The Buying of the Aitken Papers by the Wisconsin Historical Society


 What follows is the first part of a two-voice paper given at the “On, Archives” conference in Madison (Wisconsin), July 6th, 2010, under the direction of Professor Michele Hilmes. This first part is Andrea M. Comiskey’s.


Marc Vernet and I are going to talk about the complicated, transatlantic archival legacy of the Triangle Film Corporation, an American film production and distribution company that operated in the 1910s.  The documents relating to some of Triangle’s key personnel ended up being separated and dispersed quite widely throughout the 20th century, and we’re going to tell you about how two of the biggest collections ended up where they did – one here, at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and another at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. These two interlocking stories are valuable in and of themselves, but they’re also useful for what they can tell us about some broader issues relating to archival culture, film historiography, and, I guess, the contingent foundations of primary document research. 

Because we’re interested in the acquisitions of these documents – that is, the goals and strategies of archivists, donors, and other interested parties – Marc and I will both draw largely on what you could call “meta-archival” research, which seems fitting for this conference and its goal of celebrating and turning a critical, analytical eye toward archives.

So, I’m going to start off by telling you a little about Triangle’s activities in the 1910s so that you have context for our discussion of its surviving documents.  I’ll be covering the “Wisconsin Historical Society” half of the story, which comes first chronologically, and then I’ll turn things over to Marc and he’ll tell you about the papers at the Cinematheque and offer some concluding remarks.

The Aitken Brothers and the Wisconsin Historical Society (1955-19157)

In 1957, the Wisconsin Historical Society acquired a large collection of documents from Roy Aitken.  The papers were divided into series: 1) scripts and scenarios; 2) correspondence; and 3) business records.   The “scripts and scenarios” series contains documents from all phases of the production process and also includes a large number of publicity stills and other photographic documentation of film shoots.  These documents served as the basis of Janet Staiger’s research on the evolution of the continuity script and the rationalization of film production, which appeared in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, co-authored with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.  Although the Wisconsin Historical Society once had hopes of acquiring films (prints, as well as the rights to them) from the Aitken brothers, there are none among its collection. 

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