Telluride 2014 Review: ‘Too Much Johnson’

The Telluride Film Festival presented a screening of a newly discovered Orson Welles silent film that has been restored by George Eastman House. Some context was required though. This was not a film intended to play in theaters. It was to be part of a Welles stage production where three filmed prologues would precede the three acts. He never finished the film for the show. 

What remains is essentially three mostly plotless slapstick scenes and that kind of works for me. There was some backstory about mistaken identities and engagements that I couldn’t even follow from the explanation. All I know is, Joseph Cotten is running around 1930s New York doing daring stunts and impeccable pratfalls. 

One bit has a Keystone Cops-esque pursuit between Cotten and the villain running around stacks of boxes, just missing each other. Then an actual Keystone Cop shows up. A long sequence has Cotten running around rooftops, straddling two buildings, and at one point lugging a ladder around, coming very close to the ledge. He skates on a wheeled palette and goes from upper to lower deck on the side of a boat. 

As explained, since Too Much Johnson was unfinished, this is partly still an assembly cut, so some takes happen three times in a row. That’s kind of cool to see it from different angles that might otherwise be unused, and it only takes up an extra few seconds. It’s not long runs of the master shot repeated. It’s only cutaway reactions. A fake palm tree falls over in one shot, which would have been omitted from a final cut but I’m sure glad it’s in there now. 

The restoration looks great except for one reel that was too far gone, but even then it’s interesting to see the effects of degradation of nitrate film. The program runs just about an hour and includes a three minute 16mm home movie ‘behind the scenes.’ You get to see young Welles wearing a straw hat directing a scene. 

I can’t help wondering if in the 1930s people would have giggled, “Hehehe, Johnson” like I do now. The play/movie was a comedy and dated back to the late 1800s, involving several characters either actually named Johnson or impersonating a Johnson. So they must have known. It’s part of the gag.

Too Much Johnson:

The Restoration:

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.


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