A day at the archives… The Kirk Douglas Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society

James Fenwick, University of the West of England

16 October 2018


It was the height of summer in the USA when I arrived in Madison, WI and, apparently, the height of hazing ceremonies on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus. As I stepped off of the Van Galder coach that had brought me from Chicago to Madison and headed onto State Street I was greeted by a gaggle of students running past me naked and chanting some fraternity anthem. I took refuge in a nearby coffee shop, somewhat bemused. It reeked of patchouli inside (just like everywhere in downtown Madison did) and the radio hammered out classic British rock like Ten Years After and The Groundhogs (like every café in Madison seemed to do). “First time in Madison?” asked the owner, perhaps sensing my awkward British demeanour as I desperately tried to figure out where to queue. “Yes. Is it always like this?” I asked, my gaze turning to the window at the sight of yet more naked students. “Not always,” said the owner. “Today’s just a quiet day, that’s all man.”

And so it was to this liberal, quirky, and far from quiet city that Kirk Douglas first donated his papers in the late 1960s at the invite of renowned film historian Tino Balio (United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry). Douglas donated further additions in the subsequent decades, contributing to what has become one of the most significant film archives in the world. Housed in the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the Wisconsin Historical Society, an impressive neoclassical building at the heart of the University of Wisconsin Madison campus, the Kirk Douglas Papers were part of a growing empirical trend at the University. Balio obtained further archives, including the United Artists collection, as well as ‘every film released by Warner Bros., RKO and Monogram Studios between 1930 and 1950’.[i] The aim, as Balio outlined to Douglas, was to trace ‘filmmaking as one of the most important modern art forms’ and to archive and preserve materials from filmmaking history for scholarly use.[ii] And the scale of the archive is impressive holding thousands of reels from most of the major Hollywood studios, to the collections of film directors, producers, writers and starts ranging from Robert Altman and John Frankenheimer to Shirley Clarke and Rod Serling (see the online catalogue for full details of the collections). The Kirk Douglas Papers are themselves vast, covering the majority of Douglas’ career from the 1940s through to the late 1980s.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Transatlantic Travel Grant by the European Association of American Studies (EAAS) to allow me to conduct a research trip to the Kirk Douglas Papers. The aim was to further understand the collaborative relationship between Douglas and Stanley Kubrick as well as the industrial conditions in which they were operating in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, the intention was to gather further material for future publications on Douglas’s significance to Hollywood and independent filmmaking. I certainly couldn’t have conducted the trip without the generous grant from EAAS given the costs of travelling to Madison, as well as the exorbitant accommodation costs of the city’s hotels and Air BnB rentals (more about that below).

The Wisconsin Historical Society is set in a beautiful plaza at the end of State Street, the main shopping and eating district in downtown Madison. There are no shortage of cafes and bars to get refreshments, all of which are within a short distance of the archive. The archive is open Monday to Saturday and is located on the fourth floor. There are lifts, but I preferred to take in the ornate surroundings of the staircase each morning, adorned with classical portraits and statues.

There’s no need to book an appointment to visit the archive, though it is always advised you contact them ahead of any trip to ensure the materials you want to look at are available (email askmovies@wisconsinhistory.org). You have to register at the archive desk on your first visit and a form of photo ID is required. They accept a passport or driving licence. The staff are extraordinarily friendly and will provide a tour of the archive facilities, including the state of the art scanners. I had come prepared with a digital camera, but was taken aback at the free to use scanners that create searchable (yes searchable!) PDF files. The PDFs can either be saved direct to a USB drive or to Google Drive. If you prefer to stick with the digital camera, which some days I did for fear I was dominating the scanners, there is ample desk space to do so, along with numerous plug sockets. There is also locker space and you will be allocated a specific locker upon your arrival.

To order items to look at you fill out a slip with the catalogue code and a brief description and you leave it at the collection desk. You’re allowed to have three boxes in the reading room at any one time. I eventually got a conveyor belt system going, always ordering another box after I had finished with one and thereby having a constant stream of boxes ready. I also requested three boxes at the end of each day to be ready for the following morning in order to maximise my time. This meant I could arrive at the archive as soon as it opened and get down to scanning and photographing the documents. It also meant I got through a large proportion of the Kirk Douglas Papers during my stay in Madison, data that I am still going through as I begin to prepare conference papers and articles for future publication.

My initial attraction to the Kirk Douglas Papers had been the fact that it contained extensive material relating to the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, including contracts and correspondence. This was material not available at the Stanley Kubrick Archive and therefore filled a crucial gap in understanding the relationship between Harris-Kubrick and Douglas’s production company, Bryna Productions. And the material I found was startling, particularly the fraught nature of the relationship between Harris-Kubrick and Douglas and the extent to which the former tried to extricate themselves from a contract they had entered into with Douglas in 1957. In fact, they went so far as to threaten to disband Harris-Kubrick Pictures in order to nullify the contract with Douglas.

The more time I spent going through the Kirk Douglas Papers, the more it became apparent how significant a figure and producer he was in the industrial transformations taking place in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s. Material on Spartacus (1960) reveals the extent to which the film was focus-grouped and marketed, right down to testing which film logos an audience preferred. Douglas was very much an enterprising figure, always thinking of ways to further exploit and promote his work, including devising television specials for Spartacus, or developing a television series based on The Vikings (1958). He was also deeply creative, critically reflecting upon his work and those he was working for. When working on Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) he persistently provided annotations and advice on draft copies of the screenplay.

The hours I spent holed up in the archive were rewarded with the beautiful surroundings of Madison. There was no better incentive after a hard day’s work in the archive than a couple of Budweiser’s outside Jameson’s, a bar that soon became my regular. There was also a lot to do on the weekends when I wasn’t at the archive, from taking hikes around Lake Monona and Lake Mendota (Madison is situated on an isthmus between the two lakes), to touring the State Capitol building (including climbing up to the outdoor observation deck). I even took in a free screening of the debut episode of series seven of Game of Thrones at the Orpheum Theatre, sans cosplay. Accommodation at Madison does seem to be expensive throughout the year, with downtown hotels often costing hundreds of dollars for just one night. The same is true of Air BNB rentals. Instead, I stayed in a motel just twenty minutes north of downtown, which was cheap but also comfortable. The room came with a king size bed, kitchenette, full cable channels and a continental breakfast. I caught the bus each day, with a single fare costing just $2. There is also a range of weekly or monthly tickets available, which can be purchased at the Community Pharmacy on the corner of State Street and West Gorham Street.

Flight costs to Madison are also expensive and so I decided to fly into Chicago and then take the Van Galder coach to Madison. This is a much more cost-effective option at just $50 return. The trip takes around three hours, mainly because of the heavy traffic in and out of Chicago, but the coach does have Wi-Fi to pass the time. The added benefit of taking the coach was that I was able to factor in a several day stay in Chicago, a must for a blues fan like myself. Waking up to the sight of the Chicago skyline was the most thrilling way to end what was a truly remarkable research trip, one that has provided me with lasting memories as well as a bountiful of archive data for future use.


[i] Price, Jenny, 2007, ‘A glimpse into Kirk Douglas: Film center shares online collection’, https://news.wisc.edu/a-glimpse-into-kirk-douglas-film-center-shares-online-collection/.

[ii] Price, 2007.


James Fenwick is currently Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of the West of England. His areas of research include the role of the producer and the industrial contexts of post-war American cinema, Stanley Kubrick, the life and work of Kirk Douglas, and the unmade films of American cinema. He is currently co-editing a volume on the latter subject, Shadow Cinema: Historical and Production Contexts, with Kieran Foster and David Eldridge. He most recently edited the collection Understanding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Intellect, 2018).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the blog, James, which will be very helpful for other researchers. My Madison memory was losing a day when the archive (and most of the university) was cordoned off for a visit by Barack Obama – but the rest of the city is attractive and walkable. And the archive itself is so friendly, and user-friendly. I’ll look forward to going back.

  2. I suppose that was a good reason to close the archive. I also look forward to going back soon. The archive has so much material (not just Douglas related) that I could spend months there.

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