Orson Welles’ “Too Much Johnson” (1938)

George Eastman

Originally believed to be lost, and then burned in his Spanish villa, Orson Welles’ unfinished short films titled Too Much Johnson (1938) have been restored and screened for the first time in Italy and at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  Welles created the films to accompany his original stage adaptation of the William Gillette 1894 play of the same name, the films acting as prologues to each act of the play. The Mercury Theatre originally intended to screen the comedy with live music and sound effects, but the films were never actually finished. After being found in a warehouse in Italy in 2012, the films have had their world premiere on October 9, 2013, at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. The first North American screening was on November 25, 2013 at the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House. Welles fans gathered to watch the screening, with tickets being sold for $50 a pop. A reviewer from Silent London writes of the film:

The experience of watching them on a big screen, projected from 35mm, with expert piano accompaniment from Philip Carli, and commentary from Paolo Cherchi Usai, was dream-like, exhilarating and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious. Because we don’t have a final cut of Too Much Johnson, the footage includes retakes, gaps and mistakes. The extant material is a hint of what might have been – but also the heights that Welles was to achieve later in his career.

This is one of many films of Welles’ oeuvre left unfinished or unseen. Among the unfinished projects are Don Quixote (1992), which was put together by Jess Franco and released at Cannes to scathing reviews; The Dreamers, a project which Welles never gained financial backing for, and whose footage can be seen in the documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band and on the Criterion DVD release of Welles F for Fake (1973) (the rights to the source material are owned by Welles’ business partner Andy Howard; Orson Welles’ Magic Show (1976-1985), an unfinished television special; The Deep, based on the novel 1963  Dead Calm by Charles Williams; The Merchant of Venice, completed but partially lost, with Francesco Lavagnino, who composed the music for Welles’ Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1966) providing the musical score; and, most notably, The Other Side of the Wind, of which partial footage was uploaded to Youtube in November 2012, and whose main character is modeled on Ernest Hemingway. The film encountered various complex, legal difficulties. Although rumours have been floating around that the film is due to be released soon, Peter Bogdanovich, one of the cast members of the film, has stated that it is unlikely eager fans will see the film in its completion any time soon. Despite the original negative reportedly being in excellent condition (after Bogdanovich inspected it in its Paris vault), and despite huge demand to see the film, the director is currently working on a comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. Click here to see Bogdanovich’s thoughts on the completion of the film.


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