Early Orson Welles Film Discovered in Italy

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

With a little bit of luck sometimes cinema’s lost treasures are found by chance, and it just so happens that one of the cinema’s most notorious enfants terribles’ first forays into film—long thought to be lost—has been found.

Three years before Orson Welles redefined cinema with his classic Citizen Kane, the then 23 year-old directed a 40-minute segment of film that featured members of his Mercury Theatre troupe—including Joseph Cotten—and was meant to be shown before each act of a revival of an 1894 play called “Too Much Johnson” that was to go to Broadway for the troupe’s 1938 season. The story tells of a womanizer from Yonkers (played by Cotten) who had been having an affair under the guise of a wealthy Cuban plantation owner named “Johnson” until the characters—much to the dismay of the loopy Lothario—find out he actually exists.

The play was a bust and never made it to Broadway, and the entire project was ultimately abandoned. Welles held on to the footage but the highly flammable final nitrate print was allegedly lost following a fire that destroyed his Spanish villa in the 1960s where the print was kept. Miraculously a print has now reappeared, strangely enough, in a shipping company warehouse in the Italian port city of Pordenone.

The print was sent to the George Eastman House to be restored with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation. The New York Times describes the footage as “unmistakably” Wellesian, “with [its] strong, close-cropped compositions, powerful diagonals and insistent, ironic use of the ‘heroic angle.’” Once it is transferred to modern film stock, it will be screened at the Giornate del Cinema Muto film festival in Pordenone on October 5th and at the George Eastman House on October 16th, and will possibly be available over the Internet later this year pending financing.

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