The only surviving copy of Orson Welles’ 1930 silent film Too Much Johnson was long thought irrecoverably lost after a fire devastated Welles’ home outside Madrid in 1970, yet yesterday the George Eastman House not only announced it had been recovered, but that a screening would be held this October.
The nitrate film from Welles’ Mercury Theatre was recently found in an Italian warehouse by staff from the Cinemazero art house in Pordenone. The comedic film was directed by Welles to be used as a prologue for a stage adaptation of an 1894 play by William Gilette, although it was never finished, and, whether or not there was a connection, the play when it opened on August 16, 1938 was wildly unpopular. Yet it starred the likes of Joseph Cotten and Ruth Ford — who along with Welles himself would go on to bigger film things.
“Sometimes when you find a lost work or a rare work from an artist it would typically come from somewhere in the middle of their career,” the head preservationist on the project, Tony Delgrosso, told Hyperallergic. “This was a film he essentially made right after his short avant garde film, The Heart of Ages, and from there the next thing that we know of his is Citizen Kane.”
As Delgrosso said, through the film you can get a glimpse of his early artistic flourishes, and how those are part of the story of how Welles became the landmark director of the 20th century that is remembered today. The George Eastman House, while perhaps best known for photography, is just as significant a resource for film archives and preservation, and the preservation with the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Cineteca del Friuli, and Cinemazero found the nitrate print surprisingly intact, likely never screened since it was made.
So why are we just hearing about this discovered film? Delgrosso explained the secrecy: “When you have a discovery like this, we needed to look at the film and see that it really was what it was supposed to be and that we had all the elements and that we’re preserving the complete piece of work.” And now, not only were they able to announce that the film existed, but that they had preserved it and were going to make it available to the public.
There are about 25,000 reels of nitrate film that the George Eastman House holds in its archives, although this is their first original film of Orson Welles. And to see the images of Joseph Cotten in his film debut, about a decade before he would star alongside Welles in the 1949 The Third Man, and the beginnings of Welles’ characteristic framing, much shot on location in New York, emerge after believed lost for so long is an incredibly rare discovery.
“It’s just amazing to look at this original material in motion and to be one of the first handful of people to see this production since it was filmed in 1938,” Delgrosso said. “That makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up even for a preservationist.”
The George Eastman House’s restoration of Too Much Johnson will make its world premiere on October 9 at the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto silent film festival, and will then screen on October 16 at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York. It is then planned for the film to be available for streaming online in the public domain.
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