In 1938, three years before Orson Welles made Citizen Kane and changed the course of film history, he worked on a project, which was left unfinished, called Too Much Johnson. Adapting a late 19th-century stage comedy, Welles envisioned a hybrid theater-and-cinema project, where scenes acted on stage would alternate with scenes projected on screen. It was a bold experiment, one that Welles couldn’t complete after weeks of filming and editing. For decades the footage was thought to be lost. But in 2008 an unfinished workprint was discovered, and preservationists have edited the footage to get as close as possible to what a finished version might look like.
This half-hour version mostly consists of the play’s opening sequence, set in New York City. Welles had worked on these sequences firsthand, and you can see the delight he had in the cutting room as he discovered an array of cinematic effects. Here he cuts his way into making one of the most erotic scenes of the 1930s, even though his actors keep their clothes on. Purely through the use of shock edits, he conjures the ecstatic sensation of wild lovemaking. It would take twenty years before The French New Wave and New Hollywood would film scenes like this.
Welles’ playful invention doesn’t stop at the cutting room. There are many moments where his camera movements and cropped framing bring out lovely patterns and formations of bodies and objects. His camerawork and cutting really come together in the film’s standout sequence: a rooftop chase that uses spatial depth and startling edits to construct a cinematic funhouse maze. Welles came back to these techniques ten years later in the famous hall of mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai.
There are other moments that foretell the cinematic leap he would take in just three years’ time. A couple of shots play with the extreme deep staging that defines Citizen Kane’s singular style. And how can one not look at this overhead shot of warehouse crates and start looking for Rosebud?
These are just a few of the connections to be unpacked from this long lost treasure. They help to dispel the longstanding myth of Welles as a boy wonder who came from out of nowhere to deliver the greatest feature film debut of all time. Watching this film, we can see a young artist familiarizing himself with the techniques that eventually would send him barreling into Hollywood, turning the state of filmmaking upside down.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.