Discovering Orson Welles

Too Much Johnson

a film directed by Orson Welles in 1938
Directors Guild of America Theater, New York City, November 25, 2013.

Orson Welles in Italy

by Alberto Anile, translated from the Italian by Marcus Perryman
Indiana University Press, 349 pp., $35.00 (paper)
Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum Photos
Orson Welles, 1967

In a famous sequence in the 1941 knockabout film Hellzapoppin’ the comedians Olsen and Johnson walk through a series of different movie sets, magically changing costumes as they go. As they leave the last set (an igloo on an icefield, fish displayed beside it), Johnson bumps into a small sled hanging on a frame. The word “Rosebud” is written across it. Johnson says, “I thought they burned that,” and keeps walking.

They did, or at least they burned a version of it at the end of Citizen Kane (also 1941), where the name provides the supposed solution to the film’s long riddle about Kane’s drive and identity: they took away his sled when he was a child. This proposition has been much derided, and Welles himself said it was “rather dollar-book Freud.” But the interest of a solution is often in the search for it, not in its content. “Rosebud” belongs to a kind of narrative that Welles, with millions of others, was very fond of. He told Peter Bogdanovich that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he almost filmed for RKO in 1939, had “a thing I like very much…the search for the key to something…. It’s a little bit like the plots of some of the best fairy tales.” Bogdanovich immediately connects this thought to Welles’s film Mr. Arkadin (1955). We might add that no one within the story of the film Citizen Kane sees the sled’s name or its burning. Just the audience does: in on the secret, whose evidence vanishes before our eyes, and out of any possible contact with the fictional world and its characters. Johnson was right not to pause too long over his surprise. The sled will always be ready for burning again as soon as any given screening of the movie is over.

The comedian’s name bears no relation to the title of the Orson Welles work resurrected this year, but the coincidence has its Wellesian effect, as does the real-life story of a supposedly burned relic. In 1938 as part of the season’s program for the Mercury Theatre, Welles was planning to put on an 1890s farce by William Gillette. It was called Too Much Johnson, and involves an angry husband, an escaping lover, a trip to Cuba, and lots of mistakes about names, especially about the name Johnson. Welles had the idea of introducing each of the three acts of the play with a segment of film using the same actors, twenty minutes for the first act, ten minutes each for the others. The film was to be silent, a homage to Harold Lloyd especially and the Keystone Cops—not Chaplin, whom Welles did not admire, and not Keaton, whose art he probably thought a bit beyond even his means as a beginner. In his conversations with Henry Jaglom, Welles says he thinks Keaton’s The General “is almost the greatest movie ever made. The most poetic movie I’ve ever seen.”

Welles shot and edited quite a lot of his farce film, but it was never screened, because of projection problems at the out-of-town run in Connecticut, and because that run made him decide not to bring the show to New York. He kept the film among his numerous belongings, and in his interviews with Bogdanovich (1969–1972), published in 1992 as This Is Orson Welles, he spoke warmly of Joseph Cotten, who stars in it as the escaping lover, and shows a comic grace and wit that are truly lyrical, and makes you think he could have had an entirely different career, or maybe just makes you wish the silent era could have lasted a little longer. In this respect Welles makes a subtle remark to Jaglom that tells us something about the style he was seeking: “The silent pictures always look as though they happened in a world earlier than they did when they were shot. They all derive from the nineteenth century.” Let’s not rush to explain this effect through old technology or speed of projection. Welles had found a way to make himself a contemporary of William Gillette.

Welles goes on to say: “Too Much Johnson [was] one of our best things, I reckon…. We didn’t even get to town with the play. Hey, do you know that film still exists?… Someday I’m going to give it as a birthday present to Jo Cotten. He’s very funny in it.” Bogdanovich, referring to some earlier acts of denial on Welles’s part, says, “And you still insist you weren’t interested then in making movies?” Welles says, “I was interested in that.”

As far as anyone knew until earlier this year, the only copy of this film was, to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum in his Discovering Orson Welles, “lost in a fire at Welles’s villa in Madrid…in August 1970”—so somewhere near the beginning of the series of interviews with Bogdanovich. Then in 2008 a pile of old cans of film was found in a warehouse in the northern Italian city of Pordenone, not incidentally perhaps the home of an extraordinary annual silent film festival. The Too Much Johnson material was recognized among the cans only in December 2012, and sent to the Eastman House in Rochester for restoration. The result had its world premiere in Pordenone on October 9, 2013, and its American premiere in Rochester on October 16.

The restored footage, a work print of some seventy minutes out of what were apparently four hours of takes, has moments of repetition that add to the sense of adventure—we are seeing Welles see what film can do—and in Rochester the screening was accompanied by a brief and anonymous home movie of Welles doing the shooting. He is having the time of his life, wears a floppy straw hat with its brim turned up, and laughs almost constantly during the three or so minutes of the movie. The notional setting is Cuba but we are actually in a quarry in Haverstraw, New York, with assistants (not to be seen in the actual film, of course) holding up palm trees at convenient angles. There is a lot of splashing about in the quarry’s water.

The footage addresses the two story lines in the play: the pursuit of the lover by the jealous husband (Edgar Barrier; the dashingly unfaithful wife is Arlene Francis), and the departure for Cuba of a young woman (Virginia Nicholson, Welles’s wife at the time) whose parents are trying to marry her off to a man she doesn’t love. Needless to say the man she does love is in attendance. If you look carefully, you will see Judy Holliday among the extras. There is music by Paul Bowles, wonderfully improvised on in Rochester by Philip C. Carli, a performance that was far from being the least of the pleasures of the evening.

As a film, however unfinished, as distinct from the marker of a marvelous historical survival, Too Much Johnson concentrates all its energies and has its finest moments in the husband and lover story, and in two sequences in particular. The first has Barrier chasing Cotten through the old Washington Market in Manhattan, in and out of buildings, and along roof edges, Cotten strenuously trying to pull a ladder up after him from various precarious positions. At one point the two men enter a shaky labyrinth built out of tall market baskets. They can’t see each other, although we can see how close they come to meeting, how narrowly they miss success or capture, because Welles gives us a fine high-angle shot of the whole scene. We gain the perspective the characters cannot possibly have; we perceive the crazy comic geography that so narrowly divides them in the story and unites them in the image. At the end of the sequence the baskets all tumble chaotically onto the two men, and Cotten escapes to run again another day, and in another take.

The other amazing sequence needs a bit of back story. When Barrier comes home to Arlene Francis—Cotten having skipped out of the window just in time—he snatches up a photograph of the offending lover. Francis tries to grab it back, they fight over it, and it tears, leaving Barrier with only the top half of a face—just the forehead and hairline really. This means he can only identify the offender (if at all) when he is not wearing his hat, and Barrier races around taking the hat off every man he sees. This dance ends in an extraordinarily choreographed scene: bewildered men, hats all over the ground, Barrier just as baffled as when he began. Again a high-angle shot is part of the revelation: the litter of hats looks like a landscape.

The dominant effect of all this—the effect of any great chase sequence really but enhanced here by Welles’s style and the repetitions that come with the unfinished nature of the work—is that Barrier and Cotten seem to have entered a plot that has no other purpose than to keep them running, as if they themselves had no identity except that of the chaser and the chased. The chaser can no more catch his prey than a pianist can give up the piano for a trombone and still call himself a pianist. The same goes for the chased. The end of the chase, for either of them, would be the end of who they are. This is good, because it makes them immortal; terrible, because immortality is just one run-around after another. There is a wonderfully paranoid quality here, as if the engine of comedy were the fascination and fear of the trap, the machine that can’t fail to produce the same laughter every time.

The film makes this impression strongly. But I’m not sure I would describe it in this way if I didn’t have Welles’s other work in mind. Critics tend to insist that Welles is not funny, and like Jonathan Rosenbaum I think this is just wrong. In his conversations with Jaglom, Welles calls Citizen Kane a comedy, much to Jaglom’s surprise. “It is?” he asks. Welles says “Sure. In the classic sense of the word. Not a fall-in-the-aisles laughing comedy, but because the tragic trappings are parodied.”

There is a dark comedy even in crime for Welles—think of the funhouse mirrors at the end of The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and all the absurd rationalizations the characters in that film offer for their behavior—and this note is often connected with the story Welles invoked in relation to Heart of Darkness, “the search for the key to something.” In slapstick comedy we find the key and then one day it sticks in the door and we know we’ll never get out. In the underrated Mr. Arkadin the search is for the title character’s lost identity—except that he hasn’t lost it, he has hired someone to find it so that he can erase it, achieve freedom by throwing away the key. The plot of Welles’s The Stranger (1946) is much the same: the Nazi can live cozily ever after in Connecticut as long as no one finds the thread that connects the quiet schoolteacher to his European past. Welles liked to quote a passage from Emerson in this kind of situation:

Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime and it is as if a coat of snow fell on the ground. Such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word. You cannot wipe out the foot-track. You cannot draw up the ladder so as to leave no inlet or clue.

A wonderful proposition, especially if we disregard the perhaps not entirely reconcilable implications of the images of snow and glass, and the fact that moles do a lot of traveling underground. But a host of criminals in novels and movies, and probably many criminals in history, have thought they could prove Emerson wrong, leave no trace, do without speaking, pull up the ladder with complete impunity. In fiction Emerson usually turns out to be right, but only at the end of the story, and Welles’s work, along with some of the best films noirs directed by others, offers a double commentary on Emerson’s articulation of transparency. Every track that can be found can also be erased, every emphatic clue can be pointed in another direction by interpretation; and Emerson’s prose itself may move us not because we believe it but because we don’t, because we long to live in a world in which such luminous accounting could not fail.

A large part of what connects the comedy and the crime is what the philosopher Robert H. Pippin, writing about The Lady from Shanghai, calls “the specter of fatalism,” which he defines as the belief that “a great deal of what we take to happen because of what we do…happens independently of what we want to happen,” or more idiomatically as the question “who is running the show, driving whom where?” We call on the specter in all kinds of ways and for all kinds or reasons: as an excuse (I couldn’t help it), as a nightmare (let me out of here), as a consolation (God will provide), as a sort of therapeutic riddle (I know I’m a free agent but why does it so often seem as if someone else is writing the script?).

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in his film The Lady from Shanghai, 1947

Welles’s gift, underlined rather surprisingly by the Too Much Johnson film, is for putting to work his own fascination with the ways we can play with fate, without ever quite believing in it or ever believing we can quite escape it. In this sense the silent movie joins up with the moment in Touch of Evil (1958) when Marlene Dietrich, asked by Welles’s character to tell him his future like she used to, says he doesn’t have any, it’s all used up; or with Welles’s favorite animal fable, narrated in Mr. Arkadin. A scorpion, asking a frog for a lift across a river, says there is no danger in the frog’s taking him on. Obviously he will not sting the frog because it wouldn’t make any sense, they would both drown. Halfway across the water the scorpion stings the frog, and as they go under the frog asks why. “It’s my character,” the scorpion says.

Welles knows better than anyone—or he is better than anyone at getting this intricate wisdom into narrative and film—that tales and phrases of this kind are almost miraculously polyvalent. Just to summarize the simplest options: they could be true, false, both, neither; they could combine truth and falsehood in any one of countless ways. In the scorpion’s case it probably was his character; there wasn’t much he could do about it. There isn’t a lot the chaser and the chased can do in Too Much Johnson either—to free themselves from their comic fate they would have to get into another movie, the way Olsen and Johnson so easily do in Hellzapoppin’. But these are precisely stripped-down, parable versions of what happens in Welles’s other films. When his characters say the equivalent of “This is my character,” they are usually concealing their choice beneath the pretense that they didn’t have one; just as they are usually refusing to recognize limitations when they insist on their freedom. The question is not whether they had any choice but how much or little of it they had. Kane probably had a lot; Mr. Arkadin and the detective in Touch of Evil perhaps less than they imagined.

“A magician is just an actor…playing the part of a magician,” Welles says at the beginning of F for Fake (1972). A director too perhaps just plays the part. But we should not take Welles too literally when he talks about magic and fraud, especially when he turns to what seems a confessional mode. At such a moment in the same film he recounts his theatrical beginnings at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and says, “I began at the top and since then I’ve been working my way down.” The remark mirrors the popular image of an always slipping career, that of a director who failed to complete more films than he finished, and lived on his legend and his advertising appearances for Paul Masson wines. “By the end, self-parody was his only reliable source of income,” is the way Peter Conrad puts it in his book about Welles’s mythologizing, The Stories of His Life. From Charles Foster Kane to Paul Masson.

There is clearly a good deal of truth in this picture but the specter of fatalism looms too large in it. If genius and early success are bound to fail and go on failing, we have only to call a young man a genius to get the whole script written. We could, following Rosenbaum, who is the most eloquent opponent of the fatalistic view, try to see Welles as a man who didn’t make or finish more films because his works rarely looked as if they were going where the money was, because he didn’t like to repeat himself, and because he was, in an elaborate and partly self-contradictory way, a perfectionist. Welles’s phrase “working my way down” includes a comment on the various resistances he encountered in the world of commercial cinema as well as a wry admission of his own contribution to the story.

Orson Welles in Italy recounts, in detail and with great panache, not the beginnings of the myth of the slipping career but its first full development. Welles lived in Italy from 1947 to 1953. He had made The Lady from Shanghai, which was being hacked about by the studio, and he was getting divorced from Rita Hayworth. He shot his film Othello in these years and planned Mr. Arkadin. He met the pope and the Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti. And he worked hard on his image as extravagant international playboy, surrounding himself with girls he called his muses, having an affair with one Italian actress and marrying another. The most interesting aspect of the book perhaps is its account of Welles’s critical reputation in Italy, the way he managed to disappoint and annoy authoritative judges on the right and the left, neither side being ready for what were seen as American excesses of visual style. Meanwhile, back home, Welles was increasingly suspected of engaging in un-American activities.

The conversations with Henry Jaglom don’t immediately offer us a view on this question. They took place from 1983 to 1985, over lunch at a Hollywood restaurant called Ma Maison. Jaglom recorded them and stashed the forty or so tapes, Peter Biskind tells us, in a shoebox. Welles died in 1985, five days after the last lunch he had with Jaglom. Biskind has now edited the tapes—the quality of their sound varies considerably, he says—and smoothed them out a little “for the purpose of making the conversations more concise and intelligible.” This good move has the effect at first of making Welles seem more the constant performer than even he can quite have been, a man who scarcely knew how to talk except as a raconteur. (“Ken Tynan had the funniest story he never printed.” “Leo Slezak…made the best theater joke of all time.” “I knew Rubinstein…. I told you his greatest line.” “Did I ever tell you about the time I introduced Marlene to Garbo?” “Let me tell you the story of Emil Jannings.”)

He is also bitter about his enemies, who are inevitably former friends, and you get the feeling of a good mind allowing itself too much space for ranting. Still, they were having lunch, not conducting a seminar. And there are times when Welles is very direct and serious:

F for Fake is the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane. You see, everything else is only carrying movies a little further along the same path…. You can do it better, but it’s always gonna be the same grammar….

We could disagree—surely The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil go more than a little further and even make a move or two toward an altered grammar—but there is no mistaking the urgency of Welles’s thought. There is a curious modesty in his criterion for judging reputations: “The only thing I can say for myself is that I do not have on my record a single clear-cut artistic failure.” And there is real dignity in the following distinction: “I may be self-destructive, but I don’t expect my friends to destroy me.”

Speaking again of F for Fake Welles says, “It just broke my heart that it never caught on.” Take a look at the film on the fine Criterion DVD version, especially the last seventeen minutes, where Welles elaborates a fable about an imaginary art forger who knocks off twenty-two Picassos and steals the originals, told mostly in shadow by two dark figures, Welles and Oja Kodar speaking the lines of others, who can’t be filmed because they are in one case fictional and in the other case dead. The combination of mystery and clarity and glanced-at beauty is unforgettable. And by the later pages of My Lunches with Orson we are getting an intimate portrait of what it looks like to be working your way down in the movies.

Jaglom loyally tries again and again to help Welles get funding for various projects—a version of King Lear, a film based on an Isak Dinesen story, a sort of political melodrama. None of this comes off, but they talk constantly as if it could all happen tomorrow, the delay just a matter of minor difficulties at the commercial end, and Welles’s need for independence and huge amounts of money at the other.

There’s a sort of film running here. Or rather two films. One is about a director who is never going to make another movie but with luck will have lots more lunches. The lunches are where he will talk as if he was going to make these movies. This film is plausible and very touching because there is something in the way Welles speaks about the preparations and conditions that makes them feel like a fantasy that will not speak its name. The other film doesn’t entirely contradict this one, but it is not about a fantasy. Something else is getting in the way of Welles’s making these movies, something he can’t talk about perhaps and that may be related to the reasons earlier projects got interrupted or abandoned.

Biskind finely says that Welles “had an expensive imagination.” He wanted grand things for the movies, and the cost of these things might be counted in forms of extreme mental demand as well as money. Could even a great artist have a fear of failure? Of the wrong kind of success? But this is where luck, if it came along, would simply cancel fate. Welles could have made these movies; empirically nothing was stopping him except the missing deal between him and his backers. Who knows what combination of will and circumstance might have made one or more of these ventures happen? That they didn’t is not an allegorical tale, just our misfortune.