Orson Welles first professional film restored, seen for first time in decades

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

(CBS News) The search for Orson Welles' first professional film -- missing for decades -- is finally over.

Recently, at the Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., film buffs gathered for an extraordinary movie premiere of "Too Much Johnson" -- a silent film produced in 1938 by none other than Welles -- a legend in the world of film whose work remains a benchmark in artistic excellence.

Speaking of historical significance, Paolo Cherchi-Usai, senior curator of the George Eastman House, said, "'Too Much Johnson' constitutes a bridge between the theatrical career of Orson Welles and his involvement with the cinema. It is thanks to 'Too Much Johnson' that, quite literally, Orson Welles fell in love with cinema."

Welles was a 23-year-old theater director when "Too Much Johnson," was conceived. An homage to slapstick comedy, the young artist intended to use the short movie as a novel way to introduce audiences to the characters of a stage play he planned on bringing to Broadway.

Cherchi-Usai said: "He found out that he couldn't show film. He ran out of money, and he was told that Paramount had the film rights on the stage play. So it was a disaster. So he stopped."

For half a century, the whereabouts of "Too Much Johnson" were unknown. Welles, who died in 1985, believed the only surviving copy had been destroyed in a fire at his Spanish villa. But last year, film canisters bearing Welles' name turned up in a warehouse in Italy.

"We find films all the time," Cherchi-Usai said. "There are thousands of orphan films still waiting to be discovered, reappraised, preserved. But an Orson Welles film, this is any curator's dream."

The reels -- some badly damaged -- were brought to Rochester for restoration.

Film preservationist Tony Delgrosso and his team managed to save 96 percent of the original material.

Delgrosso said during the restoration work he gained an appreciation for Welles' eye. He said, "It's one of those things that when you look at this film, I think you get a sense of -- you know, Orson Welles' beginnings as a filmmaker.

"Too Much Johnson" was restored to how Welles had left it, partially edited and without a clear plot. But for film historians, the film's significance goes beyond the storyline.

"Shot after shot you can see Orson Welles trying a certain camera angle -- trying a certain framing," Cherchi-Usai said. "What you see in 'Too Much Johnson' will be fully revealed in that masterpiece called 'Citizen Kane'."

From camera techniques to special effects, Welles brought cinematography to an entirely new level with "Citizen Kane," a film so revered, it makes the discovery of "Too Much Johnson" all the more significant. Cherchi-Usai said, "'Too Much Johnson' is fundamentally an innocent film. It is a film made by a genius who still didn't know he was a genius."

Fully restored, the film now enters the vault of American film history, and closes the door on one of its greatest mysteries.

Watch Don Dahler's full report above.