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August 10, 2013 5:11 PM The best news of the week: early “lost” Orson Welles film found!

By Kathleen Geier

By far the most thrilling news I’ve heard this week was Dave Kehr’s report in the New York Times that an early film directed by and starring Orson Welles, long thought to be hopelessly lost, has been found. The (pre-Citizen Kane) 1938 film, which is about 40 minutes long, was to accompany the stage production of a play called Too Much Johnson (okay, you can stop laughing). Here’s what the estimable Kehr says about the film, which also features other Mercury Theater regulars such as Joseph Cotton:

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

Here’s Kehr the critic on the frames he’s seen:

[T]he frame enlargements from “Too Much Johnson” that have been released suggest a young filmmaker — Welles was all of 23 at the time — with a striking command of his medium. The images are unmistakably his, with their strong, close-cropped compositions, powerful diagonals and insistent, ironic use of the “heroic angle” — the positioning of the camera to look up at the actor as if he were a statue posed on a pedestal.

The film will make its American debut this October at the Eastman House theater in Rochester, New York. In addition, the National Film Preservation Fund is raising money to make the film available online. If you’re interested in contributing to this eminently worthy cause, Farran Smith Nehme, aka Self-Styled Siren, tells you how to do so here.

News of this discovery gives film buffs everywhere something to celebrate. But this tale of a lost Welles film improbably found inevitably revives the specter of another Welles film that has long been lost to history: the original cut of Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Following an infamous, disastrous preview in Pomona, studio heads at RKO wrested control of the film away from Welles, cut 40 minutes, and reshot the ending. The result is a tragic mutilation. The surviving footage, while still extraordinary (its opening sequence never, ever fails to take my breath away), feels like half a film. If you wonder what the full version was like, you can get approximation by reading the detailed description of it in the indispensable Welles interview book, This Is Orson Welles (edited by Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Rosenbaum).

The missing Ambersons footage is almost certainly lost to history, but its romantic legend lives on. Every time reports surface about the unlikely reappearance of some film that was long since given up for dead (e.g., the incredible story of the sensational discovery of the original version of this great film), I have to wonder: might a similar miracle occur with Ambersons? This week’s reports of a new Welles film everyone was sure had been lost may revive quixotic hopes.

Some years ago, Dave Kamp wrote a wonderful Vanity Fair piece about the cult of the long-lost, uncut version of Ambersons, which he described as “the holy grail of certain film buffs.” As Karp makes clear, the film was, to a virtual certainty, destroyed many decades ago. Nevertheless, over the years, a group of film obsessives have gone to extraordinary lengths to track it down — to no avail. Karp’s article is utterly heartbreaking, especially this story told by Fred Chandler, who, in the 1980s, launched an extensive but ultimately fruitless search of the studio vaults for the missing footage:

Welles got the bad news from Chandler just a year before his 1985 death. “I would never have given Orson that answer—that it was all gone—unless I was pretty sure it was all gone,” Chandler says. “I had to look him in the eye and tell him. He broke down and cried in front of me. He said it was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

The mutilation of what probably would have been Welles’ greatest masterpiece is a grievous loss. Even so, the version of Ambersons we have is still pretty great — it stands as one of the finest films of all time, in my book. The biggest misconception a lot of the general public has had about Orson Welles is that he made no great films after Citizen Kane. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film, and so is his noir classic, Touch of Evil. His final completed film, the documentary F for Fake, is also wonderful.

Best of all, perhaps, is his gorgeous, deeply felt Falstaff film, Chimes at Midnight. I was lucky enough to see a rare screening of Chimes at Midnight on film, but it can also be found on DVD (though I can’t vouch for the quality of the transfer). Chimes deserves the full Criterion treatment; however, for whatever reason — many of Welles’ non-Hollywood films are tied up in rights issues — it’s never gotten it. But while you’re waiting for the Too Much Johnson footage to make its way on to DVD or online, you could do a lot worse than check out Chimes at Midnight, or any of Welles’ other films, for that matter. There’s a whole world of great Welles out there, and much of it remains surprisingly little known.

UPDATE: Here’s a lovely article that just went up on Salon yesterday, by an editor who worked with Welles on the last piece he ever published. It was an obituary of the great Jean Renoir. When I get a chance, I will try to track down Welles’ piece and post a link.

UPDATE #2: Welles’ Renoir obituary is here. It’s on the wonderful wellesnet — the go-to site for all things Welles.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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