Joseph Cotten appears in the 1938 Orson Welles film, "Too Much Johnson."… (George Eastman House / Cineteca…)
Orson Welles' long-lost film "Too Much Johnson," which the seminal filmmaker directed two years before coming to Hollywood to make his landmark 1941 drama "Citizen Kane," has been recovered.
The announcement was made by the National Film Preservation Foundation, George Eastman House, the Cineteca del Friuli and Cinemazero.
A 35mm nitrate work print of "Too Much Johnson" was recently found in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, by staff at Cinemazero, the film exhibition organization that partners with Cineteca del Friuli for the city's annual silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Welles made the slapstick short, which was never completed, for his Mercury Theatre's stage production of William Gillette's 19th century comedy "Too Much Johnson."
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That same year, the 23-year-old Welles also presented his groundbreaking radio production of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds."
"The discovery of the long-lost footage from Orson Welles' out-of-town production of 'Too Much Johnson' is thrilling; a very significant piece of the jigsaw of Welles' art," said actor/writer Simon Callow in a statement. Callow is working on the third volume of his biography of the filmmaker.
"It was filming these sequences that first made him fall in love with film; here he began to discover the possibilities not only of shooting, but editing."
The Mercury Theatre planned to show three short films as prologues to each act of the three-part slapstick comedy. The silent films, which star Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis and Ruth Ford, were going to be shown with sound effects and music.
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Rumors abound as to why Welles never finished the short films, including that Paramount Pictures, which owned the film rights to "Too Much Johnson," put pressure on him. But a recent search in the Paramount archives couldn't substantiate the claim.
For whatever reason, when the play opened in Aug. 16, 1938, at the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut -- where it flopped -- the film wasn't in the production.
Until this recent discovery, the only known print of the film was destroyed in a fire at Welles' home on the outskirts of Madrid in 1970.
The George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., directed the preservation of the film, which was funded through the NFPF.
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"This is by far the most important film restoration by George Eastman House in a very long time," said Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of the archive, who supervised the project. "Holding in one's hands the very same print that had been personally edited by Orson Welles 75 years ago provokes an emotion that's just impossible to describe."
All of the reels, said Usai, were in "relatively good shape. But one of them was badly decomposed, and we initially thought it was too late to save the image."
But Haghefilm Digitaal, a preservation lab in the Netherlands, was able to save 96% of the footage. "I'd call it a masterpiece of craftsmanship," said Usai.
The film will premiere at Pordenone on Oct. 9 and will have its American premiere Oct. 16 at Eastman House. NFPF hopes to get funding to present the film on the Internet later this year.
The NFPF website already features a fascinating glimpse into the young filmmaker at work -- a 16mm home movie from a Mercury Theatre investor, now at UC Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive, which captures Welles shooting "Too Much Johnson" in the Hudson Valley.