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Cultural Collections

Digging deep into Welles

By Vivianne Schnitzer

The most extensive international collection of archives on filmmaker, actor, director and writer Orson Welles is now available to the public and researchers at the Special Collections Library of the University of Michigan.

Welles, who died at age 70 in 1985, is best remembered for his innovative work in radio, theatre, television, and film. His 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” and 1941 film, Citizen Kane, which he co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in, are among the memorable creative works of the 20th century.

U-M’s Special Collections Library recently added two archival collections to their already substantial Welles holdings. The additional material includes information about different periods of Welles’s career, from his youth to the end of his life. The previously held materials include detailed work for his unfinished projects, including It’s All True, a documentary-fictional film about Mexico and Brazil, which he worked on in the early 1940s.

Meticulously catalogued and kept in protective boxes, the collection totals nearly 100 linear feet, including thousands of documents, letters, telegrams, scripts, production and financial statements, photographs, illustrations and audiovisual materials.

“The different versions of scripts with his hand written notes and sketches in the margins show different stages of his creative process,” said Peggy Daub, Curator & Outreach Librarian at the Special Collections Library at U-M.

Among the new items of personal interest donated by Welles’s eldest daughter, Chris Welles Feder, are private photographs of Welles as a child and letters to his first wife, Virginia Nicholson, which coincided with the beginning of his career, as well as materials related to the film Macbeth (1949) in which Ms. Welles Feder played a role.

Other vital additions to the Welles archive come from Alessandro Tasca di Cutò, purchased at an auction in London, England. Tasca was a producer, and long-time friend of Welles. Artifacts include materials related to two films especially important for Welles, Chimes at Midnight (1965, also known asFalstaff), filmed in Spain, and Don Quixote (1955-73, unfinished), filmed in Mexico, Italy, and Spain. In many letters, notes, and memos, the Tasca collection illuminates Welles’s day-to-day concerns as a filmmaker.

These collections supplement two other Welles collections  the “Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Collection” and the “Richard Wilson – Orson Welles Collection,” both acquired in 2004-05 and available to researchers for several years.

Of particular interest to researchers is the archival documentation on Welles’s cinematographic mission to Brazil and Mexico, where his initial intention was to portray true stories of Latin American cultural life and society during the Second World War as part of a U.S. “Good Neighbor” propaganda film. Welles went beyond reproducing the clichés of popular culture and simple perceptions of the Rio Carnival; instead, he showed an incisive and revealing look at Brazilian society, including the historic journey of raftsmen, or jangadeiros, to Rio from the Northeast, which was ultimately rejected by the RKO studio management and the Brazilian government Department of Press and Propaganda.

The project was partially reconstructed in a documentary co-directed by Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel, and Bill Krohn and produced and released by Les Films Balenciaga and Paramount in 1993. Also included in the archive are photographs, screenplays and other documents from Welles’s major films produced in Hollywood, Mexico, North Africa, and Europe  from the late forties to the early seventies, screenplays for works-in-progress, as well as materials pertaining to his Mercury theatrical productions in the United States and Europe.

Catherine Benamou, former Screen Arts and Cultures professor and Latina/o Studies Director at U-M, currently Associate Professor at the University of California-Irvine, propelled the acquisition of the first special collections of Welles through connections with his family and close collaborators and is the author of It’s All True: Orson Welles’ Pan-American Odyssey, on the filming, retrieval, and legacy of the unfinished film It’s All True.

The Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan holds internationally renowned collections of books, serials, ancient and modern manuscripts, posters, playbills, photographs, and original artwork. It is home to some of the most historically significant treasures at the University of Michigan and is open to the public – to students, faculty, visiting researchers, and members of the community. Collections do not circulate; material is retrieved upon request for use in a reading room.

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NOTE: Home page image from “Citizen Kane.”


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