Matt Messbarger 2015-07-29 11:03:53
Orson Welles would’ve turned one hundred on May 6, 2015. In honor of the late legendary actor, writer, producer, and director, Indiana University (IU) recently held the academic conference Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium. Between April 29 and May 3, leading film scholars, archivists, and filmmakers from around the world gathered in Bloomington for talks, panel discussions, and screenings, all to pay tribute to the iconic film director and his unparalleled career as a multimedia pioneer. Welles was an artist who revolutionized theater, radio, and, most famously, cinema to become one of the true cultural giants of the twentieth century. As part of the festivities, IU’s Lilly Library featured an exhibition of materials culled from their extensive Welles manuscripts collection, the most prominent of its kind. The exhibition, 100 Years of Orson Welles: Master of Stage, Sound, and Screen, was a meticulously curated survey of Welles’s life and career in all of their glorious guises. Letters, annotated script pages, photos, posters, and sketches all represent Welles as a theatrical wunderkind, the mad genius of radio, a populist progressive and civil rights crusader, and an independent filmmaker who could not be reined in by the studio system. We also learned about Welles the man; his parents who died when he was very young; and the progressive school in Woodstock, Illinois, where his colossal talents started to take shape. We saw Welles and Rita Hay worth, the movie star couple, and Welles the father to three girls by three different wives. Lilly Library Manuscripts Archivist Craig Simpson spent 9 months exploring the 40-plus cubic feet of material that included 20,000 items from the Welles manuscript collection to select 160 items for 18 display cases. The main challenges of designing the exhibition, he said, included how to effectively engage a diverse audience and how best to honor the many sides of Welles’s life and career that scholars and historians are still grappling with the meaning of today. In the course of his research, Simpson made many surprising discoveries about his subject. “I wasn’t aware of the extent of his political involvement,” he says. “He was deeply invested in American politics in the 1940s, a proud progressive (prounion, antifascist), and a staunch supporter of FDR and the war effort. Additionally, Welles was an outspoken champion of civil rights, and used the airwaves and a regular newspaper column to espouse his views. I’m pleased to have included exhibit cases detailing this relatively unfamiliar side of Welles’s life, which is essential to understanding much of his art and the complicated trajectory of his career from a studio director to an early pioneer of independent film making.” What is essential in making these discoveries possible is the archive itself. Indeed, for a filmmaker whose work was notoriously compromised by the financial backers he was forced to depend on throughout his career, Welles’s manuscripts provide the clues to what we are missing from the dominant Hollywood narrative that has branded him, unjustly, as a failure after one great film. For Simpson, this demonstrates the critical importance of the archival collection. The archive, he says, “shows the ‘invisible Welles’ in the form of his compromised works. The Magnificent Ambersons, for example, was cut by RKO against Welles’s wishes from 130-minutes down to 88; fortunately, the archive features a continuity script and photographs of Welles’s complete vision, including his original ending.” “So much of Welles’s career was filled with incompletion that for a long time he was branded a failure for it,” Simpson noted. “Now, however, in the age of the Internet and DVD special features, I think our culture has grown more accustomed to fragments, alternate endings, and multiple versions of the same work of art. They’re fascinating!” With assistance from research institutions such as the Lilly Library, film scholars are able to map out the potentially endless interpretations of works both finished and unfinished in the Orson Welles canon, leading to discoveries that are still deepening our understanding of his film making legacy.
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