Exhibition Reel of Two Color Film (ca. 1929)

An experimental color short in Brewster Color, preserved by George Eastman House and presented on the More Treasures DVD set.

1938 Mercury Theatre film will debut in October

Contact: Barbara Gibson (415-392-7291; cell 510-502-0746, mercury@filmpreservation.org)

San Francisco, CA (August 7, 2013)—The National Film Preservation Foundation, George Eastman House, the Cineteca del Friuli, and Cinemazero today announced the recovery of Orson Welles’s long-lost Too Much Johnson (1938), filmed two years before the celebrated American director went to Hollywood to make Citizen Kane (1941).

As a member of the Mercury Theatre, Welles created the slapstick short starring Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis, and Ruth Ford for the Theatre’s innovative 1938 production of the 19th-century play by William Gillette. Never finished, the film did not screen publicly and took on legendary status when the single known print reportedly burned. Now after 75 years, the silent comedy will finally have its debut at the famed silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, in Pordenone, Italy, on Wednesday, October 9, 2013.

Though barely twenty, Welles had already rocketed to national fame through his Federal Theater Project productions of “Voodoo” Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock before cofounding the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman in 1937. Their first production, a restaging of Julius Caesar in fascist Italy, was an immediate Broadway hit. For Welles, Too Much Johnson provided another opportunity to rethink a theatrical warhorse for contemporary audiences. He turned the long-in-the-tooth marital farce of mistaken identities into a lightning-paced screwball comedy and shot three short movies to give the back story before each act.

"The discovery of the long lost footage from Orson Welles's out-of-town production of Too Much Johnson is thrilling, a very significant missing piece in the jigsaw of Welles's art,” said Simon Callow, the celebrated British actor, writer, and director. “It was filming these sequences that first made him fall in love with film; here he began to discover the possibilities not only of shooting but of editing. It will tell us an enormous amount about his visual sensibility and indeed about his theatrical instincts; at last we can really get a sense of what this recklessly inventive production for the Mercury Theatre might actually have been like had the film been used.” Mr. Callow is now at work on the third and final volume of his definitive biography of Welles.

An abandoned 35mm nitrate work print of Too Much Johnson, found in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, was salvaged by Cinemazero, the film exhibition organization that partners with the Cineteca del Friuli to present the city’s annual silent film festival. Given the importance of Too Much Johnson for American stage and film history, the two organizations invited Eastman House and the NFPF to work with them to preserve the film. Eastman House directed the preservation to 35mm film, which was funded through the NFPF, and will host the American premiere on October 16, in Rochester, New York, directly after the work screens in Pordenone. The NFPF hopes to secure funding to present the film on the Internet later in the year.

It has long been said that Paramount Pictures, which owned the film rights to Too Much Johnson, squashed Welles’s movie adaptation after he began shooting, a claim that could not be substantiated by Paramount in a recent search of its archives. Another account suggests that the highly flammable nitrate film could not be safely shown in the Stony Creek Theater in Connecticut, where the play opened. Whatever the reason for dropping the film, the play opened without it on August 16, 1938, and flopped. Undeterred, Welles went on to produce the celebrated radio broadcast of War of the Worlds later that year.

While none of the three parts of Too Much Johnson reached final cut, the surviving footage reveals a master in the making. The longest and most finished piece, the Act 1 prologue, shows the philandering Billings (Joseph 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 there. A 16mm home movie from one of the Mercury Theatre’s many investors, and now at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, documents the exuberant Welles shooting on location in the Hudson Valley.

Headquartered in San Francisco, the National Film Preservation Foundation (www.filmpreservation.org) is the nonprofit charitable affiliate of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. Since starting operations in 1997, the NFPF has helped 260 American cultural institutions save their films and has preserved some 200 “lost” American films found abroad, including those showcased on the DVD Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive, to be released this September.

Located on the estate of George Eastman, in Rochester, New York, George Eastman House (www.eastmanhouse.org) is the world’s most comprehensive museum dedicated to the photographic image in all its forms. It houses 28,000 film titles, 4 million film-related publicity stills, posters, scores, scripts, equipment, and pre-cinema artifacts. In 1996, Eastman House founded the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, where students from around the world are trained in film preservation, restoration, and archiving. Many filmmakers, including Cecil B. De Mille, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Ken Burns, and Kathryn Bigelow, have chosen Eastman House as the archive for their films. For more information, contact Kellie Fraver (kfraver@geh.org).

Established in 1977, the Cineteca del Friuli (www.cinetecadelfriuli.org) is one of the five major archives in Italy dedicated to the preservation of the motion picture, and an active publisher of books and DVDs dedicated to the history of cinema. In addition to its extensive film holdings, which are safeguarded in a state-of-the-art conservation center in Gemona del Friuli, the institution holds one of Italy’s largest film research libraries and a vast collection of stills, posters, and other film-related documents. For more information, contact Giuliana Puppin (press.gcm@cinetecadelfriuli.org).

A nonprofit cultural organization created in 1978, Cinemazero (www.cinemazero.org) is cofounder with the Cineteca del Friuli of the famed silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, held annually in Pordenone, Italy. Cinemazero runs a three-screen theater, a media center with thousands of books and videos, and a photographic archive documenting the work of film directors Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, and Andrei Tarkovsky. An active publisher of film books, it also hosts exhibitions, conferences, retrospectives, and other events relating to cinema and photography.

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