Screens

100 Years of Orson Welles

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“Orson Welles’ life is a labyrinth, but it’s one I don’t mind getting lost in.”

That's archivist Craig Simpson, who sifted through the Lilly Library's Welles-related holdings — 20,000-plus items including correspondence, legal papers, photographs, scripts and press kits — to put together the new exhibition, 100 Years of Orson Welles: Master of Stage, Sound and Screen, open Jan. 20-May 20 at Lilly Library.

It's the opening chapter to Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium, which will culminate with a public film series featuring talks by Welles experts such as former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and IU professor emeritus James Naremore.

Simpson got the ball rolling on the event. “I wanted to do something for his 100th birthday, so I went to (IU Cinema director) Jon Vickers and asked, ‘Hey, why don’t we have some scholars and experts come and speak about Welles and his films?’ Jon said, ‘You mean a symposium?’”

The Lilly Library is one of three major repositories of material related to Welles — the other two being the University of Michigan and the Munich Film Museum. “Welles lived in anything but a neat chronology,” Simpson says, noting that he worked simultaneously in theater, radio and film throughout the '30s and '40s.

Simpson structured the exhibition around Welles' fields of expertise, creating cases for Citizen Kane, “Welles and Radio,” “Welles and Shakespeare on Stage,” and so on.

A case is installed for the exhibition "100 Years of Orson Welles: Master of Stage, Sound and Screen." Photo by Chaz Mottinger
  • A case is installed for the exhibition "100 Years of Orson Welles: Master of Stage, Sound and Screen." Photo by Chaz Mottinger

Annotated script pages are on display from Welles’ radio plays, Citizen Kane and the stage production of the so-called “Voodoo” Macbeth, which starred an all-Black cast. Simpson’s favorite item is a page from the original screenplay for Citizen Kane in which the now-title character’s name was Charles Foster ... Craig.

“It’s encouraging to see how many changes even a masterpiece like Citizen Kane goes through from its genesis to its completion,” Simpson said.

Of course, Welles lived largely in the shadow of creative changes and studio interference, Simpson adds. RKO Pictures infamously excised large chunks of his second film for the studio, The Magnificent Ambersons — an account of an aristocratic, turn-of-the-century Indianapolis family’s downfall.

The exhibition includes rare, rough storyboards for Kane and Ambersons and “cutting continuity that shows how the studios re-edited and mangled some of his best work,” according to Naremore.

Not that Welles ever gave up. “He died face down on a typewriter, writing a script,” Simpson said.

Simpson hopes the exhibition will help people see Welles not as a studio failure but as a successful independent and experimental filmmaker.

“People often complain, ‘Well, he never made another Citizen Kane.’ Well, he never wanted to make another Citizen Kane. He made many different great films and all kinds of different works of theater and radio. He never did the same thing twice. He was constantly challenging himself and evolving,” Simpson said.
 
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Welles struggled to finish some projects, but “thanks to the Internet Age, where we can go and find little pieces of things, we are more accepting of fragments,” Simpson said. (And it's worth noting that Welles completed 13 feature films over the course of his career, equalling Stanley Kubrick's output.)

Some of the fragments on display in the exhibition include items on his recently rediscovered debut film Too Much Johnson and photographs and transcripts that document the original ending from his lost cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles’ unreleased, unfinished or unmade films are also represented, including Heart of Darkness and The Little Prince. The symposium’s surprise “sneak preview not to be missed” on May 1 could be a screening of Welles’ incomplete last film, The Other Side of the Wind.

“Today Welles is widely regarded by film lovers as one of the two or three greatest motion-picture directors America has ever produced,” Naremore says. But, as Naremore adds and the Lilly Library exhibition shows, “he was truly a man of all media.” 

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