Oct. 06--The cardboard box containing stacked reels of 35 millimeter nitrate film, coiled inside tin cans, sat undisturbed for decades in an Italian warehouse.
Luckily, whoever it was that chanced upon the unmarked contents at the shipping company, in the port city of Pordenone, had the good sense to notify Culturalzero, which screens classic films. After identifying the aging film stock, the cultural group eventually contacted the George Eastman House, renowned for its film preservation, and shipped the reels to Rochester to be restored.
On Wednesday, the long-lost work print of "Too Much Johnson," a silent film made by Orson Welles for a stage production three years before he would stun the film-going world with "Citizen Kane," will be shown publicly for the first time ever in Italy. The U.S. premiere will follow one week later on Oct. 16 at the Eastman House.
Circo Giorgini, an Italian expert on Welles who first identified the film three years ago, said it "was like finding an important, lost painting -- like seeing a painting of Caravaggio that no one knew about."
Film historian Peter Biskind, who edited the newly published "My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles," said: "For moviegoers, it's practically like finding a Shakespearean manuscript."
That the film existed at all would have been a surprise to Welles, who before he died in 1985 thought the only copy had melted in a fire at his unattended Madrid home in 1970.
Paolo Cherchi Usai, Eastman House's senior curator of film, was shocked to get the call from Cinemazero informing him of the film discovery.
"It was easy to be in disbelief. The only other film that we have worked on that has had this kind of magnitude was Stanley Kubrick's 'Fear and Desire,' " Usai said from his office in the Eastman House's Motion Picture Department, one of the world's great film repositories.
The archival division houses the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, along with 28,000 film titles, 4 million film-related publicity stills, posters, scores and other movie theater artifacts, and the personal archives of numerous film luminaries.
Centeca del Friuli, a film archive Cinemazero works with, recommended the film be sent to the Eastman House, where its own nitrate films -- the flammable celluloid used until 1948 -- are stored in temperature-controlled vaults in the nearby town of Chili. Funding for restoration came from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
It was also more than coincidental to Usai that the call was from Pordenone, where he worked for many years and cofounded its long-running film festival.
"Why would an Orson Welles film, of all things, be found a few hundred yards away from the movie theater where we have been showing silent films for 32 years, especially given that 'Too Much Johnson' is a silent film and slapstick comedy?" Usai said.
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