Thursday 24 May 2018

How director Orson Welles had Too Much of Hollywood

As a great director, Orson Welles should have had the world at his feet, but he was branded a troublemaker. Now a long-lost film provides glimpses of his genius.

Orson Welles in 1949
Orson Welles in 1949
Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane'
'Too Much Johnson' poster

Paul Whitington

A few weeks back, a long-lost early film work by Orson Welles was given a gala screening in Los Angeles. Too Much Johnson, which Welles shot in 1938 as part of an ambitious stage production, was for years thought to be lost, as the only known copy had been destroyed in a fire at the director's house in Spain in 1970.

Unbeknownst to Welles, however, another print was mouldering away in a warehouse outside Venice. And, after it was finally discovered in 2012, the George Eastman House museum of film and photography lovingly restored it to near perfect condition. Too Much Johnson runs for 66 minutes, and gives a fascinating insight into Welles' early development as a filmmaker.

Orson Welles never hid his admiration for silent pioneers such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, and in a way Too Much Johnson is an affectionate tribute to their slapstick genius.

It was his first attempt at directing anything longer than a 10-minute short, and it shows tantalising flashes of the towering genius that would erupt in Hollywood within a couple of years.

But Too Much Johnson was never intended to be a standalone work, and was made as a kind of dumb show or running commentary on a play that Welles' Mercury Theatre Company produced in 1938.

With typical cavalier abandon, Welles had adapted an 1894 farce by William Gillette and reset it in the 1930s. He also decided this should be a ground-breaking, multimedia production, and shot the footage intending it to be a novel way of introducing characters and commenting on them during the play.

He had planned to open his production on Broadway, but then he ran out of money and found out that Paramount Studios had the film rights to William Gillette's original play. The play opened without the accompanying footage and flopped. Welles, disgusted, moved on to other things, and the film was never shown, until now.

The reason everyone's so hot under the collar about this footage is that it's effectively the last thing Welles filmed before Citizen Kane. And therefore, as George Eastman House's senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai puts it: "Too Much Johnson constitutes a bridge between the theatrical career of Orson Welles and his involvement with cinema. It is thanks to Too Much Johnson that Welles fell in love with cinema."

To the ordinary punter, the mugging and the chasing in Welles' long-lost film won't make a whole lot of sense. His old friend and collaborator Joseph Cotten stars as a philandering lawyer who goes on the run after being rumbled by his lover's husband. It's hammy, and overripe, but then it was intended as a sort of background dumb show.

All the time you see touches of Welles' visual imagination and innovation – the fast editing, odd camera angles, and constant experimentation. Although the footage is 66 minutes, Welles allowed only himself 10 days for shooting and 20 for editing.

But once he started filming, he seems to have become engrossed in the process, and stayed up for nights on end in his Manhattan hotel, editing and cutting on a Moviola. Young Orson, it seems, was hooked.

So what happened next, and how did the brilliant but struggling 23-year-old New York theatre director find his way so very, very quickly to the heart of Hollywood?

By 1938, Welles was the toast of Broadway thanks to his revolutionary productions of Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. But it wasn't them that got him noticed in Hollywood, it was a legendary radio play that caused a public panic.

In between theatrical engagements, Welles had been writing, directing and acting in radio plays since 1936. And in October of 1938, just months after the failure of Too Much Johnson, he and the Mercury Theatre broadcast a remarkable adaptation of H G Wells' War of the Worlds on CBS Radio.

To make the story seem more real and immediate, Welles cleverly told the story through a series of fake news bulletins. They were done so well they convinced many listeners that a real alien invasion was under way, and some people in the vicinity of New York even fled their homes.

The resulting scandal did not go unnoticed in Hollywood, and Orson Welles turned down a number of offers before RKO made him one he simply couldn't refuse. The studio's president George Schaefer gave him a two-picture deal guaranteeing complete artistic control, from script, cast and crew to the all-important final cut.

It was unprecedented, especially for a totally untried director, but Orson took it in his stride.

Since he'd been a baby in his cot his eccentric mother Beatrice had been telling him that he was a genius, and now the time had finally come to prove it.

He toyed with several projects including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness before settling on the idea for Citizen Kane. It would be a kind of fake biopic inspired by the life of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, and Welles developed the idea with the help of the mercurial, drunken but brilliant screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz.

Welles used only Mercury Theatre actors for all the main roles, and would play the part of idealistic orphan turned debauched multimillionaire Charles Foster Kane himself.

He was a total amateur when it came to making films, and he later admitted to watching John Ford's classic Western Stagecoach "every night for a month" to figure out how the whole thing worked.

In fact his utter ignorance of the filmmaking process worked to his credit, because Welles kept trying to do things that either weren't possible or hadn't been done before.

The master cinematographer Gregg Toland was his willing accomplice as he tore up the rulebook in creating a film that used images rather than words to tell his story.

Welles and Toland shot from below, used deep focus photography, impressionistic lighting, elaborate rising boom shots involving vast sets and cunning models, and of course staged the famous bravura crane-fade shot through the skylight of a shabby nightclub.

Nothing like Kane had ever been seen before: its genius was obvious, even to those disinclined to sit through it.

However, when it was released in the summer of 1941, strong notices were accompanied by a vitriolic campaign against the film in the various newspapers and magazines that were owned by William Randolph Hearst. There was much resentment in Hollywood too, where hack actors and directors were threatened by this brash and multi- talented upstart.

In the end, Citizen Kane failed to recoup its million-dollar budget at the box office. And, though the world seemed at Welles' feet in 1941, he was already marked out as a troublemaker in Hollywood, and he would spend his later years wandering Europe taking odd acting jobs to raise money for his films.

He made some good ones, but life would prove surprisingly hard for the ageing boy genius.

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment