One reason Carole Lombard hit it off so well with Orson Welles (although, alas, as is the case with Carole's friendships with Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck and others, no joint photo is known to exist) is that both had terrific senses of humor. (Remember, Lombard may have been a candidate to star in what would have been Welles' first Hollywood project, an adaptation of the comic thriller "The Smiler With A Knife.") It's also often forgotten that in 1943, when Jack Benny was ailing, Welles substituted as host of his top-rated radio program for several weeks, interacting his personality with Benny's famed cast. And there certainly are comedic elements to "Citizen Kane," capped by a rather bawdy inside joke about "Rosebud," the key to the entire film.
Now cinematic proof of Welles as comic, made before he began in Hollywood, has surfaced --and if it hasn't received the same sort of "lost treasure" notoriety as pre-Code film "Convention City" or Welles' original cut of "The Magnificent Ambersons," it's because few knew it even existed. But in what might be called the summer of Welles, thanks in large part to Peter Biskind's book "My Lunches With Orson," tracking recorded conversations between Welles and film-making friend Henry Jaglom, it has been unearthed and soon may be ready for all to see. First, the backstory:
In the latter part of the 1930s, while based in New York, Welles' fertile mind was buzzing with all sorts of ideas and innovations, most of them based in theater (e.g., his production of "Macbeth" with an all-black cast, the pro-labor play "The Cradle Will Rock"). One of his plans for his Mercury Theater troupe was to revive an 1894 farce called "Too Much Johnson" (and yes, you can laugh at the title's double entendre) -- but Orson intended to add another dimension to the play, making it an early sort of multimedia production, by incorporating a total of about 40 minutes of film footage before each of its three acts. The cast included Welles' close friend Joseph Cotten and others who would go on to successful careers, including Mary Wickes and Arlene Francis.
Welles, shown directing a scene in lower Manhattan, used a professional crew to film scenes in New York; perhaps it wasn't quite the "world's biggest electric train set" that RKO would later supply him, but it gave him the ability to shoot (and edit) plenty of footage (something that would come in handy for "Kane"). And what do we see? How about Cotten climbing the side of a building, sort of an homage to Harold Lloyd?
There are also chase scenes, romances, everything you'd expect from 1890s farce.
Unfortunately for Welles, the play (minus the film elements) closed after an out-of-town preview, and so the footage was never used. Welles uncovered it in the 1960s, but before he could return to his villa to work on it, a fire destroyed the film. But thankfully, that's not the end of the story.
It turns out a duplicate was found in the Italian port city of Pordenone, abandoned for some 40 years. The nitrate footage has been carefully preserved and is being transferred to safety stock, and will be shown to the public twice in October -- at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, an annual film festival in Pordenone, and at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. It is hoped that before year's end, "Too Much Johnson" will be made available online, as sort of a complement to Welles' first-ever encounter with film, an experimental eight-minute short he and a classmate made in 1934 (which can be found on YouTube).
This is where you can help. The National Film Preservation Foundation, which not long ago helped rescue an early Alfred Hitchcock silent called "The White Shadow," is working to fully restore Welles' early project. To learn more (including other stills from "Too Much Johnson") and to donate, go to http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/mercury-theatre-project. It's a great way to discover the genius of the early Welles.
And you never know -- someday one of Carole's silents from Fox, made before her automobile accident, could be unearthed.