"Everybody's Orson Welles": Treasures from the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan

By Benamou, Catherine L. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"Everybody's Orson Welles": Treasures from the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan


Benamou, Catherine L., Michigan Quarterly Review


Well It is now puplique & you wil stand for your priviledges wee know: to read, and censure. 1

"Everybody's Orson Welles" is a periodic series of projects designed to encourage the public to view and thoughtfully engage with the creative work of Orson Welles in radio, theater, and film. Since 2004, the University of Michigan Special Collections Library has been the repository of two massive collections of written, illustrated, recorded, and photographic materials pertaining to the writer-actor-director's artistic career from around 1931 to 1985. These collections, totaling some one hundred linear feet, are the product of Orson Welles's close working relationship with Richard Wilson, who was the associate producer of Mercury Theatre projects, beginning with Too Much Johnson (1938) and continuing with supervision of Mercury radio shows and studio-produced films, prior to directing his own films in the 1950s, and with sculptress and writer Oja Kodar, who collaborated with Welles on various international film projects, both finished and unfinished, during the last two decades of his life and career. Dozens of items culled from these collections were displayed at the Library as part of an inaugural exhibit, "Orson Welles and the Art of Adaptation in Radio, Theatre, and Film," on view from 20 September to 1 December 2007. The present dossier sheds light on two projects that underscore Welles's singular talent for dramatic adaptation, working from well-known literary sources and across various media: The Magnificent Ambersons, which he interpreted for both radio and screen from the novel by Booth Tarkington, first published in 1918; and a series of stagings for the theater, radio, and film, of Shakespeare's tragedy, Macbeth (1606), itself said to have been based on passages from volume five of Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577).2

At first blush, one might wonder at the juxtaposition of these projects (or rather, what amounts in the current presentation to a spicing of the latter by the former): a critically acclaimed "A" film (The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942) produced for a major Hollywood studio (RKO) and adapted from a middlebrow early twentieth-century novel; and a critically controversial low-budget film (Macbeth), produced and released by a Poverty Row studio (Republic), representing a play that, since the nineteenth century, has been considered part of highbrow theatrical tradition. Setting briefly aside the cultural politics that have swirled and clung to novelistic and Shakespearean adaptations,3 and the stakes attached to such politics by the Hollywood studio system during its prime, it is worth signaling what from an authorial standpoint are semantic and historical points of resonance between these efforts.

First, there is (broadly speaking) the common plot element of unbridled power (linked, in the more modern The Magnificent Ambersons, to socioeconomic privilege) in the hands of a male protagonist who is encouraged in his schemes by a female character (Aunt Fanny, in The Ma8nificent Ambersons, Lady Macbeth in the Shakespearean film) that happens to be childless, and yearns to be wed to a man of power and influence. Both female accomplices are progressively "unsexed" - to use Shakespeare's term4 - and dispossessed as they pursue, yet fail to secure, their coveted prize. In both films, the exploration of individual power gone awry leads up to a violent moment of comeuppance, or downfall for the protagonist (albeit more gruesome and historically cataclysmic in Macbeth), which is loosely joined, in varying degrees of explicitness, to a narrative of collective cultural loss. This loss, occasioned by modern change, occurs independently of whether justice is done in relation to the protagonists' tyrannical excess, and it is conveyed mainly by manipulations in the mise-en-scène. The Magnificent Ambersons paints a disturbing, intimate portrait of upper-middle-class, Midwestern Anglo-America at the turn of the twentieth century, when a largely agrarian and mining society gave way to an urbanized, industrial one, thanks in large part to the automobile. …

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