“Much of the pre-Second World War character of Chicago and New York hardly exists anymore. Everybody builds these mirror boxes, and every second front is a front that didn’t exist in the ‘30s. […] I’ve been to New York many times in the last few years, and I have no sense of coming back to a town where I used to live. There’s a little corner here and there, and that’s about it. Ah, Roger.” So said Orson Welles to his old friend and one-time teacher and always mentor Roger Hill in the late fall of 1984, when Welles was hoping to direct the film The Cradle Will Rock, an account of the making of a rather well-known theatrical production he had some involvement in. (His discussions with Hill about the approach he would take, which can be found in the conversations in the splendid book Orson Welles And Roger Hill: A Friendship In Three Acts, by Todd Tarbox, Hill's grandson, show Welles both wryly and earnestly juggling the extent to which he desired to balance accurate historical representation with score-settling; the film eventually directed by Tim Robbins is not nearly as arreststing as Welles' own verbal joustings with the material at hand.) Welles did not have, in his film career, much occasion to document the town where he used to live, the town where he made his name. Contemporary New York City proper is depicted in 1941's Citizen Kane pretty sparingly: a dark screening room, an old-age hospital in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, that's pretty much it. The rise of the New York Enquirer takes place in early 20th-Century Manhattan, it's Currier and Ives and Thomas Nast, not the frantic radio days of Welles' tenure in town. The opening of the deathless The Lady From Shanghai has some rear-projection views of Central Park in the dark, then an expert Hollywood recreation of an NYC parking garage. And that's it for Welles and New York, cinematically.
So one of the draws of Too Much Johnson, the shot-in-1938 footage—it really won't do to call the thing a movie, alas—that Welles wanted to form an early multimedia experience out of, and had to scotch because of money and timing issues, is its made-in-New-York quality. In the event you haven't been keeping up with film preservation news lately, Johnson, which as recently as 2007 was categorized as a "lost film" (see Jonathan Rosenbaum's superb Discovering Orson Welles, the filmography of which notes “the only copy of the film was lost in a fire at Welles’ villa in Madrid (during Welles’ absence) in August 1970"), turned up, as a 66-minute workprint, and was restored in Italy, and has just been put on the website of the invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation's website for free viewing and downloading. The précis on the NFP page for the film provides background: Too Much Johnson was a late 19th Century farce by William Gillette, whose chief claim to fame was his stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Just why Welles and the Mercury Theatre opted to stage it is not entirely clear, but once the decision was made to do so, Welles came up with the notion of linking the onstage action to filmed interludes. The sixty-six minutes of the Too Much Johnson film is essentially a linear assemblage of footage; according to the NFP, only the first seven minutes or so can be said to constitute a proper edit. Those seven minutes, which see Joseph Cotten trysting, being found out, and then attempting to escape an irate husband, constitute an energetic, racy, and slightly surreal pastiche of slapstick farce. Once Cotten acrobatically descend from the top of a tenement, it's chase time, and the irate cuckold tracks Cotten through a warehouse whose stacks presage the basement of Xanadu at the end of Kane, and then over several city rooftops.
These scenes see Cotten doing dangerous stunt work of the sort you never associated with him in his Hollywood career. If you look at the signs on the buildings whose corners he rushes around, you see business names such as "Saml. Werner" and "Krakaur Poultry Company;" both of these concerns can be referenced in R.L. Polk and Co.'s 1915 Copartnership and Corporation Directory, which also tells you these concerns were part of the West Washington Market, located in what became New York's city's meat-packing district and is now the more fashionable High Line district. In one or two shots you can also see the then-functional railroad tracks of the elevated train line. Once Cotten comes down to earth, he strolls past a store named Taffae & Bellion; this, I learned, was a coffee importer on Wall Street. After a long hat-snatching set piece that suggests Jean Vigo and/or Rene Clair (it is perhaps no accident that several years prior to Johnson, the Mercury Theatre did an adaptation of The Italian Straw Hat, also the source material for a famed Clair picture) Johnson sets to sea; the footage grows ever more haphazard (there's a brief shot of a crowd of onlookers in then-modern dress at 43:16 or so) and the movie starts to look more like an outtake reel. More gems of imagery are in store: a lovely sunset on the water, Erskine Sanford turning up as a graveyard mourner, low-angle shots of symmetrically arranged palm trees.
But there's surely something poignant and illuminating in the fact that, the one time that he had the opportunity to make a film in New York, the then 23-year-old Welles, the larger-than-life boy wonder and talk of the town, chose to try to capture what Welles biographer Simon Callow cites as "little old New York." It was not any kind of mere nostalgia that ceaselessly bore Welles' art into the past: memory, loss, these are the themes that are never far beneath the surface of his movies. While Too Much Johnson's cinematic component was far from an amateur hour outing—Welles was allowed oodles of costumed extras, he staged a parade, he rented those palm trees—it couldn't afford too much polish, and every now and then in the background of a shot you see cars scooting over a road, or some early version of what Welles calls a "mirror box" pokes its way into a background corner. Far from break the spell, it enhances a spell of a different kind, the spell of artistry trying to will the past to manifest itself before you.
UPDATE: The Honorable Joseph McBride's now-updated essay on the film, for Bright Lights, is invaluable.