Early Film by Orson Welles, Created for Stage Production of Too Much Johnson, Discovered in Italy

By Carey Purcell
08 Aug 2013

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

An early film by Orson Welles has been discovered in a warehouse in the Italian Pordenone, according to the New York Times.

The film, which had presumably been lost in a fire that destroyed Welles' villa in Spain, contains about 40 minutes of footage intended to be shown with Too Much Johnson, a revival of an 1894 stage farce that the 23-year-old Welles intended to bring to Broadway for the 1938 season of his Mercury Theater.

Welles, an actor, director, writer and producer, never finished editing the footage he shot for Too Much Johnson — about 25,000 feet, or nearly four hours worth — and when the play, written by the celebrated actor William Gillette as a vehicle for himself, folded out of town, after a disastrous preview in Stony Creek, CT, he abandoned the project.

The cast of Too Much Johnson included several members of Welles' Mercury troupe: Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis, Howard Smith, Edgar Barrier, Mary Wickes and Welles' wife at the time, Virginia Nicholson, billed under her stage name, Anna Stafford. It is believed that an aspiring comedian named Judith Tuvim, later Judy Holliday, was one of the extras. The music was composed by Paul Bowles.



The film follows a womanizer from Yonkers named Augustus Billings, who has been carrying on an extramarital indiscretion under the invented identity of the owner of a plantation in Cuba named Johnson. However, Johnson actually exists, which Billings discovers when he arrives in Santiago, Chile, in the company of his wife, his mother-in-law and a jealous husband.

The port city of Pordenone is home to Cinemazero, a cultural organization that regularly screens classic films. Each fall Cinemazero partners with the Cineteca del Friuli to present Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a gathering of scholars and cinephiles with a special dedication to the film history.

After discovering the film footage, the Cinemazero staff turned the footage over to George Eastman House in Rochester. The process of stabilizing the film and transferring it to modern safety stock is proceeding with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The film is scheduled to have its premiere in Pordenone during the 2013 festival, which begins Oct. 5. The film will be screened at Eastman House Oct. 16. The foundation will offer the film over the Internet later in the year if financing can be found. 

Welles scholars have been intrigued by "Too Much Johnson" for generations, as the film would seem to represent Welles' first real experience composing a film with the support of a professional cast and a professional crew to be seen by a paying public. For over 50 years, no print had been known to exist.