American Film Magazine
By Frank Brady
By Frank Brady
Three years before Citizen Kane, Welles turned out a fast-moving silent comedy filled with chases and double-takes. "A lovely little film," Welles remembers. It has never been shown.
When Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood in 1939 and turned to directing his first feature film, Citizen Kane, he wasn't entirely a stranger to filmmaking. Five years earlier, when he was nineteen, he made a four-minute home movie called "The Hearts of Age." A print is at the Library of Congress. One year earlier, he made his first commercial film, Too Much Johnson. It was never released, and no print of the film is known to be extant.
The early work of any director is important in order to understand his development. With Welles, whose first feature is universally acknowledged as a masterpiece, the early work is particularly fascinating. "The Hearts of Age" shows hints of the director-to-be. But Too Much Johnson, a work Welles remembers as "a lovely little film," is one of the great enigmas of Welles's career. Stories of the circumstances surrounding its production have been vague and filled with inconsistencies. What experience and ideas it gave Welles for Citizen Kane and his later work have remained a mystery.
Here, finally, is an account of the making of Too Much Johnson, pieced together from interviews with participants; from digging through archives, recalling Thatcher's in Citizen Kane, in order to unearth fragments of the script, pertinent to the documents, and stills; and from revealing talks with Welles himself.
In the summer of 1938, Orson Welles, a chronic sufferer of hay fever and asthma, temporarily moved from his house at Sneden's Landing in upstate New York to the air-conditioned safety of Manhattan. At twenty-three, he was already a national celebrity as an innovative stage director and actor. Settled at the St. Regis Hotel, Welles presided over his diverse activities with small legions of assistants and messengers. He was working on a weekly radio show, and rehearsals for his Mercury Theatre's fall schedule were to start soon.
Because of his previous success with a comedy, Horse Eats Hat, Welles announced at the beginning of July that Too Much Johnson, a nineteenth-century farce by William Gillette, would open the Mercury's fall season. It would run in repertory with George Büchner's Danton's Death. Welles wrote at the time: "The first production of Too Much Johnson, at the turn of the century, revolutionized American comedy because of its fast-paced performance, its irreverence, and its absolutely delightful zaniness."
Gillette's play, in the style of many farces, involves romance, mistaken identities, switched documents and endless complications. It deals with a busy roué who, pursued by a cuckolded husband, flees New York by ship and heads for Cuba. There he takes on the identity of a plantation owner named Johnson, who happens to be expecting a mail-order bride.
Each of Welles's previous stage productions had been marked by bold originality: an all-black Macbeth performed in Harlem; a modern-dress Julius Caesar done on a bare stage; a politically controversial The Cradle Will Rock played from the orchestra instead of the stage to circumvent government restrictions.
For Too Much Johnson, Welles had an idea which had been tried before on stage, but had never been totally successful. He would interweave a forty-minute silent film into the play. The film would consist of a twenty-minute prologue to the play (although Welles remembers it being as long as thirty-five minutes -- "in effect, the whole first act") and two ten-minute introductions for the second and third acts. As in the silent film days, a small orchestra and a sound effects man were to sit behind the screen to accompany the film. Although there were money problems, John Houseman, the Mercury's producer, gathered about $10,000 from a group of friendly investors to launch the production. Welles immediately began to simultaneously conduct stage rehearsals and shoot the film.
Welles had pared down the play to its barest essentials -- about an hour of stage time. The film was to serve as exposition and would consist of a good deal of exaggerated action : the cuckold chasing the roué, a cruel father dragging the mail-order bride-to-be away from her original suitor, the roué's wife trying to catch her errant husband. In silent movie tradition, the chases would be interspersed with slapstick comedy routines like double-takes and slow-burns.
Welles, intrigued with the spontaneity of slapstick, decided to use no scenario but to work only with a rough outline of intent. Sequences of events would be filmed until a chase began, and the comic scenes would evolve on their own.
Though Welles was a constant moviegoer -- he knew the works of Chaplin intimately -- his experience with filmmaking, besides "The Hearts of Age," was limited to a short visit to the set of Man of Aran, directed by Robert Flaherty, when Welles was in Ireland in 1932. In addition, he had narrated a filmed excerpt from Twelfth Night for the Chicago Drama Festival Competition. He also had a working knowledge of V.I. Pudovkin's Film Acting. But Eisenstein, Welles insists, was not an influence.
"It's untrue that I was influenced by or ever read Eisenstein," Welles says, "although it has been reported in the past that I was and did. I was never one of those who tokened to Eisenstein, and I even wrote a critical review of Ivan the Terrible, Part I when I first saw it in 1945. The film was too propagandistic, too oversentimentalized, although I praised it for its courageous and radical style. Eisenstein read the review and wrote me a long letter, and we established a correspondence."
To learn how to make a comedy, Welles viewed as many great comic films as he could. In a screening room in midtown Manhattan, he and his associates viewed a large number of Mack Sennett shorts, including "Love, Honor and Behave!" and the "The Lion and the Girl." (Although always popular, Sennett had received a special Academy Award in 1937, and his films were enjoying a revival.) They also studied Chaplin's features and shorts. Harold Lloyd's comedy Professor Beware had just opened at Paramount, and most of Welles's staff saw and discussed it.
"One direct influence on me and on Too Much Johnson," Welles recalls, "was Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. I loved that film and think it was one of the greatest, simplest comedies ever made."
Welles quickly assembled a cast and crew. Most of the crew had never worked in film. "We were assistant apprentices," recalls Richard Wilson, who was Welles's partner. "Only our innocence propelled us onward." One exception was the cameraman, Paul Dunbar, who worked for Pathé News, To get the antic appearance of silent film action, Welles instructed Dunbar to under-crank the camera so that chases would appear exaggerated and jerky when the film was projected at normal speed.
For the cast, Welles turned to his regular Mercury players -- Howard Smith, Joseph Cotten, Eustace Wyatt, Edgar Barrier, Arlene Francis, Mary Wickes -- and gave his wife, Virginia Nicholson (under the name Anna Stafford), one of the leading roles. Bit parts went to composer Marc Blitzstein (Welles told him to think of himself as a "French barber") and to New York Herald Tribune drama critic Herbert Drake as a Keystone Kop. John Houseman was pressed into service to fight a duel -- photographed in a long shot -- on the edge of the Palisades, overlooking the Hudson. An attractive teenage actress, Judith Tuvim, who was interesting in breaking into comedy, was also cast as an extra. Later she changed her name to Judy Holliday. Even Welles stood in as a Kop during a short scene.
The actors wore gay nineties' clothing, and the mens' faces were covered with clown-white greasepaint, powdered profusely, and adorned with dark red lipstick that appeared startlingly black on the screen. Welles included a corps of twelve bungling Keystone Kops dressed in long, blue Edwardian topcoats and sugarloaf helmets. In some of the scenes, for added atmosphere, an organ-grinder stood on the side.
As a film director, Welles immediately developed a highly personal style on the set. He constantly used his own acting talents to show his actors what he wanted. During many of the action scenes, however, he would bellow his instructions from camera to set, urging his actors in the chase scenes through New York streets, for example, to more daring attempts. At one moment Welles was behind the camera establishing a shot, and the next he was gathering extras together like chess pieces and placing them where he wanted them. He was marvelously patient with the actors, smoothing and cajoling them into a style that would look spontaneous.
Welles recalled with amusement his direction of the overly serious ex-vaudevillian actor Howard Smith. "Howard, I'd like you to sit in that chair as we roll camera," he told him. "Certainly, Mr Welles," said Smith, practically bowing, "but would you prefer the Fast Sit or the Slow Sit?"
Welles began the film in mid-July and, typically, allowed himself only a month to plan, shoot, edit, and process the film. The preview showing of the play was scheduled to start August 16 at a summer theatre outside New Haven, Connecticut. During those four incredibly hectic weeks, Welles not only directed the film sequences of Too Much Johnson, but also conducted rehearsals for the stage productions of that play and of Danton's Death. He also continued his busy radio schedule -- editing, directing and starring in the broadcasts of "Treasure Island," "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and "I'm a Fool."
The first film segment of Too Much Johnson opened with Joseph Cotten, as the roué, en route to an assignation with Arlene Francis. The lovers are interrupted by the entrance of her husband (Edgar Barrier), who pursues Cotten down a fire escape, across the rooftops, and through the streets of New York to the pier, where Cotten leaps aboard the boat. Barrier barely makes the jump, catches the railing, and is hanging precariously on the side of the ship as it steams away toward Cuba. As he drops on the lower deck, the film was to stop, and a live Barrier was to land on the stage of the theatre, designed to look like a ship's deck.
In order to film the ship scene, Welles borrowed a Hudson River Day Line excursion boat while it was docked at the Battery taking on passengers for a trip to Bear Mountain. Much to the delight of the vacationers, he spent an hour or so filming Cotten ad Barrier and Virginia Nicholson and Eustace Wyatt chasing each other around the boat.
Most of the scenes of Barrier chasing Cotten were filmed on location in Battery Park or Central Park. Other New York scenes were set in historic locales. "In order to get the feeling of 'little old New York,'" Welles remembers, "we shot the film, for the most part, in those sections of the city that still retained a nineteenth-century look, such as the Fulton Fish Market and other downtown locations."
During one scene near the old aquarium, where the principals were to ride in three rented horse-drawn Victorian cabs, a huge downpour began. Welles welcomed it, believing it would add dimension and excitement to the chase, and insisted that the filming continue during the rain. But the hackmen refused to move their horses, and shooting for that day was canceled.
On one particularly sweltering day, Welles directed a scene on top of a five-story building on Albany Street in lower Manhattan. Cotten was to "jump" from the roof to evade Barrier. Just days before, a man had sat on a ledge of the Gotham Hotel and threatened to jump, attracting thousands of bystanders and a group of newsreel camermen. Now a worried crowd gathered below where Cotten was perched, thinking another suicide was in progress. "Don't jump!" people yelled, and the police were summoned. Squad cars, fire engines, and newspapermen sped to the scene.
Filming stopped, and Welles climbed down from the top of the building. Drenched with perspiration, he explained, "All we're trying to do is make a movie." Filming resumed, and Cotten jumped to a ledge six feet below the top of the roof, followed by Barrier. The camera stopped for another setup; then Cotten jumped from a second-floor window into a moving horse-drawn wagon of cabbages, again followed by Barrier. The edited film would make it appear that they had both jumped from the top of the roof into the wagon. Next day a headline blared: "ORSON WELLES CASHES IN ON LEDGE LEAP SUICIDES."
One of the funniest scenes in the chase showed Barrier and Cotten caught in a parade of suffragettes, both marching to time, with Barrier slowly advancing rank by rank on Cotten. Both men stopped to salute the American flag and then resumed their chase.
The next filmed sequence, introducing the second act of the play, hints at the opening pan shot of the brooding Xanadu in Citizen Kane. Like the Xanadu scene, it was a special effects sequence using a model set representing a plantation in Cuba. The papier-mâché volcano loomed in the background, surrounded by "jungle flora" (plants purchased at a local florist). The house itself was a model constructed by James Morcom, who designed the sets for the play. Details of the outside of the house were kept consistent with the stage set of the interior, so the audience could easily make the transition from the filmed exterior shots to the staged interior scenes. The model was swathed in fog to lend mystery to the scene and to disguise how clearly bogus it was. In front of the diminutive plantation was a large plate of glass, painted black, and on the other side of the glass was a tank of water, in which floated a miniature steamship.
The first image on the screen was of the boat sailing to the Caribbean. Then came a dissolve as the hand-held camera moved around the black glass to the side of the island where, from the boat's perspective, one could see a jungle. The camera continued moving slowly along the coast of the island, reached the edge of the model, and then turned up a roadway until, from a distance, through the mist, an imposing Georgia plantation house came into view. Here the film was to stop, stage lights would come up to reveal the interior of the house, and the stage action would resume.
"You can compare that shot in Too Much Johnson to the opener in Kane," Welles told me, "only in the following sense: Although I've been criticized for the kitsch appearance of the scene in Kane, that was, in fact, exactly what I was trying to achieve in the shot. I didn't expect anything like a belly laugh from the audience, but I wanted to produce an amused attitude on the part of the viewer. So it was with the volcano and mansion shots of Johnson. But remember, it was a comedy. In retrospect, the problem with that opening of Kane was that the music was too solemn. The audience expected something funereal as soon as the initial bars were heard, but that total somberness was not at all what I intended."
To save costs and take advantage of available light, all the other "studio" scenes for the film were shot in an empty lot in Yonkers, not far from the Bronx River Parkway. Sets, furniture, and props were borrowed from the nearby Sherwood Little Theater. A bedroom, with three walls, no ceiling, several windows, and a large brass bed, was constructed in the gleaming sunlight. The local residents formed an inquisitive audience for much of the filming. To their surprise, they saw Arlene Francis appear in a lacy black corset ("She looked very sexy," Welles recalls) and flirt provocatively with Joseph Cotten, who seemed at any moment about to undress.
In one scene, Arlene Francis was to clutch a photograph of Cotten to her bosom and hide it there when her husband arrived unexpectedly. After a few takes, Welles had secured what he wanted, with one exception. He felt that Francis, then only in her early twenties, should have a more ample bosom, befitting the matronly character she was playing. Since Welles wanted to shoot a close-up of the photograph being hidden in her cleavage, and padding would be easily detected, an inserted shot of another bosom had to be arranged.
A frantic talent hunt ensued, ad finally Welles's secretary, Augusta Weissberger, was prevailed upon to stand in. She was ensconced in the same corset, and close-ups of her ample bosom, heaving emotionally on cue, were photographed one afternoon on the roof of the Mercury Theatre, amid catcalls from the cast and crew. Arlene Francis, it was said, was furious.
One of the Cuban scenes, for the latter filmed segments, was shot in an abandoned rock quarry in Haverstraw, New York, near Welles's home at Sneden Landing. To add to the tropical ambiance, rented palm trees were planted or propped up around the area or sometimes just held up by a crewman who was instructed to keep his hand out of the camera's sight. Black "natives" in straw hats and bandannas milled about. Pith helmets were plentiful. Cotten was filmed riding a white horse (the stock theatrical horse, once ridden by Valentino and rented to all filmmakers, stage directors and opera impresarios in the New York area). At one point, Cotten complained petulantly about having to wade through a ditch of brackish water to evade his pursuer.
After ten days of shooting, Welles had approximately twenty-five thousand feet of film, which was edited in rough cut down to six reels. Wit the play only days away from opening, editing the prologue was completed, but Welles had yet to finish editing the other two parts of the film.
Much of the editing had been done at Pathé studios. But now that the budget was almost totally depleted, Welles had a Moviola and splicing and cutting equipment moved into his suite at the St. Regis and began editing the balance of the film himself. He rarely left the room except for a final "dress" rehearsal before each broadcast of his radio show, "First Person Singular," or to take occasional trips to Stony Creek to conduct rehearsals of the play. Bits and pieces of the film were spread all over the room. Houseman recalls that Welles's assistants had to "wade knee-deep through a crackling sea of inflammable film." Filled with fear that a crucial frame or scene might end up in a wastebasket, Welles forced a large tip on the maid, with strict instructions that absolutely nothing was to be taken from the room.
In addition to the practical problems of editing the footage down to a sensible length and doing it in time for the opening, Welles was plagued by other annoyances. An attorney formally notified him that Paramount Pictures owned the film rights for Too Much Johnson -- Welles had leased the stage rights, but had overlooked the motion picture legalities. When the play reached Broadway with the film, a payment, perhaps substantial, would have to be made to the studio.
Many in the cast had not been paid in a month. In settling their back wages, Welles tried to conserve what little money was left, so he attempted to treat any acting in the film as a stage rehearsal, to be reimbursed at the lower rehearsal rates. Most of the cast agreed, happy to have a part in a film, but a few actors complained to Actors Equity. It was finally decreed that a film is a performance, even if it's part of a play, so the cast and crew had to be paid full union rates, plunging the Mercury's bank account deeper into the red.
To save the expense of an orchestra, the composer Marc Blitzstein offered to play a piano behind the screen. But there was also the cost of printing and cutting the intertitles to the film (written by Welles), and many other small costs that added up to insurmountable bills.
To add to his woes, it was discovered at that extraordinarily late date that the Stony Creek auditorium, with its low ceiling, was not a suitable theater in which to project a film. Furthermore, in those days before the existence of a safety film, a fireproof projection booth would have to be constructed in order to show the movie.
But time and money ran out. If the film had been complete, the play might have been moved to a more suitable theater for a two-week tryout. Why Houseman didn't arrange for these contingencies in advance, or why, as a highly experienced entrepreneur, he could not secure a new theatre, even at the last minute, is not known. It may be relevant to note, however, that Houseman has stated that he didn't believe in either the play or the film and had recommended that the project be abandoned.
On August 16, 1938, as scheduled, Too Much Johnson opened at Stony Creek -- but without the film. The material that had originally been taken out of the play, to be replaced by the film, was hastily written back in. But the cast scarcely had time to learn its lines, let alone rehearse the complicated comedy routines. The critical reaction was poor, although not devastating. "It was, after all, a tryout," says Welles, "not a full-scale production."
Shortly afterward, the Mercury Theatre opened its fall season with the complicated Danton's Death, which was to run along with Too Much Johnson. The reviews were generally poor. "I liked it," Welles recalls ruefully, "but nobody else did, and so we closed it down and decided not to open Too Much Johnson. It's for that reason I never finished editing the film. There was no point to it." Welles adds, "It was at this point that I decided to have a go to Hollywood in order to make enough money to go on directing plays."
Some thirty years later, a print of Too Much Johnson turned up in Welles's villa outside Madrid. Welles states: "I can't remember whether I had it all along and dug it out of the bottom of a trunk, or whether someone brought it to me, but there it was. I screened it, and it was in perfect condition, with not a scratch on it, as though it had only been through a projector once or twice before. It had a fine quality. Cotten was magnificent, and I immediately made plans to edit it and send it to Joe as a birthday present. I then went off to act in a picture, possibly The Kremlin Letter, and rented my house to Robert Shaw. Unfortunately, while I was gone, there was a fire, and almost everything I had was lost. Supposedly there are some of my belongings still intact, so it is possible, although highly unlikely, that the film still exists."
From directing Too Much Johnson, Welles may well have learned many of his own renowned techniques for working quickly and economically, techniques he used in Macbeth, The Trial, The Immortal Story, and F is For Fake. Most important, he learned how to apply his imagination to the discipline of the frame while working toward a spontaneity of acting and shooting, a method of filmmaking he would use for the rest of his career.
Today, Orson Welles remains wistful and just a shade bitter that Too Much Johnson never got to the screen. "The play and the film were too surreal for the audience," Welles declares. "They couldn't accept it. It was like Hellzapoppin, years ahead of its time.