Team effort restores a 'lost' Welles film

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In his first film, an eight-minute 1934 silent titled "The Hearts of Age," a teenage Orson Welles played Death.

Now, his second film — "Too Much Johnson," long considered dead and gone — has come back to life. This is a hugely significant discovery, restoring a missing link to the chain of Welles' fabulous, often ill-starred achievements.

Last December, in a shipping company warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, an unfinished 35-millimeter print of Welles' footage was found by members of the film exhibition organization Cinemazero. Welles shot the "Too Much Johnson" footage in 1938 and intended to use about 40 minutes' worth in a stage revival of the 1894 William Gillette comedy (in turn adapted from a French farce). The footage was presumed lost in a 1970 fire in Welles' home, in Madrid, Spain.

This fall the world will get a look at the surviving 10 reels, first at the Pordenone silent film festival in October, and later that month in its U.S. premiere at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

"Amazing" is the word Eastman House head of motion picture preservation, Tony Delgrosso, used Thursday to describe what he (and few others) has seen.

"For one thing, nine of the 10 reels look essentially new," he said. "It's an original work print; you can tell by the hand splicing, the cuts and trims notated in grease pencil, made by Welles as he was cutting the footage in his St. Regis Hotel suite in New York."

Welles, who made his legendary feature film debut with "Citizen Kane" three years after "Too Much Johnson," shot the slapstick-heavy silent footage with his Mercury Theatre colleagues, including Joseph Cotten;John Houseman; Mary Wickes; and Virginia Nicholson, Welles' first wife. In the film footage as well as the stage production for which it was made, Cotten played a Yonkers philanderer. Welles wanted each of the play's three acts to begin with a silent film prologue; in one scene, reportedly the most complete, Welles and company staged a manic chase through the streets and atop the buildings of Depression-era Manhattan.

"Too Much Johnson" never was meant to stand alone as a conventional movie, outside the confines of the theatrical project that flopped in its out-of-town Connecticut tryout. The show did not make it to Broadway.

Chicago-based critic and Welles expert Jonathan Rosenbaum said Thursday that Welles' colleague Richard Wilson once told him the "Too Much Johnson" film couldn't be shown in the Connecticut tryout theater because the "throw," the distance between the projection booth and the stage, was insufficient.

Without the film footage, Welles' revival flopped.

"One of the things I've discovered researching Welles," Rosenbaum said, "is this: There's always more material out there than you think there is. I'm very eager to see this."

The nine reels found in surprisingly good condition were sent to the Eastman House for photochemical restoration. The 10th reel had nearly disintegrated, but an Amsterdam film lab performed miracles, according to Delgrosso, saving "about 96 percent" of the footage after "rehydration."

It's a major find, Delgrosso said, "because 'Too Much Johnson' was the only thing Welles committed to film prior to 'Kane' that was thought to no longer exist." The restoration, taking place over the last several months, was a collaboration of the Eastman House; Cinemazero; Cinemazero's Pordenone partner Cineteca del Friuli; and the National Film Preservation Foundation. The NFPF funded roughly $30,000 of the Eastman House preservation effort, according to NFPF's Barbara Gibson.

"The Italians found it," she said, "and then the NFPF raised the money so that the George Eastman House could preserve it. And if we raise enough money, we'll be able to digitize it and stream it online."

The "Too Much Johnson" restoration has relied on an old-fashioned film-to-film restoration, no digitization of any kind. And with photochemical processing facilities going the way of the dodo, Delgrosso said, "a year or so from now, we may not have the capability" to perform such miracles.

On Aug. 21, Michael and Tribune colleague Steve Rosenbloom host a Music Box Theatre screening of the Penny Marshall-directed baseball movie "A League of Their Own," the latest in the Tribune's Press Pass series. Go to musicboxtheatre.com/events for details.

mjphillips@tribune.com

@phillipstribune

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