Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.
We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.
The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)
But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.
So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.
Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.
Too Much Johnson, the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor.
I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe: “This would all be interesting but academic if it wasn’t also entertaining and Too Much Johnson is a hoot. The prologue was designed to open the play, introduce the characters and situations, and set the racing pace for the stage scenes with a wild slapstick chase through the streets of New York to the ship that carries the story to Cuba. It plays just fine on its own (with an assist from intertitles added by NFPF), like an open-ended Mack Sennett farce that races through German Expressionism and Russian Formalism on the way to the docks. The subsequent sequences, both much shorter and apparently incomplete, are not as self-contained or coherent but they do feature some eye-opening moments for Welles fans.”
The third wave of Amazon Prime Instant Video Pilot Season shows will be available to sample on Thursday, August 28. As in previous waves, Amazon has made the pilot episodes of five new shows available to all Amazon customers (you don’t have to be a Prime member to watch them), and they will decide which shows move forward to full series based on audience feedback.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!
Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.
There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.
That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.