Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Too Much Johnson (2013 world premiere of a work print for Mercury Theatre), live commentary by Paolo Cherchi Usai

Joseph Cotten. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.
Prima mondiale / World Premiere
TOO MUCH JOHNSON (Mercury Theatre, US 1938) (work print) D: Orson Welles; story: from the stage play by William Gillette (1894); DP: Harry Dunham; ED: Orson Welles; AD: James Morcom; cost: Leo Van Witsen; prod. asst: John Berry; P: John Houseman, Orson Welles; C (in order of appearance): Virginia Nicholson [Nicolson] (Leonora Faddish), Guy Kingsley (Henry Mackintosh), Eustace Wyatt (Francis Faddish), Arlene Francis (Mrs. Clairette Dathis), Joseph Cotten (Augustus Billings), Herbert Drake (a “Keystone Kop”), Marc Blitzstein (passante/bystander), Ruth Ford (Mrs. Augustus Billings), Mary Wickes (Mrs. Upton Batterson), Edgar Barrier (Leon Dathis), John Houseman (a “Keystone Kop”), George Duthie (commissario di bordo/a purser), Erskine Sanford (Frederick), Howard Smith (Joseph Johnson); 35 mm, 5936 ft, 66' (24 fps); print source: Cinemazero, Pordenone / Cineteca del Friuli, Gemona / George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. No intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: Philip C. Carli, live commentary: Paolo Cherchi Usai, 9 Oct 2013

Restored by George Eastman House at the Cinema Arts, Inc. laboratories (Pennsylvania, U.S.), through a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Additional preservation from Haghefilm Digitaal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with funding provided by La Cineteca del Friuli.

The nitrate positive film is reproduced as it was found – with no editorial intervention – ordering the reels by the presumed sequence of events in Orson Welles’ adaptation of William Gillette’s stage play.

Geoff Brown (The GCM Catalogue): "“How did you shoot it?” Peter Bogdanovich asked Orson Welles at some point in the late 1960s. “Got some kind of a silent camera and just went out and started cranking … Lots of fun.” He was talking about Too Much Johnson, an idiosyncratic jeu d’esprit made for the Mercury Theatre in 1938 but never exhibited in public before now; indeed it has long been considered lost without trace, victim of a fire at Welles’ house in Madrid, circa 1970. Now we know that the material of Too Much Johnson was never lost, only mislaid. A shipping company in the late 1970s received a mysterious consignment, of whose paperwork there remains no trace. Moved by chance to a Pordenone warehouse, the material was given shelter in 2005 by the local film organization, Cinemazero, after the smell emanating from the package suggested decaying film. Confirmation of its title emerged only in December 2012 after identification by the Italian Welles specialist Ciro Giorgini. Conservation speedily followed. Who arranged the shipment? Impossible to say, though it’s certain that the playful director of F for Fake, the lover of conundrums and conjuring tricks, would have relished the convoluted fate of his first extended celluloid venture. He might even have made a film about it, had he the time and the funding."

"In Welles’ filmography, Too Much Johnson is prefaced only by the 8-minute The Hearts of Age (1934), a grimacing satire of Caligari and Europe’s other avant-garde trophies, featuring Welles as Death. Citizen Kane, his Hollywood début, lay three years in the future. Too Much Johnson is different from either, not least in intent. For it was never meant as a stand-alone film at all, rather as a series of sequences shot for inclusion in one of Mercury’s theatre productions. Interweaving cinema and live drama is commonplace now, but it was a novelty in 1938 when Welles and John Houseman hatched plans for their second Mercury Theatre season in New York. Two years before, for the Federal Theatre Project, the pair had successfully presented Horse Eats Hat, a joyfully unfaithful treatment of the Eugène Labiche play Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat), already filmed by René Clair. Hoping no doubt for similar success, Welles unearthed another farce, Too Much Johnson (1894) by William Gillette (1853-1937), the American actor-dramatist most famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. Treating the text as liberally as he did Labiche’s, Welles conceived the idea of avoiding the first act’s extensive expository dialogue by conveying the necessary information chiefly by silent filmed pantomime, involving much chasing and slapstick. Once past Act One, he also planned shorter introductory filmed sequences for Acts Two and Three."

"Shooting was rushed through in the summer of 1938 in order to meet the scheduled pre-Broadway opening on 16 August at Stony Creek, Connecticut. Adopting what would be their stage costumes, the Mercury actors pitched in with brio, especially Joseph Cotten, cast in Gillette’s role of the philandering hero Augustus Billings. Sporting a constant straw hat and a celluloid collar high enough to be made from the lost footage of Greed, he flung himself into the part with a degree of animation that he rarely exhibited before a camera again. Arlene Francis, later a stalwart of the American TV quiz show What’s My Line?, played Billings’ French amour, Clairette Dathis; further female adornment came from Virginia Nicholson, then Welles’ wife. The cameraman was Harry Dunham, an adventurous newsreel talent accustomed to off-the-cuff shooting after covering the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. Much of the time he shot on location: in the market district of lower Manhattan; at Battery Park; and further up the Hudson at Tomkins Cove quarry, Haverstraw, a stand- in for Cuba, Gillette’s setting for the last two acts, where the tangle of deceptions and misunderstandings reach their peak. Equipped with a Moviola, Welles edited the film himself in a Manhattan hotel suite, discovering in the process the truth of the mantra later expressed by his biographer Simon Callow: “To shoot is human; to edit, divine.”"

"As the Stony Creek premiere approached, it became unfortunately apparent that the theatre could not accommodate film projection. In his haste Welles had also ignored the play’s film rights, claimed by Paramount Pictures, who had produced a version in 1920 and threatened to demand a fat fee if Mercury’s venture reached Broadway. Stripped of its film sequences, the play opened on schedule in Connecticut but failed to register strongly enough to justify a Broadway transfer. The filmed apparatus of Too Much Johnson then entered limbo, aside from the musical accompaniment, written in an American-Parisian style by the future novelist Paul Bowles (the composer also for Horse Eats Hat), who quickly sliced his score into a sprightly concert piece, Music for a Farce, written for clarinet, trumpet, piano, and a busy percussion kit including milk bottles and a doorbell."

"Pre-publicity for the Mercury production mentioned “several hilarious motion picture sequences in the Mack Sennett tradition”. The legacy of silent slapstick is obvious in the surviving 66 minutes of lightly edited footage, peppered with multiple takes and a degree of narrative disorder. Welles’ Manhattan is policed, it seems, by the Keystone Kops; chases spread out up and down streets, fire escapes, roofs and beyond, with the camera sometimes under-cranked. Harold Lloyd’s brand of high anxiety clearly influenced the rooftop chases and Cotten’s antics with an extended ladder; while Edgar Barrier, as the moustache-twiddling jealous husband, briefly exhibits Ben Turpin’s crossed eyes. Aside from the silent comedy influence, the action’s speed also matches the play’s original dialogue, crafted to suit Gillette’s regular staccato delivery of urgent sentences, aimed at duplicating the confusions of actual conversation."

"Other influences may be spotted. The sunlit “interior” scenes, shot on an outdoors lot at Yonkers, suggest the naughty spice and plein air shooting of early Pathé comedies: fitting enough, since Gillette’s play was adapted from a French farce, Maurice Ordonneau’s La Plantation Thomassin (1891). There are also signs of Welles’ future: in his amused treatment of the late 19th century scene (revisited in The Magnificent Ambersons); in the artfully framed domestic shots and the exuberant exploitation of architectural space. One early chase sequence features striking footage of market packing cases – a haunting pre-echo of Charles Foster Kane’s worldly goods, piled up for auction at the end of Citizen Kane."

"All the while, Welles’ actors charge through the footage, fulfilling actions that either match or, more often, indulgently expand upon the matter of Gillette’s farce. But who exactly are these characters? What are they doing, and why? It’s not particularly easy to explain, though given the material’s oblique nature an attempt must be made."

"So here is a brief guide to the play and its filmed inserts. Cotten’s Augustus Billings, the serial lover and spinner of lies, has been wooing the comely Mrs. Dathis under the alias of Alfred Johnson, an imaginary sugar plantation owner in Cuba (the actual occupation of one of Billings’ friends, Lounsberry). When Mr. Dathis returns home unexpectedly, Billings escapes, only to be continually pursued by the enraged husband, armed with the top half of a photo of “Johnson”, torn from his wife’s hands. As the action moves to a suffragette parade, the Manhattan docks, and a ship bound for Cuba, Dathis spends most of his time obsessively knocking off men’s hats, hoping to identify the “Johnson” forehead."

"Welles’ footage, however, actually opens with another domestic fracas entirely, featuring Leonora Faddish (Virginia Nicholson’s part), her lover Mackintosh, and her overbearing father, who insists on Leonora marrying a wealthy, flesh-and-blood sugar plantation owner in Cuba. The plantation owner’s surname, naturally, is Johnson. After the extensive chases through lower Manhattan, circumstances then bring all the parties, plus Billings’ wife and grandmother (earlier seen in a brief episode packing suitcases), onto the S.S. Munificent, bound for Santiago. End of Act One."

"The chases continue on the ship, then in Cuba, where the play’s plot complications multiply. The footage takes us to a rocky bluff, decorated with comically fake palm trees, where we join a grieving servant at the grave of Billings’ plantation friend Lounsberry, whose business and land has conveniently passed to the real-life Johnson, a hot-tempered chap with a whip. “Johnson” and Johnson fight a duel, with Dathis also involved. There is also much floundering in a flooded gravel pit. The play itself ends with Billings the master trickster engineering his escape from Cuba with his family, Leonora, and Mackintosh, while the characters left in Cuba determine to get their revenge."

"Could the Mercury Theatre’s fusion of cinema and stage in Too Much Johnson possibly have worked? Perhaps not, for Gillette’s text and the filmed supplements reach their humour through different registers: the text methodical, the images anarchical. But for all the footage’s patchy progression, it’s still a thrill that this vital stepping-stone in Welles’ career has been miraculously brought back to life. Keep your eyes peeled, and hold onto your hats, especially if your surname is Johnson." – Geoff Brown (The GCM Catalogue)

[HOME MOVIE. MYRON FALK COLLECTION. ORSON WELLES DIRECTING TOO MUCH JOHNSON] (US, 1938) D: ?; cast (on camera): Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Ruth Ford, Virginia Nicholson [Nicolson], Edgar Barrier, John Houseman?, Howard Smith?, e altri/and others; Blu-ray (from 16 mm [reversal positive], 79 ft), 3' (transferred at 18 fps); source: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA. No intertitles.

Mona Nagai, Paolo Cherchi Usai: "This is a brief but unique document of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson in the making. Orson Welles is seen directing on location (sequences designed to evoke Cuba, with rented palm trees and a pond); Joseph Cotten and Ruth Ford appear, among others. The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive received this short film from the grandson of Myron S. Falk, who was one of the original sponsors of the Mercury Theatre. The donor found in his grandfather’s diaries of 1938 and 1939 many mentions of Orson Welles and the Mercury – although no reference to Too Much Johnson – and conjectured that Myron Falk might have been given this reel of film or perhaps even shot it." – Mona Nagai, Paolo Cherchi Usai (The GCM Catalogue)

AA: Stranger than fiction: Orson Welles' lost pre-Citizen Kane film was found last year in Pordenone. I was certainly not the only one to think that there must be a practical joke here somewhere, but the incredible story proved true. The world premiere was, appropriately, in Pordenone. The silent footage was shot by Mercury Theatre for prologues to be used in their theatrical production of William Gillette's comedy Too Much Johnson, but the plan was rejected after the film had been shot and rough-edited. Paolo Cherchi Usai narrated live the projection of the work print screened as it was found, transferred onto safety film. The visual quality was mostly fine. The frame enlargements attached here are a realistic reference of the photographic quality of the print screened. Too Much Johnson does not make sense in itself, but in the Mercury Theatre context the discovery is invaluable, and the live narration was indispensable for us. Aspects of Welles's visual sense (but not his mastery) are already in evidence. Too Much Johnson is a spoof full of the joy of play. They had fun, and so have we.

After the screening there was a debate on what we actually saw. Was the material screened actually a workprint or a compilation of outtakes? The theory was presented that the workprint was, in fact, destroyed in a fire but reels of outtakes were saved. Anyway it was a fascinating screening.

In Pordenone's closing gala some days later we saw comedy masterpieces by Buster Keaton (The Blacksmith) and Harold Lloyd (The Freshman), and Too Much Johnson is largely a tribute to the golden age of film comedy, mainly to the earliest stage of primitive slapstick such as the Keystone comedies, inspired by great Frenchmen and Italians who preceded them. But the performance of Joseph Cotten is also influenced by Keaton and Lloyd. Like Lloyd Cotten is a good acrobatic comedian in scenes on rooftops and high buildings. And like Keaton he has a sense of dignity in the most embarrassing situations. The bedroom farce scenes of Too Much Johnson are influenced by late French silents like René Clair's Un chapeau de paille d'Italie. Orson Welles and his team are not just doing parody. They clearly enjoy the idioms of several various stages in the development of film comedy.

In our recent complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective I was struck by the two psychologically complex performances Joseph Cotten gave for the master of suspense. In Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock's personal favourite film) the angle of Cotten's performance as the serial killer is the agony of lying: the killer has never a moment of a peace of mind because he has to keep reminding himself all the time of the lies he has been telling. In Under Capricorn Cotten as the male protagonist has made the ultimate sacrifice and taken to himself the guilt of the murder his wife has committed, but instead of solace the sacrifice has brought only bitterness and devastation after Cotten's deportation to penal servitude in Australia.

After two such dark and brooding performances it was a delightful revelation to see Joseph Cotten this good in comedy. Was he ever better in a comic role in a film? Orson Welles had a great sense of humour, but Too Much Johnson was his sole comedy film project.

Two key expressions about Too Much Johnson: jeu d'esprit and esprit de corps. The Too Much Johnson footage is a priceless document of the spirit of the Mercury Theatre.

Arlene Francis. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Edgar Barrier. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Joseph Cotten. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Ruth Ford. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Joseph Cotten, Edgar Barrier. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Edgar Barrier. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Joseph Cotten. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Virginia Nicholson, Ruth Ford. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Joseph Cotten. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

John Houseman. Photo: George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli.

No comments: