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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.

A towering artist

Welles was one of the artistic giants and larger-than-life personalities of the 20th century. Welles’ first film, “Citizen Kane,” which was made when he was 26, reigned as the greatest film of all time for more than 50 years by Sight & Sound’s poll of worldwide critics, before dropping to No. 2 in 2012. The lead character, Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, was based in part on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

“Too Much Johnson,” at 40 minutes in length, was Welles’ first professional film. Influenced by Mack Sennett shorts and Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last,” it consisted of three prologues that would show before each act, with the first running 20 minutes and the next two clocking in at 10 minutes each.

Set designer James Morcum told Barbara Leaming, author of “Orson Welles: A Biography,” that “Too Much Johnson” “was a real turning point in Orson’s life, because that’s the first time he was exposed to movies. It was like a fly being stuck on flypaper. The flypaper was the movies, and Orson came along and got stuck on it. That was the end of everything. He knew that this was it.”

The story, filmed in New York, concerned a frantic womanizer who carries on an extramarital affair under the invented identity of a plantation owner in Cuba named Johnson, only to find Johnson actually exists. Welles and Houseman hoped to bring the 1894 farce to Broadway for the Mercury Theatre’s fall season.

The cast included Mercury regulars Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis, Howard Smith and Welles’ wife at the time, Virginia Nicholson, who went by Anna Stafford. Written sources suggested Welles had a cameo, possibly among three Keystone Kop-like characters.

“According to published sources, Welles shot the equivalent of 25,000 feet of film. He may have cut himself out of it. If someone detects Orson Welles on screen, be my guest. We have not, but I wish, I wish,” Usai said.

Previews for “Too Much Johnson” opened at Stony Creek Theater, near New Haven, Conn., on Aug. 16, 1938, two months before Welles and the Mercury Theatre became world-famous for their live radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” in which the story of an alien invasion caused widespread panic.

The play bombed, and the film wasn’t shown with it. Explanations as to why include possible restrictions by the fire department against allowing nitrate film, to Paramount Pictures’ claim that it owned the story’s film rights. The more likely explanation, Leaming said, is that an overextended Welles never finished editing the film sequences in time, something he confirmed once in an interview.

Katharine Hepburn was among those who did watch “Too Much Johnson.” Impressed by Cotten’s performance, she helped him get cast in “The Philadelphia Story,” ranked 44th on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest films (“Citizen Kane” is No. 1).

“Too Much Johnson,” was one of a number of unfinished films and projects by Welles – most notably “The Other Side of the Wind,” tied up for years in a French court.

Biskind said Welles didn’t like listening to movie studios, would take on too many projects at once, frequently ran out of funds and dropped projects for others that offered more money.

“The kind of a talent he had was a curse as well as a blessing, and I think he suffered from both,” Biskind said.

Still, the Welles legend lives on.

“ ‘Citizen Kane’ was far and above what was being made in those days, and what is being made today. It was so innovative, so original, that all you have to do is look at it and realize the guy who made it was a genius of cinema, of the arts,” Biskind said.

“Here’s a guy who was a gifted writer, a gifted actor and a gifted director. He was a producer, he made his mark in the theater, in radio and the movies, and all at such a young age. It’s mind-boggling.

“There is nothing like him today, and there hasn’t been since.”

Send in the doctor

Usai and his team saw that the prints were inspected and cleaned, splices checked and in some cases respliced, and torn perforations repaired.

“A film preservationist is a little like a doctor. You treat patients with a certain degree of detachment. But Orson Welles is a pretty important patient, and holding that nitrate in your hands was something special,” Usai said.

Most of the film, considering it was struck in 1938, was in good shape – with the notable exception of one reel.

“The reel was so stuck and melted, that you could not even try to unwind it,” Usai said. “Normally, when you see a film in that condition, you think it’s gone.”

But Usai recalled a collaboration years earlier with a Netherlands laboratory, Haghefilm Digitaal, which specialized in preserving old films. A technician had developed a process in which the reel was put in contact with a chemical substance that briefly removed the emulsion. If still salvageable, the softened film could be unwound and put through a printer.

“If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it is not an operation you can try twice, because the gel of the emulsion is gone and the film falls completely apart,” Usai said.

It was so successful that only about 14 feet of film could not be salvaged.

At Cinema Arts, a film laboratory in Pennsylvania, the nitrate film was put through an optical printer to create a preservation negative, which allowed the creation of the 35-millimeter print. A digital master of the material was also made.

The film is less than pristine, if only because it was a work print rather than a finished film. But Usai said he was loathe to do anything other than preserve the film as Welles made it.

The restoration process took six months. With the film now ready to be shown, Usai said he is now trying to tamp down expectations.

“A work print is a work print, it is not a finished film. We want to avoid an anticlimactic reaction. I keep saying, when you see this film, although you will not be able to follow a story you will see snippets of narrative. What will be striking are the visuals.”

He’s proud that preservation of the long-lost film fills an important gap in film history that can finally be seen by the public.

“We want the film to be seen on the big screen, first and foremost, as a film should be seen. And then we preserved the film because we want everybody to see it,” Usai said.

“We are doing this as a cultural institution because the film belongs to humankind, to the world.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com