Lost for decades, the movies planned by Orson Welles for the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 production of Too Much Johnson will screen on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website beginning on Thursday, August 21, along with a “reimagining” of how the films might have been put together had they been completed. The NFPF will present the newly preserved 66-minute work print and a 2014 reconstruction for free streaming and downloading at www.filmpreservation.org. High definition versions will stream on Fandor, which is sponsoring the NFPF presentation.

As a member of the Mercury Theatre, Welles directed a comic silent movie to introduce each act of the company’s innovative multimedia adaptation of William Gillette’s late 19th-century play. The films featured Joseph Cotten as a philandering prevaricator, Ruth Ford as his wife, Arlene Francis as his mistress, Edgar Barrier as her clueless husband, and a host of other Mercury Theatre performers and office staff. Left unfinished and never publicly screened, the three shorts took on legendary “lost film” status when the single known copy reportedly burned. But an abandoned 35mm nitrate work print from the Too Much Johnson production resurfaced last year in an Italian warehouse. The 10 reels were preserved by George Eastman House, in collaboration with the Cineteca del Friuli and Cinemazero, through a 2013 NFPF grant.

The Too Much Johnson work print and reconstruction will be available for free streaming and downloading and presented with the following extras:

New music by Michael D. Mortilla.
“Too Much Johnson in Context,” an essay about the 1938 film-and-stage production, by Scott Simmon.
“Too Much Johnson: The Films Reimagined,” an essay by Scott Simmon describing his 2014 reconstruction.

Though barely twenty, Welles had already rocketed to national fame through his Federal Theatre Project productions of “Voodoo” Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock before cofounding the Mercury Theatre in 1937 with John Houseman (seen as the head cop in the act 1 film). Their first production, a restaging of Julius Caesar in fascist Italy, was an immediate Broadway hit. For Welles, Too Much Johnson provided another opportunity to rethink a theatrical warhorse for contemporary audiences. He turned the long-in-the-tooth marital farce of mistaken identities into a lightning-paced screwball comedy and planned three short movies to give the backstory before each act.

Why the films were dropped from the production has always been a mystery. It has been said that Paramount Pictures, which owned the movie rights to Too Much Johnson, quashed the project after Welles began shooting, a claim that could not be substantiated in a recent search of the studio’s archives. Another account claims that the highly flammable nitrate film could not be safely projected in the Stony Creek Theater in Connecticut, where the play was scheduled for preview. Whatever the reason, the revival opened without the movies on August 16, 1938, and flopped. Nevertheless Joseph Cotten was so memorable that Katharine Hepburn recruited him for the 1939 stage production of The Philadelphia Story as C.K. Dexter Haven (the part played by Cary Grant in the later movie) and the unstoppable Welles went on to make the celebrated radio broadcast of War of the Worlds later that year before heading off to Hollywood to direct Citizen Kane (1941).

While none of the three movies intended for Too Much Johnson reached final cut, the surviving work print reveals a master in the making. The longest and most finished piece, the act 1 prologue, shows the incorrigible Billings (Joseph Cotten), who has been womanizing under the name of Johnson, chased at breakneck speed across the rooftops of lower Manhattan by the wronged husband. Two shorter segments establish the arrival of the main characters in Cuba and the complications caused when too many Johnsons turn up there. The edited 34-minute reconstruction by Scott Simmon puts the pieces together, with new intertitles, in an order suggested by the Mercury Theatre play scripts found among the Orson Welles papers at Indiana University.

Headquartered in San Francisco, the National Film Preservation Foundation (www.filmpreservation.org) is the nonprofit charitable affiliate of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. Since starting operations in 1997, the NFPF has helped 272 American cultural institutions save their films and has preserved more than 220 “lost” American silent-era films found abroad, including those showcased on the DVD Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive, winner of a 2013 Film Heritage Award from the National Society of Film Critics.

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