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Long-lost early Orson Welles film discovered, has unfortunately silly name

As any good film student or person with working Internet can tell you, Orson Welles made his feature-film debut with 1941’s Citizen Kane, thus ruining the lives of every first-time filmmaker thereafter. But somewhat less known is that Kane wasn’t Welles’ first at-bat: He shot his first short film in 1934 (in the same town that later hosted Groundhog Day), and in 1938, he even directed an almost-feature-length movie, the 40-minute Too Much Johnson. (Please keep reading.)

Based on an 1894 William Gillette play, the film was meant to be the cinematic component of an ambitious, early multimedia staging Welles had planned for his Mercury Theater. Unfortunately, the show’s preview was so poorly received, he scrapped all plans and set the film aside, unedited, where it remained for decades. It was presumed to have been lost in the 1970 fire that claimed Welles’ Spanish villa, with no extant copies remaining. For years, cinephiles longed to see Welles’ Johnson, only to get the shaft. (Seriously, though, there are still pertinent facts below.)


But now a print has unexpectedly turned up in a northern Italian warehouse, and the George Eastman House, in conjunction with the National Film Preservation Foundation, has set about restoring it. The plan is to premiere it at the Oct. 5 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, an annual festival dedicated to “the shadowy corners of film history,” and thereafter at Eastman House on Oct. 16, with the possibility of releasing it to the Internet later in the year. (Where it will hopefully not get confused with certain other videos that might be named Too Much Johnson. We're almost done.)

For now, you can go to the New York Times to read a lengthy description of its production and plot, see various, fascinating screenshots, and then ignore all of that because you’re still laughing about it being called Too Much Johnson. (“In this we see compelling, early examples of Welles’ experimentation with mise-en-scène. Also, ‘Johnson’ is slang for ‘dick,’ so yes, it’s like he has a really big dick.”—what a film historian might as well say, right up front.)

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