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…

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