WATERVILLE — Movie buffs will have a chance to see an extraordinary piece of film history Wednesday with the showing of an Orson Welles comedy made in 1938, never screened in public and thought to have been destroyed many years ago.
“Too Much Johnson,” discovered in 2008 in northern Italy, was Welles’ first film, despite the long-held belief that his first was 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” according to Ken Eisen, programming director of the Maine International Film Festival.
The 40-minute, 35mm film, directed by Welles and starring Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicholson and Edgar Barrier, will be shown at 6:30 p.m. at the Waterville Opera House.
The film world only learned of the discovery last year.
“Everyone thought it was a lost film,” Eisen said Tuesday. “It was considered there were no copies in existence and it was found in the archives and holdings of Paul Bowles who wrote ‘The Sheltering Sky.’ He was a music composer and wrote the score to this otherwise silent film.”
Welles, considered one of the best directors in film history, was also an actor, writer, producer and radio personality who co-wrote and directed “Citizen Kane” and directed and narrated H.G. Wells’ novel “War of the Worlds,” for radio in 1938, catapulting him to international fame.
“Too Much Johnson” was a full-fledged film Welles shot to be part of a stage production in New York, but it was not used in the stage show and the film’s editing was never completed, according to Eisen.
After Bowles died, someone going through his things found the film, Eisen said.
“It was maybe the biggest find in the film world in recent history,” he said.
The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y., restored the film with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation. The film has been shown in New York City, Rochester and Los Angeles only a handful of times in the last nine or 10 months, according to Eisen.
“It’s not available on DVD,” he said. “It’s not available in any other format whatsoever, so that’s one of the things that makes this showing so extraordinary.”
Eisen learned of the film’s existence when he got in touch with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which restores and preserves historic films, he said. Each year, the film festival shows five or six such films and when Eisen checked to see what the foundation was working on for this year, he was astounded to learn of the Welles film.
“I’m very excited,” said Eisen, a festival founder, long time film critic, programmer, teacher and owner of Shadow Distribution, a film distribution company based in Waterville. “I’m very excited to see it myself. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who has. It was never shown publicly. To my knowledge, it is the only existing print of it and the only one that ever existed.”
The festival was able to procure the film for the festival, and it may be shown only one time.
“We had to purchase a special insurance policy for it,” Eisen said.
Eisen will see the film for the first time, as will others who attend Wednesday’s screening.
“I don’t know what the pre (ticket) sales are, but I would love to think we were going to sell out,” he said. “We should be. This is just a once in a lifetime chance to see something that should be truly extraordinary.”
Festival Director Shannon Haines said Tuesday that festival officials are excited to be able to offer the film.
“We are dedicated to showing restored and preserved classic films in what we call our Re-Discovery section, but this film is truly in a category all its own,” she said.
Interestingly, Welles made the film as a silent movie several years after sound started accompanying films. Bowles’ composition, “Music for a Farce,” originally written to accompany the film, will be played during the screening.
The piece is only 13 minutes long and the film is 45 minutes, so the music will have to be repeated during the show, Eisen said.
Welles was born in Wisconsin in 1915 and died in 1985 at 70 in Los Angeles.
Amy Calder — 861-9247