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Orson Welles’ ‘Too Much Johnson’ a Highlight at Pordenone

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Early gems from Sweden, Ukraine and Berlin bolstered a rich 32nd edition for the world's most important silent-cinema festival.

Orson Wells Too Much Johnson

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival holds a special place in the calendar. Now in its 32nd year, Pordenone remains the most important festival of silent cinema, the mother ship in a sense for the encouraging plethora of smaller silent film events (San Francisco, Bonn, Tromso, etc.) that have cropped up in recent years. Attracting an esoteric crowd of archivists, scholars, conservationists and programmers, Pordenone has long been a catalyst for early film research and, thanks to scholarships offered to young applicants who attend as part of the festival’s Collegium, a way of encouraging and disseminating interest in the field. This year’s edition (which ran Oct. 5-12) saw more international attention than usual thanks to the extraordinary discovery, in the city of Pordenone itself, of Orson Welles’ lost 1938 silent lark, “Too Much Johnson.”

Preceded in Welles’ cinematic career only by his short “The Hearts of Age,” made when he was 19, “Too Much Johnson” was meant to accompany the Mercury Theater’s production of a hoary William Gillette farce of the same name, opening in summer stock at Connecticut’s Stony Creek Theater. Apparently Welles hit on the idea of shooting a prologue and then two entr’actes, which would provide backstory as well as reinforce the director’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the old material. Conceived as an homage to silent comedy, he had the film under-cranked to imitate early slapstick, dressing his cast in period costumes and referencing most prominently “Safety Last” and Keystone comedies in scenes lensed throughout lower Manhattan. Welles shot about four-and-a-half hours of footage which he intended to trim down to 40 minutes, but the famously overextended director (even then) never finished the edit, and the play opened without cinematic interludes; the production closed before making it to New York. The film was never screened publicly and was soon lost.

Fast-forward to 2005, when Pordenone’s Cinemazero agreed to store cans of nitrate puzzlingly deposited in a local warehouse since the 1970s. Only in December 2012 were some of the canisters identified as coming from “Too Much Johnson,” though it still remains a mystery how the material wound up in Italy (Welles’ Madrid residence had a catastrophic fire in 1971, and everyone believed the material destroyed). Miraculously, the print discovered in Pordenone was in excellent condition except for one heavily damaged reel, but thanks to the extraordinary work of Haghefilm Digitaal, the gold standard for film conservation, only 15 feet were sacrificed and the rest of the reel was saved; the current running length is 66 minutes.

In late interviews, Welles expressed a fondness for what he shot back in 1938, but only now is it possible to back up his recollections. “Too Much Johnson,” or at least the unedited footage as viewed in Pordenone, is an unanticipated delight, showing the director nimbly playing with silent film forms without stooping to high-horse parody or ridicule. There are moments of ultra-broad comedy — Arlene Francis, looking ravishing, hams it up with evident delight at the start — yet the outdoor footage, much of it shot in the Meatpacking District and further south, is a delightful spin on slapstick chase conventions, and a dashing Joseph Cotten, in Harold Lloyd mode, demonstrates a remarkable lack of vertigo along with physical grace.

Genuinely funny rather than derivative, the film as seen, complete with multiple takes, feels fresh and spirited up until the last section, when scenes meant to take place in Cuba (but shot near the Hudson, with a few rented palm trees) lose a bit of steam before the amusing final shots. The Mercury Theater Players are game participants, and it’s a delight to see Ruth Ford and Mary Wickes, not to mention John Houseman, long before Smith Barney, briefly glimpsed as a Keystone Kop. Only Welles’ first wife, Virginia Nicholson, seems out of place, her performance merely registering as bland in contrast to the evident lightheartedness around her.

Alongside an appreciation of the find’s importance lies a nagging mystery: How did the reels get to Pordenone? Also, the footage feels like outtakes rather than unedited rushes, so could it be there was a more finished film, and that’s what was destroyed in 1971? Whatever the answers, gratitude is due to the Cineteca del Friuli, who now own the print; George Eastman House and especially Paolo Cherchi Usai, who carried out considerable research, taking charge of preservation; Haghefilm Digitaal, for their exemplary restoration; and Mario Catto, a young local film lover who brought the cans to the attention of the Cinemazero people.

“Too Much Johnson” was but one film in a week of screenings, understandably hogging media attention even though it wasn’t what most festival participants came to see. General consensus ranked the section “Sealed Lips: Sweden’s Forgotten Years, 1925-1929” to be the most revelatory, its nine films opening up a new line of inquiry for many scholars whose concentrated knowledge of Swedish cinema was largely limited to the earlier Golden Age from 1917-24. Making the tops of most people’s lists was “The Strongest” (“Den starkaste”), a stunning Arctic adventure film co-directed by Alf Sjoberg and Axel Lindblom in 1929, featuring exceptional location work along Norway’s northern coast and exciting ice-floe sequences around Svalbard. Also noteworthy in this section was Ivar Johansson’s 1929 “The Kingdom of Rye” (“Ragens Rike”), a frank if slightly overextended rural potboiler demonstrating marked affinities with Soviet films of the era. Equally, few would gainsay the pleasures of watching the exquisite Lil Dagover in “Discord” (“Hans Engelska Fru”), directed in 1927 by Gustaf Molander.

Ukrainian cinema was highlighted in a section curated by Ivan Kozlenko, Deputy Director of the Dovzhenko National Center, who has done much to champion the role of Ukraine in the hothouse environment of silent Soviet cinema: Who knew that in 1926, the Ukrainian state film monopoly Vukfu was the second biggest supplier to the German film market, topped only by the U.S.? Their feature-film output encompassed psychologically acute realism as well as the more avant-garde productions usually associated with late silent Soviet-era cinema, and Pordenone screened an impressive cross-section. Of the less commonly seen films, the standouts were Heorhii Stabovyi’s “Two Days” (“Dvi Dni”) from 1927, and Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s “Arsenal” from 1929; both films screened at New York’s Film Guild in 1929 and received intensely negative reviews in Variety (which called “Two Days” “among the most uninspired and exasperating foreign bolognas under the name of art”). Needless to say, in this case time has been kinder to the films than to the critics.

Other festival discoveries included the Berlin-themed works of the understudied Gerhard Lamprecht, earthy stories focusing on down-and-out children and other vulnerable members of society tossed about by the harsh economic currents of the Weimar Republic. Of the four screened, “People Among Each Other” (“Menschen Untereinander”), from 1926, offered more comedy than the others, leavening social criticism with sly piquancy in a tale involving the tenants of a Berlin apartment building. All the films will be made available on DVD, each featuring sterling musical compositions by master accompanist Donald Sosin.

The early-cinema crowd occasionally grumbled this year at the high proportion of film from the 1920s, though there were several programs devoted to movies from the teens and earlier; of special interest were the shorts from 1896 and 1897, all made using the obscure Joly-Normandin system. Patented in 1896 by Henri Joly and Ernest Normandin, the films produced thus boasted superior picture quality and larger images, with five perforations per frame, but its minor share of the market guaranteed a quick obsolescence, making the system the laser discs of their day. Fortunately, a number of prints exist in various archives, and recent restorations allowed the Pordenone audience to watch the Place de l’Opera in Paris the same year that “La Boheme” premiered, along with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and downtown Algiers in 1897.

Needless to say, all films are accompanied by live musicians, ranging from solo pianists of exceptional brilliance to duos, trios and a full orchestra. The festival’s one-theater/one-screening approach is particularly worthy of praise; unlike attendees of Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato, who must make a veritable Sophie’s choice during every crowded time slot, at Pordenone the single screen ensures that each program, this year starting at 8:50 a.m. with a Felix the Cat short and ending around 12:30 a.m. with Ko-Ko the Clown, could be watched and savored. Notwithstanding the rigorous scholarship that goes into every program, few would mistake the crowd for anything other than an intensely loyal group of film lovers for whom enjoyment and study go hand in hand. Irreplaceable artistic director David Robinson’s bracing opening address each year includes the phrase “Welcome home,” and there’s no more fitting indication of the value of those words than the undiminished applause that greets him each edition.