind when he wanted somebody…’” as Bill Herz, the casting director for the Mercury Theatre Company and the producer of the Stony Brook Theatre that summer recalled.

As Herz, who is now 97 and has a razor sharp memory of this period, recalled when interviewed by Steve Taravella, sanity prevailed and Mary waited until she finished her commitment to a play in Stockbridge, MA before joining the company. She is definitely there on film, looking quite young (she was only 28), elegantly dressed in a turn of the century costume, and giving her usual precise, on point characterization to the role of the rigid, starchy character who perches like a regal stork in a carriage with Ruth Ford and Marc Blitzstein. In another sequence Wickes seems to lead the way on board a ship to Cuba (it was actually a ferry), hustling up the gangplank like a woman in high dudgeon on a mission to Havana.

Despite her professionalism, perhaps Mary Wickes’ saw the handwriting on the wall for this complex project more clearly than most of those involved. She was apparently one of the few individuals who ever saw the partially completed films prior to the opening of Too Much Johnson. Mary, according to Bill Herz, “said the film made as much sense as the show, which was zilch.”

,Amid all this creative hubbub, the stage production of Too Much Johnson was a bit of a disaster critically and financially–though their were a few kindly critics who hoped that the play could be “tightened up” prior to moving to a planned NYC opening. To the chagrin of producer and Mercury co-founder John Houseman, most of the flammable nitrate film reportedly wound up billowing underfoot in Orson Welles’ expensive hotel suite in The St. Regis where “the young genius” had set up a costly moviola. Money meant little to Welles, whose extravagances extended to his own chauffeur-driven cars for commuting back and forth to the Conn. theatre from NYC and long meals at Howard Johnsons along the road. The only economy tried was an attempt to circumvent Equity rules by paying actors rehearsal pay for filmed performances (the Mercury was ordered to give the actors their due–with Mary Wickes‘ salary doubled as a result).

When Welles was not on the radio or dallying with ballerina Vera Zorina in this period, Houseman wrote that it seemed as though his creative collaborator spent his days “laughing at his own footage while the slaves hunted in vain for the bits of film that would enable him to put his chases together in some kind of intelligible order.” Very few ever saw the footage that came out of this project, but, as Welles biographer Simon Callow put it so well, the visionary “had discovered the Frankenstein element of film-making. Sitting at the Steenbeck, it is really possible to assemble your own creature, and give life to it. The sense of power is intoxicating: a slow scene can be made fast, a funny one sad, a bad performance can be made good, and actors can be expunged from the film as if they had never been. To shoot is human: to edit, divine.” Welles would never be the same.
In the end, the film component of Too Much Johnson was never shown. At the last minute, the production discovered that the small theatre was not able to accommodate suitable projection equipment and, most importantly, lacked the fireproof projection booth required in the days before safety film. And although Welles worked frantically to finish editing the film segments before the play opened, he could not finish. Finally, having completed the longer opening film but not the important shorter bridge pieces, Welles was obliged to do the unthinkable— present the play without the reels of explanatory footage.

When Too Much Johnson opened in mid-September, he prepared the audience by announcing before the curtain rose that the play had not yet “jelled.” But even with audience expectations suddenly lowered, the result was a colossal failure by any measure, its plot so maddeningly unclear that Ruth Ford remembered audience members literally throwing food at the stage. “One of the most vivid things I remember about this is that we never integrated the film with the play, so when we put on the play but didn’t show the film, of course the audience had no idea what Too Much Johnson was all about,” Ford asserted. “They were so furious when it was over that on the curtain call they threw everything in their hands at us on the stage. Apples, bananas— every single thing they had, they threw at us. They didn’t understand what they’d seen. We were just all going in and out, opening and slamming doors.” According to Bill Herz, “The curtain went up at nine with two intermissions and came down at ten thirty and the audience didn’t know what hit them. It was an absolute mess. I had no idea what was going on on that stage and I can tell you, neither did the audience. They were absolutely appalled. The actors were also in the dark.”

The film was reported to have never been shown publicly, then or later. The Mercury had to forfeit its negative to the film lab when cost over-runs left the company unable to pay its bills. Welles later asserted that the “play and the film were too surreal for the audience. They couldn’t accept it,” he claimed, “It was years ahead of its time.”

Perhaps that year has come? The audience I saw this early Welles film with certainly found it absorbing and exhilarating, thanks in part to the exceptional restoration work done and the careful narration of the film presented by the eloquent staff of the Eastman. In addition to explaining to us how the largely unedited work prints we were seeing were meant to provide the audience with the exposition of the farce, they explained that one reel was more decayed than any other (it was rough but still watchable thanks to the remarkable technical retrieval of the film). The majority of the film stock was remarkably free of scratches and imperfections due to the fact that the movies had not been run more than a few times since being shot seventy-five years ago. What lies ahead for this Welles artifact? Perhaps a DVD release, or (I hope) a spot on TCM’s schedule someday. Most interestingly, the suggestion by curator Paolo Cherchi Usai that the movies could enhance a staged production of Gillette’s Too Much Johnson in the future, just as they were originally intended, is most intriguing.

UPDATE: The George Eastman House has just announced that Too Much Johnson will be receiving a New York City Premiere in November at The Directors Guild Theatre on November 25, 2013. More here:  http://eastmanhouse.org/collections/orson_welles_too_much_johnson.php

 

Below are links to more information related to this cinematic event.

The George Eastman House Press Release about Too Much Johnson

Eastman House Restores Lost Welles Film

Silent London Review about the Pordenone Premiere of Too Much Johnson

Wellesnet Too Much Johnson Report

Steve Taravella’s Q & A about Mary Wickes

Sources:

Callow, Simon, Orson Welles Vol. 1, The Road to Xanadu, Random House, 2011.
Cowie, Peter, A Ribbon of Dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles, A. S. Barnes, 1973.
Koszarski, Richard, Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008.
Pollack, Howard, Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World, Oxford University Press, 2012.
Taravalla, Steve, Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (Hollywood Legends) , University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Thanks to Steve Taravella and The George Eastman House, esp. Kellie Fraver & Tony Delgrosso

 

 

 

2 Responses Too Much Johnson: Becoming Orson Welles
Posted By robbushblog : October 28, 2013 6:01 pm

Wow! This is great news! With a New York premiere, either that wished for TCM premiere or a DVD release shouldn’t be too far away, I should hope. I have Hearts of Age. It is…interesting. I would love to see Too Much Johnson.

Posted By Moira Finnie : October 28, 2013 6:31 pm

I agree about the New York Premiere. If you go, I hope you will post your impressions of the event, which should be pretty interesting, considering the number of cinephiles in NYC. I really hope the Eastman staff is on hand to provide the enlightening narrative with the film too. Thanks for taking a moment to comment. If anyone wants to see Welles first short, “The Hearts of Age” (1934), it is available on youtube and is linked above in the post

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