The Only Copy of Orson Welles’ First Professional Film Didn’t Burn in a Fire After All

The only copy of the Citizen Kane director’s first professional movie was found in a warehouse

Orson Welles in 1937. Photo: Library of Congress

In the 1960s, a fire destroyed the only known copy of Too Much Johnson, Orson Welles‘ first professionally made film.

Or so we thought.

Too Much Johnson was a series of shorts—intro reels shot to accent a live performance, in 1938, of the play Too Much Johnson. It was to be Welles’ first performance as a professional filmmaker. Welles had previously produced independent films, including this one, but Too Much Johnson was the first he made with a professional crew and actors, says the New York Times. And when opening night came, wasn’t quite ready. The play went on without it, and when it flopped, the film, say the Times, was cast aside.

A few years later, Welles would go on to upturn cinema with the release of Citizen Kane, and his career became the stuff of mythology. One piece of the legend was the loss of this early work, a piece of film history that only a few people had ever seen.

But recently, the silent film was found in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, says George Eastman House, a photography and film museum. Though badly damaged by time, the museum has worked on restoring the film.

Once it’s finished that work, the museum will be putting on a screening—the first public presentation of Welles’ first movie meant for the masses. The movie will be shown in Pordenone, Italy, and then at the George Eastman House museum in Rochester, in October.

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