Hollywood history is full of creative types who clashed with producers over their films and personalities. The original bad boy, of course, was Orson Welles. After conquering radio and theatre, he took the film world by storm. Although Hollywood tried to chew him up and spit him out, he remained lodged in its throat, seemingly refusing to go away. While he made some of the most acclaimed films of all time, Welles’s resume is also filled with unrealized or half-finished projects, many due to studio quarrels, financial issues, or his own hubris.
One of these projects was recently rediscovered and is now making its Canadian premiere at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Shot three years before Citizen Kane, Too Much Johnson was originally envisioned as a series of three filmed preludes to Welles’s Mercury Theatre production of William Gillette’s play of the same name. It was a silent slapstick comedy with Welles’s regular Joseph Cotten as a playboy on the run from his mistress’s husband through New York City.
Yet the film was never completely edited and never publicly screened. It was also thought to be lost after a fire at Welles’s home in the ‘70s. But a print was finally found several years ago in Italy and was reconstructed, with screenings around the world beginning last year.
To celebrate this super-rare occasion, TIFF has put together a mini-retrospective of Welles films from May 9 to May 13, in order to surround the screening of Too Much Johnson. Orson Welles: Lost & Found gives us a small glimpse into a tumultuous and visionary career. Here’s a look at what TIFF has in store in celebration of Welles.
Obviously Citizen Kane is here. As his first feature, made when he was just 25, it immediately established Welles as a wunderkind and will forever be synonymous with his name. Based on his previous success in theatre and radio, RKO Pictures gave him complete creative control on the film, including final cut, which was pretty much unheard of at the time, especially since he was an untested director. But he definitely made good on it. The epic and innovative story of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane is a mainstay on the tops of almost every “Best Films of All Time” list. But if you’ve never seen it, don’t let its importance scare you off – it absolutely lives up to the hype. Revolutionary at the time, it’s still a wonder to behold today. Dynamic and constantly inventive, it was the first pure auteur vision to emerge from Hollywood.
The Magnificent Ambersons
Immediately after Citizen Kane, Welles jumped into an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons — but this is when his problems started. A saga about the decline of a wealthy American family during the rise of the automobile industry, Welles did not have final cut this time. After he went over-budget and his final version tested poorly with audiences, RKO took the film away from him and retooled it. Over an hour of footage was eventually cut out and the studio re-shot a happier ending. In short, they took over his vision. Since all the excised footage was destroyed, there is no chance of a reconstruction.
Despite all of this, critics and audiences alike have embraced Ambersons and it’s still generally recognized as a great film. For me though, it just doesn’t work in its current form – I can feel the interference in every scene. At only 88 minutes, the story is horribly rushed and you don’t get to know any of the characters well enough, so that the effect of seeing this family fall apart never took hold of me. Certain scenes seem to end abruptly and that tacked-on ending is awkward and just plain wrong for the tone of the film. Sure, it’s got some nifty sequences and camerawork, but Ambersons only works for me as a sad reminder of what could have been. There’s enough interesting stuff here to suggest that Welles’s intended cut could have been just as audacious as Kane.
Like many thespians, Welles would also tackle a few Shakespeare adaptations throughout his career, most notably his 1952 version of Othello. While it’s uncomfortable seeing Welles don blackface to portray the title character (as it was in all of the earlier screen adaptations), his take on the classic play is one of the more interesting versions. He eliminates any sense of staginess by shooting on location in Morocco and Italy, while also utilizing a handheld, close-up shooting style that makes everything feel immediate. He turns Shakespeare’s story of jealousy and betrayal into a potent film noir, playing with the darkness in every shot and establishing a mood of hushed portentousness. Othello was completely financed by Welles himself, so it took several years to make, but this also allowed him to take back creative control. For his efforts, Othello won the Palme d’Or and has become one of the more discussed films of his career.
The Third Man
Rounding out the series is the classic film noir The Third Man. It’s a bit of an odd choice for the series, since Welles didn’t direct it and although his performance is one of his more iconic ones, he’s really only on screen for about 15 minutes. The majority of the film focuses on Joseph Cotten as an American pulp novelist who comes to Vienna for a job offer from his friend but then upon arrival, discovers his friend has died in an apparent accident, sending him on an investigation into what happened.
Nevertheless, it’s one of the best film noirs ever made, and should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate the stunning black and white photography that shapes the evocative post-war Vienna locations into a fog of alleyways, tunnels, and shadows. Director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene crafted a gripping mystery that twists and turns and culminates in a thrilling chase through the sewers. While Welles didn’t direct, it could be argued that The Third Man may not have existed without the precedents of Citizen Kane and the other film noirs that he made in the decade before, as the incredible camerawork builds upon what was demonstrated in those prior works.
Hollywood may have tried to kick him around, but Welles’s cinematic influence spread all over and continues to survive.
Orson Welles: Lost & Found runs from May 9 to May 13, 2014 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. The screening of Too Much Johnson on Saturday will be presented with live piano accompaniment by William O’Meara and live commentary by Caroline Yeager, Assistant Curator at George Eastman House. Check their website for details and showtimes.