Citizen Kane wasn’t Orson Welles’ first movie, he had experimented with film before. In 1934 he co-directed an experimental short film in school called The Hearts of Age. In 1938 Welles and the Mercury Theatre was putting on a production of William Gillette’s play Too Much Johnson. Welles wanted to do something different. He decided that before each of the acts of the play, he would show a short film, in essence cutting down the live action play and turning it into a movie and mixing the two together.
Welles shot over 60 minutes of footage with a plan to cut down the footage to about 40 minutes but there were set backs. First Welles didn’t have the film rights to the play just the theatrical rights. The movie rights were owned by Paramount Studios and when they got wind of it they sent a cease and desist order or pay them money. Then the first production of the play was performed at a theatre that couldn’t show movies so they did the play without the film and it bombed. Welles then trashed the idea and never completed editing the footage. The footage was believed to have been destroyed in a house fire at Welles’ estate in 1970. In 2008 a copy was discovered in Italy. The footage was restored thanks National Film Preservation Foundation and it was publicly screened in November of 2013. Now the National Film Preservation Foundation has decided to stream the footage off of their site to let the world watch it.
There were two previous film attempts at Too Much Johnson, one from 1900 and one from 1919. Both of those silent films are lost. Welles’ version is also silent and pays homage to the slapstick comedy of Mack Sennett’s comedies. The footage also features Joseph Cotten’s film debut. The film is a rough workprint that showcases Welles playing with the medium, trying editing techniques and different camera angles. But it’s fascinating to watch even if it isn’t a complete film and it’s very cool that the National Film Preservation Foundation is letting the public watch it for free.