Citizen Slapstick and the Debut of Joseph Cotten

It was to be the first of many cinematic collaborations together, but at the time, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten had already worked together for three years in the theatre. With three successful plays that catapulted the young Welles into superstardom as the 22-year-old “boy wonder” of Broadway, Welles was thirsting to play with different modes of storytelling.

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Cut to 1938 Central Park and Battery Park, where Joseph Cotten, inaugural member of the Mercury Theatre company, made his cinematic debut as a slapstick comic of the Mack Sennett variety. Silent comedies had been passé for over a decade by 1937 – the Tramp, last straggler of that medium, walked into the sunrise just a year prior in Modern Times – yet Welles thought highly of Cotten as a comic actor. He and John Houseman cast Cotten in their farce Horse Eats Hat in 1936, a play that would hint at Welles’s increase desire to break away from the limitations of the theater. In Horse Eats Hat, with a purposeful desire to make a play that “went wrong”, the proscenium arch literally cracks.

Too Much Johnson was meant to be a small piece of a puzzle that fit into the larger whole of the 1894 William Gillette play. Cotten portrayed the lead, a New York playboy avoiding the husband of his mistress, dashing around the rooftops and harbors of the city, avoiding intricately-crafted comedic setpieces, before he steals the identity of a Cuban plantation owner and sails away.

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Cotten’s performance, as funny and limber as any great slapstick comedian, also committed to his character Augustus Billings certain pathos – and you practically hear Welles directing Cotten’s somber expressions. One moment he is teetering on the edge of a rooftop chimney, arms and legs flapping, and in the next scene, he stares at the Manhattan skyline with a silent look of contemplation and momentary peace. Chasing after Cotten with a crazed look and a twirling mustache is Edgar Barrier who hams things up as much as his wife and Cotten’s mistress, played by What’s My Line‘s very own Arlene Francis.

“One direct influence on me and on ‘Too Much Johnson’ was Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last’. I loved that film and think it was one of the greatest, simplest comedies ever made.”
— Orson Welles

There may not have been much physical attributes to lend a persona to Cotten’s character. No bowler hat, no bamboo cane, no toothbrush mustache or horn-rimmed glasses, but he is every bit the leading man and that’s what makes him funny in the role.

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Welles and Cotten together produced a throwback Keystone comedy on a grand scale, combining the vaudevillian skills of the great comics with then-unheard-of location shooting Keystone never could have recreated in the deserts of Los Angeles. It was New York at its finest. With a newsreel cameraman, Paul Dunbar, around to teach Welles the ropes, the style of shooting was more cinematic than it had ever been in slapstick. Gone was the flat, locked-down camerawork – Too Much Johnson has extreme close-ups, wide shots from the bird’s eye, primitive dollies, and especially low-angles, which Welles would eventually pioneer in Citizen Kane.

“It had a fine quality. Cotten was magnificent, and I immediately made plans to edit it and send it to Joe as a birthday present.”
— Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten’s enthusiasm and charm shines through in his physical comedy. He jumps and tumbles and mugs, flapping about like a wavy tube man. He may not have the ballet-like dancing of Chaplin or the death-defying stunts of Keaton, but he had charm and good looks, and he’s clearly having fun. Watching the picture, and indeed, looking through the behind-the-scenes photographs, it seemed everyone had a wonderful time making their first film.

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Problems plagued its exhibition and for those reasons, the film was never shown in public as its venue. First, Welles could not pay his cast; then he had no money to pay the processing laboratory; and finally, Paramount Pictures claimed they owned the rights to the short. At the venue of the play, the Stony Creek Theatre, Welles also discovered its ceilings were too low for film projectors. In the end, he produced the play without its filmed segments.

Much has been made of Welles’s explosive debut with Citizen Kane, and rightfully so, but if we want to find the seed that planted that towering achievement, we must look to Too Much Johnson. Thought to be a lost film, it was rediscovered in 2008 and properly restored in 2013.

It is, if anything, utterly charming and full of beautiful photography.

To view the workprint for Too Much Johnson made possible by the National Film Preservation Foundation, please click here; and to view a modern edit, please click here.


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To read the other blogposts celebrating Joseph Cotten please click here and follow Joseph Cotten Blogathon co-hosts In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood Maddy Loves Her Classic Films!

“All images and videos from Too Much Johnson fall under public domain.”

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10 thoughts on “Citizen Slapstick and the Debut of Joseph Cotten

  1. Pingback: THE JOSEPH COTTEN BLOGATHON IS HERE – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  2. Pingback: The Joseph Cotten Blogathon: Day 1 – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

  3. Too Much Johnson is too much fun. Indeed, I thought about Harold Lloyd and the Keystone cops while I was watching it. And Cotten may not be known a comedian, but he was the perfect charming leading man we root for.
    Very nice review! Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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