Too Much Johnson (1938) Poster

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Too much Johnson, not enough Orson
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre26 October 2002
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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Probably for Welles completists only
Peter Reiher9 May 2014
Long thought lost, "Too Much Johnson" has been found and restored. Never intended as a standalone film, it is rather a collection of three filmed segments meant to introduce acts of a stage play, a farce from the late 19th century. It was never used that way, and Welles did not finish editing it for that purpose. What survives is a very rough cut, including multiple takes of the same shot, no titles (which probably would have been used), and material that seems very likely to be out of order.

The first segment is the longest and the best. It's primarily a farcical chase out of the silent comedy era, featuring an enraged husband chasing his wife's lover (Joseph Cotten) through New York, particularly over rooftops and up and down streets in the market district. This material was essentially stolen footage, filmed without permits on location as time allowed. Some of it is fairly funny, but in the version that survives, it doesn't hold together well. One must admire the grit of Cotten and the other actors, who are doing their own work here up on some rather dodgy rooftops.

The second segment is not very interesting. All important characters have taken a ship to Cuba and the husband is still chasing the lawyer. In this segment, we get shots of Cotten traveling to the plantation of a friend who proves to be dead, shots of the dead friend's servant at the graveside, and shots of the new plantation owner walking around.

The third segment is a slight improvement. It primarily consists of an extended duel between the husband and the plantation owner, who has been mistaken for the lover. The lover seeks to break up the duel. It goes on over cliffs and up and down hills, ending with the furious plantation owner trouncing both the husband and the lover and dumping them in a pond, where they sit bedraggled and hangdog.

So it was never intended to be a complete film, and even what there is does not represent a coherent, careful assembly of what was shot. However, there are certainly elements that suggest that Welles had pretty good understanding of directing for the camera before he ever got to Hollywood. He makes clever use of camera angles, clearly planned some interesting intercutting, and has elaborate shots with important elements in both the foreground and background.

Welles obviously gave thought to expressing plot cinematically, as in an extended sequence in which the husband runs around knocking hats off the heads of passers-by to match their faces against a torn photo showing only the forehead and hair of the lover. He use a variety of angles, including high overhead shots and reaction closeups from the victims, to build this sequence. Neither this sequence nor most of the others was fully edited, so it's not easy to tell how Welles really envisioned it, but it is clear that he had a pretty elaborate plan for how it would play on screen.

In summary, this is not a film one sees for the entertainment experience, but rather because one has a deep interest in Orson Welles and wants to get a sense of what his own raw talent was like before he got to Hollywood, carefully studied film, and worked with experienced film professionals.
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a brief history of Johnson, and an overview of the TCM airing
MisterWhiplash2 May 2015
It's always a miracle when a lost film is discovered, or an unreleased one or whichever, and for those looking for the scraps of what Orson Welles left behind and have never been able to see, the most prized missing stuff is... The Magnificent Ambersons, of course! But among the films thought lost to the ashes of time, one of them was Too Much Johnson, an experimental work that Welles made in conjunction with a play by William Gillette. I haven't read the play, but I've read about it, and it basically concerns a man who goes to Cuba, but also has a dalliance of some kind with a woman. And then there's a chase, and wackiness ensues about infidelities and husbands and wives and so on.

Actually, I may be confusing the play with what Welles filmed, which were, according to history, supposed to be bridging-segments during scene changes on stage. Also, Welles wanted to possibly try to convince Hollywood he could direct film - prior to this he'd done one really amateur short, The Hearts of Age, and this was either before or around the time that War of the Worlds happened, which got him his carte-blanch deal anyway - and what better way than to go another step further past his theatrical experiments (Macbeth with voodoo, Julius Caesar in modern dress) and make a true-blue independent film?

The problem in seeing Too Much Johnson today are two-fold at least: 1) Welles never left behind a fully finished cut, even in the form of what the segments would've really looked like edited together for the stage hybrid, and 2) what the Turner Classic Movie channel decided to do (in conjunction I suppose with an Italian restoration from the discovered footage from 2013) is just throw on TV at the end of a Welles 100th birthday celebration... everything. One might get the wrong idea tuning in in the middle of the night (which is when it officially aired) trying to get a potential glimpse at the Boy Wonder a few years before Kane to see what kind of work he was capable of - AND think, without the proper research, that it's a completed feature. It isn't.

What was shown on TCM is a work-print, basically anything that Welles and company shot; multiple takes included, many moments of Joseph Cotten just looking around or something taken a second time like characters on a horse carriage, and the coverage of angles. And, on top of this, the footage is scored with new music by some dude that is rather inappropriate, even for an unfinished product. If one is trying to watch it outside of the confines of stuffy film history, as, you know, an entertainment experience, it's all music that should be meant for some modern thriller (at best), NOT a Keystone Kops style comedy featuring the kind of set pieces that would later be emulated by Scooby Doo and Benny Hill.

Now, this isn't to say it isn't without some interest to watch this or seek it out if you may have also DVR'd it or, by chance, it finds its way online or whatever: Welles clearly shows, years before he met Greg Toland and the legend of the "You can learn everything about filmmaking in a few hours", that he already knew where to put the camera and direct actors. This isn't to say it all works; even the segments where things do cut together cohesively, it all moves super fast and oddly, and most of what's shown is just an extended chase (again, bridging the gaps of the play and experimenting).

But if you are looking at this and want to see some fun material, certainly Cotten in the lead, and women players Arlene Francis, Mary Wickes and Edgar Barrier (complete with giant mustache), plus Welles' wife at the time Virginia Nicholson, deliver on physical comedy, BIG expressions and gestures, and Welles accomplishes a lot of very daring physical feats and action. That he got away with so much - I don't know if they had those things called 'film permits' back in 1938 - is nothing short of remarkable. And considering how jumbled things are put together like this, I was surprised how much I COULD tell was going on.

But, again, all of the context about what this was counts. Watching this is for historical, cinephile-like, Welles-junkie reasons most of all. Compared to what's presented here, It's All True is a whole product. You're basically getting a series of glimpses into what was already apparent about this filmmaker, of his sense of play and imagination and just trying things out (a sequence involving knocking off hats, and how each man comes together to form a gang, is hilarious even in this rough form). If you go into it thinking it's a full feature you'll not merely be mistaken, you'll probably want to turn it off before it ends out of the monotony of multiple shots and jarring takes (plus raw footage that wasn't quite cleaned up).

So, needless to say, at 66 minutes long (!) this may be, ahem, too much Johnson, and whoever chose the music should be ashamed of themselves. But in this world where his unfinished works have attained a legend of their own, it's another piece of the puzzle. Last thing, though you may see a '7 out of 10', I really give no rating to this, as it wouldn't be fair - akin to grading a student film.
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Hard to Judge a Workprint
Michael_Elliott5 May 2015
Too Much Johnson (1938)

Orson Welles shot this film three years before CITIZEN KANE and it was never publicly shown. Welles had a print of the film but when he died he believed the only copy had burned in a fire but much later another print did turn up. Currently this film is available in a 66-minute workprint version as well as an edited 34-minute version, which apparently contains intertitles. It's worth pointing out that Welles himself never edited his "version" of the film.

Since I just viewed the workprint there's really no point in "reviewing" the film because what I viewed was pretty much every bit of footage that remains of the movie. When this was shown on Turner Classic Movies they decided to show this version because, I'm guessing, it contained the most footage and I'm sure most Welles fans wanted to see everything that was shot. The story itself is pretty simple as a man (Edgar Barrier) learns that the woman he loves is seeing another man (Joseph Cotten). Throughout the film Barrier chases Cotten around trying to catch him.

This was shot silent and was obviously a homage to the likes of Keystone and especially Harold Lloyd. Fans of the silent cinema will certainly want to watch this but those expecting to see something here that would predict the talent of Welles would eventually make something like CITIZEN KANE are going to be disappointed. Again, it's impossible to really judge a workprint but there are a few interesting things scattered throughout but I personally didn't see anything that would show early greatness from the director.

I thought the performances were quite good and especially Cotten who really does look like a silent film star. He manages to run around, climb buildings and fall over is a very believable and at times funny manor that really reminds you of some of the silent greats. The Lloyd influence is obvious. The film contains some good cinematography but without any intertitles it's really hard to follow the story. Perhaps the shorter, edited version takes care of this. As is, TOO MUCH JOHNSON is a film that Welles fans will want to watch but if you're unfamiliar with the genius then it would be best to start somewhere else first.
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Enjoyable for non-movie scholars too
jcravens4226 June 2015
If you aren't a movie scholar, and don't know the full history of this long-lost Orson Welles film, and don't know the summary of the play that this film was made to support, can you still enjoy it? Yes. I watched the film without reading any reviews or much background, and not knowing the play at all. And I seem to have enjoyed it far more than other reviewers.

I found the music, and the images, hypnotic. It was like watching a French expressionist/surreal film. The imagery of the film is striking - Welles' uses building angles and shadows in a way I have never seen in any silent film before. It's striking to see a tiny character walk across the vast landscape of the roof of a building, a white suit against a dark background - like a dot moving erratically across the screen.

Every take of each scene is used, so you see the same scenes, over and over, from different angles, each slightly different, or entirely different. Sometimes, you even see what were obvious outtakes, such as someone breaking character, or people screaming over and over, with the original intention being that only one of those screams would have been used - instead, we get them all. And that just makes the film all the more mesmerizing. Most reviewers seem to not like the music - I thought it was perfect, adding to the surreal, foreign feeling of the film - repetitive, like the scenes. It's by Remate, a contemporary music group out of Spain.

Joseph Cotton pulls off a wonderfully physical performance, with breath-taking stunts - if you enjoy nothing else, you will enjoy that. And the obvious fun the company had putting this together (look at the faces in the crowd scenes).

If you watch it, don't have any distractions - no laptop, no smart phone, no tablet. Just watch the film.

Too Much Johnson was originally intended to be used in conjunction with Welles's stage adaptation of play from 1894 by William Gillette. You don't need to know a thing about that play at all to understand most of the film, except for the ending and the secondary story which is barely there at all anyway. This movie is actually three short films, and Welles' Mercury Theatre planned to show each as prologues to each act of the play. It was meant to be shown not only with music but also with live sound effects.
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Keep Out Of Reach Of Children.
Robert J. Maxwell1 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
A man (Edgar Barrier) discovers that his love is seeing another man (Joseph Cotton) and he (Barrier) turns into a villain and chases him (Cotton) all around the city. It goes on and on.

I couldn't watch the whole thing -- it's more than an hour long and there is virtually no story. It's an exercise in style and texture.

It's as if you'd handed a child a 16 mm. camera and told him that he should make what's called a "movie." Don't worry about the story too much. See, it's a kind of fairy tale.

These things here -- no, the big round ones -- they're what we call "lenses." They're fun. See, if we put a so-called "wide lens" in the camera, like this, and then we take what's called "close up" pictures of people's faces, they come out looking like porpoises or muppets. Isn't that funny? When you're finished shooting all the film, cut it up into pieces and "splice" them together. It's okay if some of the "clips" are the same.

You've seen Charlie Chaplin movies? Okay. Sometimes you can make Mr. Cotton run real fast like Charlie Chaplin and have him run into things like poles and fall down. And, yes, you can imitate Laurel and Hardy too if you want. Have somebody engaged in a duel of wits with a long ladder or a whole yard full of bushel baskets.

They said we could use a boat, so aim the camera at the boat too. Maybe have a lot of people waving at your camera as if they were just coming back from a trip, or going away, it doesn't matter. It's all up to you. And then think of a name for your movie.

I thought I'd go out of my gourd after half an hour. The pulsing repetitious musical score -- which makes Phillip Glass sound like Tchaikovsky in a particularly romantic mood -- made me feel high, but not a GOOD high. So be warned. If you insist on watching this wanton, wildly experimental film from beginning to end, it's a good idea to get behind a good dose of some phenothiazine to keep from going mad, or thinking you are.
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GOD AWFUL MUSIC but good material
HEFILM3 May 2015
This is a rough assembly of the footage--a cut down version could pretty easily be made and why no one bothered to do so or TCM didn't show a version like that if it exists is a shame. There is much more movie here than I expecting---having heard about this film for years, I thought it would be a few short sequences of only a few shots each, not such an elaborate chase sequence.

Most of the material is in very good shape--not scratched or marked up, there is one section that is badly damaged but most of it is clean and clear. Joseph Cotton does most of his own stunts and some of these rival those of Keaton, Chaplin, Lyold and this is no small feat.

But what you are watching is not a finished film so the fact that much of it is quite funny and impressive and done on a pretty large scale of probably "stolen' locations makes it captivating---if you turn off the god awful music--which you can easily do. What were they thinking putting this music on the film it's terrible vaguely European sounding Philip Glass rip off stuff. Really unbearable.

Also rather poor, but perhaps intentionally so, is the opening sequence shot on a set that is clearly being lit by the sun--as an early early silent film would be, and this may be done on purpose. This scene sets up the rest of the film and does feature funny performances and a bit with a blowing plant.

Despite this being a silent comedy it also features some very fast cutting at times and shows--as you can see in his later films--some lack of a sense of screen direction. Characters who are supposed to be talking to each other are looking the wrong direction--this may well be a factor of parts being shot separately and with different people behind the camera. There is real filmmaking here in what was supposed to just be filler for a stage production--I've seen stage shows do this type of thing with filmed sections and rarely are they this elaborate even today.

So let's get someone to cut this down, by about a third, put in a few titles to explain roughly what is missing in between sections and put on some good music and it would fill an interesting gap in Welles filmography as he never did a silent film elsewhere or an outright comedy.

Joseph Cotton fans should also take note of this film too, it's not just for Welles completest.
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Too Little Welles
writers_reign22 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Like a majority of movie enthusiasts I have a lifelong admiration for Orson Welles in each of his capacities - writer, director, actor - and whilst I have been disappointed with some of the dross in which he has appeared as an actor (Ferry To Hong Kong anyone) I have reasoned that he was almost surely doing so in order to fund or finish one of his directing projects, of which even the least accomplished (Macbeth) hold some interest. On the whole I find his best directorial efforts (Chimes At Midnight, Kane, Ambersons, have a very 'European' feel which is almost a signature. Too Much Johnson on the other hand appears to be little more than a cross between an homage and a satire of the Mack Sennet school of filmmaking with the best aspects by far being the framing of the outdoor scenes in the first of the three separate segments. Welles himself appears far too fleetingly and someone has seen fit to lumber the film with a joke music track which is too intrusive by half. See it if you are a Welles completist but don't set your expectations above moderate.
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Could have understudied Mack Sennett
bkoganbing29 December 2016
I have to judge Orson Welles's real first effort at cinema by what I saw. If he was 20 years older I would say he understudied with Mack Sennett. But the reels of Too Much Johnson were disjointed and the lack of cards in this silent effort made it incoherent.

The Citadel Film Series book on Orson Welles says that the film was forever lost. Apparently not so. The filmed sequences were part of a prologue to a stage version of a Victorian era play Too Much Johnson that actor William Gillette wrote. An experiment in a multi-media presentation that Orson's Mercury Theater was trying.

In the prologue film you'll see familiar Mercury names like Joseph Cotten in the film. It's Cotten showing a great talent for slapstick that one would never associate with him. I loved that scene with Cotten knocking off all the hats he can find with the gusto of a Charlie Chaplin.

But honestly I could not follow what was going on. Maybe Had Orson completed the project and we saw it as he saw it, the results would be better.

As it is I wonder what Mack Sennett would have thought of Too Much Johnson.
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