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Dolores del Rio
Orson Welles shot this film as part of an experiment in using film as part of a stage production of William Gillette's farce. Unfortunately, the film was never shown publicly because, though Welles had legally arranged for the right to stage Gillette's copyrighted play, the movie rights were held by Paramount, which took out an injunction to prevent Welles from showing the film. See more »
In the mid-1960s, I met Orson Welles while I was working for Lew Grade's ITC television organisation. Welles wanted Grade's backing for a film or TV project, and he was very eager to ingratiate himself. I had heard a rumour that 'Citizen Kane' was not actually Welles's film debut, and that he had directed some short films before 'Kane'. When I asked him about this, he graciously arranged for me to screen two brief films which he had directed pre-'Kane'. One of these was 'Too Much Johnson'.
Before I describe this movie, let me explain its source. 'Too Much Johnson' was originally an 1890s stage farce written by and starring William Gillette, an actor-playwright now remembered only for having written the first play about Sherlock Holmes. The main character in 'Too Much Johnson' is Augustus Billings, an American businessman who travels to Cuba with his wife and his termagant mother-in-law Mrs Batterson. Also aboard the steamship are a hot-tempered Frenchman and his wife, and some dim-witted Canadians. En route, Billings's wife discovers an embarrassing letter in his possession. To avoid divulging the truth, Billings claims that the letter was written by a Mr Johnson (who doesn't actually exist). In Cuba, the Billings party encounter an American named Joseph Johnson. Mrs Billings and her mother assume that this man is the author of the letter. Comic complications ensue ... but they're not very funny and certainly not believable.
Now, the film: the footage that Welles made (and which he allowed me to screen) was NOT a film version of Gillette's play. (His film ran only two reels, whilst Gillette's farce is a full-length play.) Nor is it an incomplete or abbreviated version of the stage play. Welles told me that he and the Mercury Theatre players had intended to stage a production of Gillette's play, directed by Welles. (I'm not certain if this production ever actually took place.) As an innovation, Welles and his cast filmed some bridging material, which would have been projected onstage during the scene changes. Welles cheerfully admitted that he had shot these sequences as an entree to Hollywood, in order to persuade the movie-studio executives that he could handle the disciplines of film direction.
Bearing in mind that this footage was never meant to be a complete film, it consists of several brief unlinked scenes. We see Joseph Cotten, Ruth Ford and the very funny Mary Wickes boarding a gangway at a wharf. (There's supposed to be a large ocean liner berthed just out of frame, but there obviously isn't; the quay is clearly too small -- and in water too shallow -- to harbour an ocean liner.) We also see the Frenchman and his wife (Edgar Barrier, Arlene Francis) in an unconvincing 'shipboard' sequence. We see some shaky hand-held footage of Joseph Cotten rushing about in the 'Cuban jungle', but the local flora don't look remotely tropical ... and Cotten's clothing, as well as his lack of perspiration, indicate that this footage was shot well north of the Tropic of Cancer. Welles told me that these scenes were filmed in Connecticut, but he didn't recall precisely where and I'm not even certain that he was being truthful. (During the same conversation, Welles told me that he had been a personal friend of Bram Stoker ... who in fact died three years before Welles was born.) None of the distinctive traits of 'Citizen Kane', such as Gregg Toland's depth-of-focus shots, or Welles's ceiling compositions, are in evidence here.
Welles also permitted me to see a brief clip of silent-film footage, shot mostly out of focus, consisting of some blurry close-ups of Joseph Cotten grinning outdoors in three-quarter view, a hand tugging a door-pull, and a brass bell spinning on a pavement. These clips seemed to be the result of Welles larking about with a camera, rather than increments of any sort of coherent film narrative. Judging from Cotten's appearance, and the general ineptitude of Welles's direction, these shots were filmed many months before 'Too Much Johnson' ... and they probably constitute Welles's debut as a film director.
The footage which I saw on this occasion has very little entertainment value except as a curiosity, and no significance except as a footnote to Welles's career ... and perhaps as a reminder that even geniuses have to start out completely ignorant of their disciplines. 'Citizen Kane' is definitely a masterpiece, but none of that genius is on offer in these film clips.
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