Monday, May 4, 2015

DVR Diary: TOO MUCH JOHNSON (1938-2013)

Time marches on, as the newsreel used to say, and the 100th birthday of Orson Welles will be observed this week on May 6. A long, long time ago Welles was deemed a boy wonder. By the time Citizen Kane was released in 1941, he could have declared himself King of All Media at the age of 26. By then he was already long established as a phenom of the stage, as a director and actor, while radio made him a pop celebrity, as everything from the voice of The Shadow to the mastermind of the legendary "War of the Worlds" broadcast that panicked audiences who mistook it for a live news broadcast. That coup was yet to come as Welles, age 23, embarked on an ambitious multimedia project. His idea was to stage a hoary old farce, William Gillette's Too Much Johnson, with filmed prologues to each act in the silent comedy manner seemingly suited to the 1894 comedy. While this wasn't Welles's first time behind a movie camera, the project did mark an important, ominous milestone: it was his first unfinished film project. The Mercury Theater production of Too Much Johnson died out of town, and the tryout theater didn't allow for film projection. Hitting that barrier, Welles never edited his footage into final shape, but moved on to greater triumphs. He had a hard time keeping track of the film, but it turned up again in 2013, long after his death, and was pounced on by fans and cineastes. The Too Much Johnson workprint had its American TV premiere on Turner Classic Movies last weekend, without benefit of introduction. Anyone looking for a story was bound to be disappointed, but the presentation was honest about itself, identifying the footage exactly as it was: an unfinished workprint. That means successions of alternate takes padding the material to nearly feature length when the finished product would have been much shorter and inevitably more entertaining. It can only be appreciated as anticipating Welles's imminent mastery, and you can see some of Kane and Magnificent Ambersons in embryo in this playful pastiche. Welles apes an antique style and is especially convincing at it when he films on a primitive set representing a woman's bedroom. It really does look like something from thirty years earlier, except for the rapd fire editing. In its most memorable moments Johnson harkens back to the thrill comedy of Harold Lloyd, though with more of Buster Keaton's deadpan sensibility, as Mercury stalwart Joseph Cotten --whose presence makes the workprint more precious -- runs the rooftops, pursued by his lover's jealous husband. Cotten just manages, perhaps not even consciously, to keep out of his enemy's line of sight while Welles makes mock-epic use of his New York locations. Other moments are closer to pure slapstick, as when the rival, with only the top half of a torn photo of Cotten to work with, rampages through a neighborhood knocking men's hats off so he can inspect their hair and foreheads. Some scenes are sublimely absurd, as when Cotten and his rival find themselves in the middle of a lake, up to their necks in water, as it begins to rain. Naturally Cotten pulls out a battered umbrella so they won't get wet. In this youthful lark Welles already shows a potent pictorial imagination; if he'd had equal editorial aptitude by this point Johnson would have been a real prodigy. As it is you can believe that if someone in Hollywood had seen it, and even had Welles not already been famous, he'd still be given a chance to make real movies.

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