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  Too Much Johnson Silents Is Golden
Year: 1938
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Edgar Barrier, Arlene Francis, Ruth Ford, Mary Wickes, Eustace Wyatt, Guy Kingsley Pointer, George Duthie, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Judy Holliday
Genre: Comedy, ActionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Augustus (Joseph Cotten) is having an affair with a married woman, and heads over to her apartment today to get up close and personal with her, bringing a posy of flowers by way of a gift. On entering the place, watched keenly by passersby on the street below who are very interested indeed in the comings and goings there, he drops the flowers and jumps into bed with the woman, who is dressed only in her underwear, though a potted plant keeps getting its leaves in the way. Eventually they both lie spent on the bed until oh dear, there's the sound of her husband (Edgar Barrier) returning and Augustus panics, making his exit through the window - but he has been spotted.

After Too Much Johnson was rediscovered in 2013, some forty-three years after the supposed last existing print was destroyed in a house fire, it marked a slightly poignant occasion. As Orson Welles' first feature, it was cheering that his fans could finally see what he had made at the start of his movie career (aside from a brief surrealist short he made earlier in the thirties), but it also meant that Citizen Kane was no longer the greatest debut of all time, because he had conjured up this three years before and it was far from being the greatest anything very much. Not that it was without interest, but as what we were watching was essentially a workprint it didn't show off the director's talents to their best advantage.

In fact, it wasn't intended to be shown as a complete film at all, the three shorts that made up its just over an hour long running time were created as intervals for a stage production of William Gillette's play, and only later did Welles entertain the possibility of them being edited together as a complete film. He was an incorrigible tinkerer when it came to his work, never happier than when he was in the editing room and assembling various incarnations of his material, and it would have been nice to see what kind of shape he would have whipped his footage into; presumably it would have been shorter, as there are shots and sequences that repeat with variations here, everything captured for it presented.

This means the process of watching Too Much Johnson has the effect of sitting through what amounted to a DVD extra from decades before such things were even dreamt of, and for that reason is full of attraction for those intrigued by what the young Welles was doing in film before he shook up the medium forever with Kane. Although lost for all that time, and never really seen by anyone in the public since its inception in the late thirties, the Welles name offered it a glamour that it would not otherwise have had, as it amounted to a tribute to the then recent silent movie industry which the director and his artistic friends tended to idolise in comparison with the talkies.

With that in mind, Welles had the scenes take the form of a silent comedy, with such basic humour as the cuckolded husband knocking many, many men's hats off to see their hair because that's the only aspect he can identify of Augustus from a ripped photograph his wife refuses to allow him the other part of. But most impressive were Cotten essentially indulging in what we would now call free running as he bounded across rooftops in mock-unsteady fashion, most of the footage in the form of a long-running chase which was probably the highlight, that earlier section (after Welles dabbled in surrealist techniques during the first ten minutes) featuring the most action. Later, after the hat knocking off business, Augustus hops aboard a ship to Cuba and they end up in combat in the tropics (or what passed for the tropics on their tiny budget) with a swordfight. Understandably disjointed, it's just about possible to discern a plot of sorts, basic as it was, yet you would be pondering whether Welles would ever have been happy with this displayed in its unedited (by him) form.

[Too Much Johnson has been released by Mr Bongo on Blu-ray with no extras, but a very decent presentation for such a rarity. One short section looks the worse for wear, but otherwise it's an admirable transfer of a fine restoration.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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