Orson Welles Film Made Before 'Citizen Kane' Is Discovered

Courtesy AMPAS
Orson Welles on location in New York’s Hudson Valley for “Too Much Johnson.”

“Too Much Johnson,” designed as part of a 1938 Mercury Theatre multimedia stage production, was thought burned and has never been seen. It will premiere at a silent film festival in Italy in October.

A long lost, never-before-seen film that was written and directed by 20-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles three years before the premiere of Citizen Kane has been unearthed in Italy and restored for a premiere in October.

Too Much Johnson (1938), a screwball marital farce that starred Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis and Ruth Ford, was done by Welles’ famed Mercury Theatre as a companion piece for a planned multimedia stage adaptation of the 19th century play by William Gillette.

The silent work, filmed in three acts and about an hour in length, was never finished or seen publicly, and its only known print was thought to have burned. Amazingly, an abandoned 35mm nitrate work print was discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, and brought to the attention of archivists in December.

Now, 75 years after it was created, Too Much Johnson will debut in Pordenone at the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a silent film festival, on Oct. 9.

Each act of Too Much Johnson was designed to be shown during the play to serve as backstory. The production opened Aug. 16, 1938, at the Stony Creek Theater in Connecticut without the film portion ever being shown, and the play quickly flopped.

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The print was salvaged by Cinemazero, the film exhibition organization that partners with the Cineteca del Friuli to present the city’s silent film festival. They asked Eastman House and the National Film Preservation Foundation to work with them to restore the film.

Eastman House directed the preservation to 35mm film, with funding through the NFPF, and will host the U.S. premiere on Oct. 16 in Rochester, N.Y., right after the work screens in Pordenone. The NFPF hopes to secure funding to bring the film to the Internet.

Though barely 20 at the time of Too Much Johnson, Welles had already gained fame through his Federal Theater Project productions of Voodoo MacBeth and The Cradle Will Rock. He co-founded the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman in 1937.

Their first production, a restaging of Julius Caesar in fascist Italy, was an immediate Broadway hit. After Too Much Johnson fizzled, Welles went on to produce the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds later in 1938.

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The longest and most finished piece of Too Much Johnson, the Act 1 prologue, shows the philandering Augustus Billings (Cotten), who has been womanizing under the name of Johnson, chased at breakneck speed across Manhattan by a wronged husband.

Two shorter segments establish the death of Billings’ friend in Cuba and the complications caused when too many Johnsons turn up in that country.

A 16mm home movie from one of the Mercury Theatre’s many investors, now at UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, documents the exuberant Welles shooting on location in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Citizen Kane (1941), considered one of the greatest films in history, was co-written, directed and produced by Welles, who also starred as egomaniacal newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane. Also featuring Cotton, it was Welles’ first feature to make it to theaters.