Too Much Johnson (1938)
I just got back from seeing Too Much Johnson at LACMA, and I’m not sure if I can describe the way I feel right now. Excited and grateful are two words that come to mind, but that’s just scratching the surface. I feel like I’ve been allowed to look through a window on the past. I feel like I’ve travelled back in time and caught a glimpse of a brash young man who was crazy enough to think he could conquer the world.
No doubt my reaction has a lot to do with the tremendous respect I have for Orson Welles. It’s not just that I think he’s a great director. I feel closer to Welles than any other filmmaker. His work literally changed my life. So to have this footage surface out of the blue when everybody thought it was long gone is pretty amazing.
It’s important to say at the outset that Too Much Johnson was never intended to be released as a feature. Welles wanted to present William Gillette’s play on the stage, and the production he envisioned included film segments that would introduce each act. He shot four hours of footage and began to edit it, but the play didn’t survive out of town tryouts and the partially completed fragments were never shown. Apparently the reels sat in a warehouse for decades until they were recently rediscovered.
The surviving material is over sixty minutes of film that was partially edited by Welles. Of those sixty minutes, only about the first third approaches anything like a coherent narrative. The rest is comprised of disconnected scenes in some kind of sequential order, but remember that this was never meant to be a complete narrative anyway. What we’re seeing are fragments of fragments. In some cases we see multiple takes of a single shot, and at times it’s hard to make any sense of what’s happening onscreen. Many people would probably see this stuff as an incoherent mess. Apparently some audience members who have viewed the footage were disappointed. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.
I was thrilled. Not because it’s up there with Welles’ best work. It’s certainly not. But it’s a glimpse of one of film’s great artists at a time when he was first getting a grip on the medium. And in spite of the incomplete and chaotic nature of what remains, it clearly points toward the work Welles would do when he came to Hollywood.
To this day, many people look at Welles’ career and see a failure. They complain that he worked intermittently as a director, couldn’t adjust to the demands of the studio system and left many projects unfinished. No doubt the appearance of one more unfinished film will be seen by many as further evidence of his “lack of discipline”. What rubbish. The idea that somebody who completed thirteen features, often using his own money, could be called undisciplined is ridiculous. Obviously Welles’ critics have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to make a movie, much less how incredibly difficult it is to make a movie on your own terms. These people also ignore the fact that Welles staged several plays, created a small but startling body of work for television, and produced a staggering number of broadcasts for radio.
He didn’t finish everything he started. That’s true. Welles had a restless mind and was constantly looking for new challenges. Sometimes he took on more than he could handle and found himself running short of time or money or stamina, and yes, he had his share of colossal failures. So what. I’m way more interested in somebody who shoots for the moon and fails than I am in somebody who plays it safe and “succeeds”. Welles liked to take chances. He liked to test the boundaries. He liked to experiment.
Too Much Johnson is an experiment. Watching the footage it was as though I could feel Welles’ excitement in discovering film. In the early scenes especially I got the sense that Welles was playing with the medium, trying to see how far he could go. A couple of the people who spoke at the screening I attended said that Welles was trying to recreate the look of the films made between nineteen ten and nineteen twelve. I couldn’t disagree more. In movies from that period scenes were almost invariably shot from a single angle, usually frontal, and cutting within a scene was rare. Close-ups were almost non-existent.
Too Much Johnson, on the other hand, is strikingly dynamic. Welles’ forceful compositions anticipate Citizen Kane, and the only silent film directors you’ll find who take the same liberties in framing a shot are the guys who made avant-garde shorts in Europe during the twenties. Even before he got to Hollywood, Welles already had a strong visual sense. He was always looking for ways to create space. And in the sequences that are most fully shaped, there is a good deal of cutting, some of it so bold and so rapid that you might compare it to Eisenstein.
Apparently Welles watched a lot of silent comedy to prepare for shooting, and no doubt Mack Sennett was an inspiration. But the complexity of the best gags and the imaginative imagery are way beyond the crude, knockabout antics of the Keystone Cops. Too Much Johnson is closer to the inspired surrealism of the films Buster Keaton made in the twenties.
Seeing Too Much Johnson is a reminder of how much Welles loved comedy. Because our view of him today is based mostly on the features he made, I think that’s an aspect of his work that tends to be forgotten. While most of his films have comic moments, the context is often so dark that I rarely laugh out loud. But look at the plays he staged on Broadway, like Horse Eats Hat and Shoemaker’s Holiday. Listen to his radio adaptations of Life with Father and Around the World in 80 Days, or the variety shows he did in the forties. Check out The Fountain of Youth, a witty and inventive TV pilot he made in the fifties. Welles loved a good laugh, and Too Much Johnson reminds us that he spent a lot of time trying to make audiences laugh, too.
I think one of the reasons that Welles left a number of projects unfinished is that he expected a lot of himself. When you look at the time he invested in preparing his films, the energy he expended in shooting his films, and then the obsessive care that he took in editing his films, it’s clear that he had extremely high standards. Those of us who value his work can’t help but feel frustrated that we never got to see Don Quixote or The Deep. But my feeling is that he didn’t finish them because he wasn’t satisfied with them. In his mind, they weren’t good enough.
If that’s true, he’s probably rolling over in his grave now that this footage from Too Much Johnson has been discovered. It’s rough, it’s raw, it’s messy. But for those of us who love Welles, it’s a reminder of how talented, how daring, how creative the guy was. It’s exhilarating to see the way he threw himself into shooting this footage, back when it probably seemed like anything was possible. Back when he was still a brash young man who was crazy enough to think he could conquer the world.
There were many people involved in bringing Too Much Johnson to the screen. One of the most important players was the National Film Preservation Foundation. They’ve been responsible for the rescue and restoration of many movies thought to be lost, and if you care about film history, you might want to think about making a contribution. Just click on the link below.