Pordenone, Italy — On October 9, 2013, I had the honor of viewing a short silent film made by Orson Welles, only recently discovered in this great town. The film, “Too Much Johnson,” made in 1938, features a man name Augustus Billings (played by Joseph Cotton) who is chased all over New York City by a husband who discovers Billings sleeping with his wife. The chase takes them to first to the docks and then to the warehouse district, where Cotton and the cuckolded husband, Leon Dathis (played by Edgar Barrier), perform dangerous stunts from precarious positions on the rooftops. The chase goes on so long that it seems more like a looping reel rather than plotted short film.
Actually, Welles did not intend the film to stand alone, but instead produced it to run in snippets during the Mercury Theater’s 1938 production of William Gillette’s play of the same name. He filmed it like a Keystone Cops slapstick comedy, and even John Housman appears as a Keystone-like policeman. Besides the action in the warehouse district, Welles continues the chase in Yonkers at a sandy location meant to represent Cuba. In these scenes, Cotton and Barrier end up fighting a duel and getting drenched in a pond. After seeing Cotton play so many thoughtful and exacting characters throughout his career, it’s interesting and refreshing to see him acting so exuberantly.
In an interview with Peter Bogdanovitch, Welles said he just got an old silent movie camera and had fun with it. Of course, it’s easy to have fun with the combined talents of the Mercury Theater. Welles appears as a Keystone Cop, and we also get to see Houseman, Virginia Nicolson, Ruth Ford, Mary Wickes, Judy Holiday and Arlene Francis. Francis is funny as the coy Mrs. Dathis, with her winning smile and exaggerated movements. Her scenes appear at the beginning of the film, and they provide a pleasant contrast to the extensive chase scenes.
Judging from the long line and wait to get into see this film here in Pordenone, I expect Too Much Johnson to have an extensive run online. Besides being a delight for film scholars, Too Much Johnson could easily play as a background loop for any movie-themed restaurant. It also surprises with its recognizable cast performing for fun. The English narration at the film premiere in Pordenone also emphasized the importance of the New York City film locations — places that no longer exist but are now galvanized in Welles on-location short.