Given the millions of words already written about Citizen Kane, it seems superfluous to add yet another review, let alone attempt to articulate the sheer unadulterated genius that enabled the 25-year old George Orson Welles to defy RKO Pictures and create the most innovative film of almost any era.
To those who say the arrival of the digital age and CGI was a bigger step I’d say you need to understand the craft of how Welles advanced the art form and made possible many techniques we now take for granted. One was to create a cinematic landscape on a grand scale using the most basic of ingredients and sets, often using trompe-l’œil to deceive the viewer.
But much, much more than that, he made a spellbinding movie, both satirising the biggest press baron of them all, William Randolph Hearst (whose astonishing castle I visited with my kids in 2011 and which is recreated as “Xanadu” in the movie), in what today would be the mother of all libel courtroom battles. Not only that, he created the enduring mystery of “Rosebud”, which is part answered in the movie but leaves much unspoken.
Anyway, here again is my previous micro-review:
Citizen Kane: has won all the plaudits going, but thoroughly deserves them. Welles was 25 when he directed and starred in this epic tale of a failed newspaper tycoon rather too much like Randolph Hearst. Sailing too close to the wind was Welles’ forte, but this movie was 30 years ahead of its time in many of the techniques innovated. Truly ground breaking, and the eternal mystery of Rosebud too!
My message is to go enjoy at face value, but for those who take an interest in the story behind the story, my thanks to Wikipedia for this:
Orson Welles’s notoriety following The War of the Worlds broadcast earned him Hollywood’s interest, and RKO studio head George J. Schaefer’s unusual contract. Welles made a deal with Schaefer on July 21, 1939, to produce, direct, write, and act in two feature films. The studio had to approve the story and the budget if it exceeded $500,000. Welles was allowed to develop the story without interference, cast his own actors and crew members, and have the privilege of final cut – unheard of at the time for a first-time director. He had spent the first five months of his RKO contract trying to get several projects going with no success. The Hollywood Reporter said, “They are laying bets over on the RKO lot that the Orson Welles deal will end up without Orson ever doing a picture there.” First, Welles tried to adapt Heart of Darkness, but there was concern over the idea of depicting it entirely with point of view shots. Welles considered adapting Cecil Day-Lewis‘ novel The Smiler With The Knife, but realized that to challenge himself with a new medium, he had to write an original story.
Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was recuperating from a car accident and in-between jobs. He had originally been hired by Welles to work on The Campbell Playhouse radio program and was available to work on the screenplay for Welles’s film. The writer had only received two screenplay credits between 1935 and his work on Citizen Kane and needed the job. There is dispute amongst historians regarding whose idea it was to use William Randolph Hearst as the basis for Charles Foster Kane. Welles claimed it was his idea while film critic Pauline Kael (in her 1971 essay “Raising Kane”) and Welles’s former business partner John Houseman claim that it was Mankiewicz’s idea. For some time, Mankiewicz had wanted to write a screenplay about a public figure – perhaps a gangster – whose story would be told by the people that knew him.
Mankiewicz had already written an unperformed play about John Dillinger entitled The Tree Will Grow. Welles liked the idea of multiple viewpoints but was not interested in playing Dillinger. Mankiewicz and Welles talked about picking someone else to use as a model. They hit on the idea of using Hearst as their central character. Mankiewicz had frequented Hearst’s parties until his alcoholism got him barred. The writer resented this and became obsessed with Hearst and Marion Davies. Hearst had great influence and the power to retaliate within Hollywood so Welles had Mankiewicz work on the script outside of the city. Because of the writer’s drinking problem, Houseman went along to provide assistance and make sure that he stayed focused. Welles also sought inspiration from Howard Hughes and Samuel Insull (who built an opera house for his wife). Although Mankiewicz and Houseman got on well with Welles, they incorporated some of his traits into Kane, such as his temper.
During production, Citizen Kane was referred to as RKO 281. Most of the filming took place between June 29, 1940 and October 23, 1940 in what is now Stage 19 on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. There was some location filming with Balboa Park in San Diego and San Diego Zoo; and still photographs of Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York were used in the opening montage representing Kane’s Xanadu estate. Welles prevented studio executives of RKO from visiting the set. He understood their desire to control projects and he knew they were expecting him to do an exciting film that would correspond to his The War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles’s RKO contract had given him complete control over the production of the film when he signed on with the studio, something that he never again was allowed to exercise when making motion pictures. According to an RKO cost sheet from May 1942, the film cost $839,727 compared to an estimated budget of $723,800.
Welles ran a closed set, limited access to dailies and managed the publicity of Kane to make sure that its influence from Hearst’s life was a secret. Publicity materials stated the film’s inspiration was Faust. RKO hoped to release the film in mid-February 1941. Writers for national magazines had early deadlines and so a rough cut was previewed for a select few on January 3, 1941. Friday magazine ran an article drawing point-by-point comparisons between Kane and Hearst and documented how Welles had led onLouella Parsons, Hollywood correspondent for Hearst papers, and made a fool of her in public. Reportedly, she was furious and demanded an immediate preview of the film. James Stewart, who was present at the screening, said that she walked out of the film. Soon after, Parsons called George Schaefer and threatened RKO with a lawsuit if they released Kane. The next day, the front page headline in Daily Variety read, “HEARST BANS RKO FROM PAPERS.” In two weeks, the ban was lifted for everything except Kane.
The Hollywood Reporter ran a front-page story on January 13 that Hearst papers were about to run a series of editorials attacking Hollywood’s practice of hiring refugees and immigrants for jobs that could be done by Americans. The goal was to put pressure on the other studios in order to force RKO to shelve Kane. Soon afterwards, Schaefer was approached by Nicholas Schenck, head of MGM’s parent company, with an offer on the behalf of Louis B. Mayer and other Hollywood executives to reimburse RKO if it would destroy the film. Once RKO’s legal team reassured Schaefer, the studio announced on January 21 that Kane would be released as scheduled and with one of the largest promotional campaigns in the studio’s history. Schaefer brought Welles to New York City for a private screening of the film with the New York corporate heads of the studios and their lawyers. There was no objection to its release provided that certain changes, including the removal or softening of specific references that might offend Hearst, were made.Welles agreed, and editor Robert Wise (who later became a celebrated film director himself in the 1950s and 60s) was brought in to cut the running time from two hours, two minutes, and 40 seconds to one hour, 59 minutes, and 16 seconds. That cut satisfied the corporate lawyers.
Mankiewicz as co-writer
Robert Carringer, author of The Making of Citizen Kane (1985), described the early stages of the screenplay:
Welles’s first step toward the realization of Citizen Kane was to seek the assistance of a screenwriting professional. Fortunately, help was near at hand. . . . When Welles moved to Hollywood, it happened that a veteran screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, was recuperating from an automobile accident and between jobs … Mankiewicz was an expatriate from Broadway who had been writing for films for almost fifteen years.
Mankiewicz met newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst as a result of his friendship with Charles Lederer, another Hollywood screenwriter, who was a close nephew of Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that “Mankiewicz found himself on story-swapping terms with the power behind it all, Hearst himself … through his friendship with Charles Lederer.” Mankiewicz eventually saw Hearst as “a finagling, calculating, Machiavellian figure,” notes Kael, and he and Lederer often wrote and had printed parodies of Hearst newspapers …”
Mankiewicz, according to film author Harlan Lebo, he was also “one of Hollywood’s most notorious personalities.” Mankiewicz was the older brother of producer-director Joseph Mankiewicz and was a former writer for The New Yorker and The New York Timesand had moved to Hollywood in 1926. By the time Welles contacted him he had “established himself as a brilliant wit, a writer of extraordinary talent, [and] a warm friend to many of the screen world’s brightest artists … [he] produced dialogue of the highest caliber.”
“Herman Mankiewicz was a legendary figure in Hollywood,” wrote Welles’s associate John Houseman:
The son of a respected New Jersey schoolteacher, one of a brilliant class at Columbia, he had fought the war as a Marine, worked for the World and the Times, collaborated on two unsuccessful plays with two otherwise infallibly successful playwrights,George Kaufman and Marc Connelly, come to California for six weeks to work on a silent film for Lon Chaney and stayed for sixteen years as one of the highest paid and most troublesome men in the business. His behavior, public and private, was a scandal. A neurotic drinker and a compulsive gambler, he was also one of the most intelligent, informed, witty, humane and charming men I have ever known.
Speaking with Peter Bogdanovich in February 1969, Orson Welles said, “Nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank … a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness wasn’t focused straight at you, he was the best company in the world.” When Bogdanovich asked how important Mankiewicz was to the Citizen Kane script, Welles responded, “Mankiewicz’s contribution? It was enormous.”
Welles had engaged Mankiewicz to do script work on the stalled film project The Smiler with a Knife. Despite a violent quarrel with Houseman in December 1939, after which Houseman had resigned from the Mercury, Welles arranged a lunch at New York’s 21 Clubwith his former partner and proposed that he work with Mankiewicz on a new project — “little more than a notion, but an exciting one,” Houseman wrote:
Mankiewicz was notoriously unreliable: I asked Orson why he didn’t take over the idea and write it himself. He said he didn’t want to do that. Besides, Mank had asked for me to work with him. In the name of our former association Orson urged me to fly out, talk to Mankiewicz and, if I shared his enthusiasm, stay and work with him as his collaborator and editor till the script was done. It was an absurd venture, and that night Orson and I flew back to California together.
In February 1940 Mankiewicz was put on the Mercury payroll to work on a script with Houseman, a screenplay initially called Orson Welles #1, then American, then Citizen Kane. Writing took place from late February or March through early May 1940.
After finishing the script for Citizen Kane, Mankiewicz gave a copy to Lederer, which Kael explains was foolish:
He was so proud of his script that he lent a copy to Charles Lederer. In some crazily naive way, Mankiewicz seems to have imagined that Lederer would be pleased by how good it was. But Lederer, apparently, was deeply upset and took the script to his aunt and Hearst. It went from them to Hearst’s lawyers … It was probably as a result of Mankiewicz’s idiotic indiscretion that the various forces were set in motion that resulted in the cancellation of the premiere at the Radio City Music Hall [and] the commercial failure of Citizen Kane.
Lederer, however, told director Peter Bogdanovich that Kael was wrong in her conclusion, noting that “she never bothered to check with him” about the facts. According to Lederer, he never did give the script to Davies. Lederer explains:
I gave it back to him. He asked me if I thought Marion would be offended and I said I didn’t think so.
Ideas and collaboration
According to film historian Clinton Heylin, “the idea of Citizen Kane was the original conception of Orson Welles, who in early 1940 first discussed the idea with John Houseman, who then suggested that both he and Welles leave for Los Angeles and discuss the idea with scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz.” He adds that Mankiewicz “probably believed that Welles had little experience as an original scriptwriter … [and] may even have felt that John Citizen USA, Welles’s working title, was a project he could make his own.”
When Houseman returned to California, he sat by the bedside of Mankiewicz — who was convalescing with a triple fracture of his left leg — and heard the basic outline of the story. “It was something he had been thinking about for years,” Houseman wrote, “the idea of telling a man’s private life (preferably one that suggested a recognizable American figure), immediately following his death, through the intimate and often incompatible testimony of those who had known him at different times and in different circumstances.”
Welles himself had ideas that meshed with that concept, as he described in a 1969 interview in the book, This is Orson Welles:
I’d been nursing an old notion – the idea of telling the same thing several times – and showing exactly the same thing from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure – couldn’t be a politician, because you’d have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.
Hearst as story model
According to film critic and author Pauline Kael, Mankiewicz “was already caught up in the idea of a movie about Hearst” when he was still working at The New York Times, in 1925. She learned from his family’s babysitter, Marion Fisher, that she once typed as “he dictated a screenplay, organized in flashbacks. She recalls that he had barely started on the dictation, which went on for several weeks, when she remarked that it seemed to be about William Randolph Hearst, and he said, ‘You’re a smart girl.'”
In Hollywood, Mankiewicz had frequented Hearst’s parties until his alcoholism got him barred. And Hearst was also a person known to Welles. “Once that was decided”, wrote author Don Kilbourne, “Mankiewicz, Welles, and John Houseman, a cofounder of the Mercury Theatre, rented a place in the desert, and the task of creating Citizen Kane began.” This “place in the desert” was on the historic Verde ranch on the Mojave River in Victorville. In later years, Houseman gave Mankiewicz “total” credit for “the creation of Citizen Kane’s script” and credited Welles with “the visual presentation of the picture.”
Mankiewicz was put under contract by Mercury Productions and was to receive no credit for his work as he was hired as a script doctor. According to his contract with RKO, Welles would be given sole screenplay credit, and had already written a rough script consisting of 300 pages of dialogue with occasional stage directions under the title of John Citizen, USA.
One of the long standing debates of Citizen Kane has been the proper accreditation of the authorship of the screenplay, which the credits attribute to both Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. Mankiewicz biographer Richard Meryman notes that the dispute had various causes, including the way the film was promoted. For instance, when RKO opened the film on Broadway on May 1, 1941, followed by showings at theaters in other large cities, the publicity programs that were printed included photographs of Welles as “the one-man band, directing, acting, and writing.” In a letter to his father afterward, Mankiewicz wrote, “I’m particularly furious at the incredibly insolent description of how Orson wrote his masterpiece. The fact is that there isn’t one single line in the picture that wasn’t in writing – writing from and by me – before ever a camera turned.”
Film historian Otto Friedrich wrote, “it made [Mankiewicz] unhappy to hear Welles quoted in Louella Parsons‘s column, before the question of screen credits was officially settled, as saying, ‘So I wrote Citizen Kane. … Welles later claimed that he planned on a joint credit all along, but Mankiewicz claimed that Welles offered him a bonus of ten thousand dollars if he would let Welles take full credit.”
Controversy over the authorship of the Citizen Kane screenplay was revived in 1971 by film critic Pauline Kael, whose essay, “Raising Kane,” was printed in two installments in The New Yorker (February 20 and 27, 1971) and subsequently collected in The Citizen Kane Book (1971). According to Kael, Rita Alexander, Mankiewicz’s personal secretary, stated that she “took the dictation from Mankiewicz from the first paragraph to the last … and later did the final rewriting and the cuts, and handled the script at the studio until after the film was shot. … [and said] Welles didn’t write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script of Citizen Kane. She added that “Welles himself came to dinner once or twice … [and] she didn’t meet him until after Mankiewicz had finished dictating the long first draft.” However Welles had his own secretary, Katherine Trosper, who typed up Welles’s suggestions and corrections, which were incorporated into the final script; Kael did not interview Trosper before producing her article.
Nevertheless, Kael maintained that Mankiewicz went to the Writers Guild and declared that he was the original author. According to Pauline Kael, “he had ample proof of his authorship, and when he took his evidence to the Screen Writers Guild … Welles was forced to split the credit and take second place in the listing.” Charles Lederer, a screenwriter and a source for Kael’s article, insisted that the credit never came to the Screen Writers Guild for arbitration.
Kael argued that Mankiewicz was the true author of the screenplay and therefore responsible for much of what made the film great. This angered many critics of the day, most notably critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, a close friend of Welles who rebutted Kael’s claims in an October 1972 article for Esquire titled “The Kane Mutiny.” Other rebuttals included articles by Joseph McBride (Film Heritage, Fall 1971) and Jonathan Rosenbaum (Film Comment, Spring 1972 and Summer 1972), interviews with George Coulourisand Bernard Herrmann that appeared in Sight & Sound (Spring 1972), and remarks in Welles biographies by Barbara Leaming and Frank Brady. Rosenbaum also reviews the controversy in his editor’s notes to This is Orson Welles (1992).
“I happen to disagree with the premise of the whole book, because she tries to pretend that Welles is nothing and that a mediocre writer by the name of Mankiewicz was a hidden Voltaire,” Bernard Herrmann said during a question-and-answer session following an October 1973 lecture at the George Eastman House Museum in Rochester, New York. “I’m not saying that Mankiewicz made no contribution. The titles clearly credit him. Orson says that he did make a valuable contribution. But really, without Orson, all of Mankiewicz’s other pictures were nothing, before and after. With Orson, however, something happened to this wonderful man, but he could not have created Citizen Kane.”
Robert L. Carringer likewise rebutted Kael’s conclusions in an article titled “The Scripts of Citizen Kane” for the Winter 1978 edition of Critical Enquiry. Carringer refers to early script drafts with Welles’s incorporated handwritten contributions, and mentions the issues raised by Kael rested on the evidence of an early draft which was mostly written by Mankiewicz. However Carringer points out that subsequent drafts clarified Welles’s contribution to the script:
Fortunately enough evidence to settle the matter has survived. A virtually complete set of script records for Citizen Kane has been preserved in the archives of RKO General Pictures in Hollywood, and these provide almost a day-to-day record of the history of the scripting … The full evidence reveals that Welles’s contribution to the Citizen Kane script was not only substantial but definitive.
Carringer notes that Mankiewicz’ principal contribution was on the first two drafts of the screenplay, which he characterizes as being more like “rough gatherings” than actual drafts. Houseman accompanied Mankiewicz so as to ensure that the latter’s drinking problem did not affect the screenplay. The early drafts established “the plot logic and laid down the overall story contours, established the main characters, and provided numerous scenes and lines that would eventually appear in one form or another in the film.”However he also noted that Kane in the early draft remained a caricature of Hearst rather than the fully developed character of the final film. The main quality missing in the early drafts but present in the final film is “the stylistic wit and fluidity that is the most engaging trait of the film itself.”
According to film critic David Thomson, however, “No one can now deny Herman Mankiewicz credit for the germ, shape, and pointed language of the screenplay, but no one who has seen the film as often as it deserves to be seen would dream that Welles is not its only begetter.” Carringer considered that at least three scenes were solely Welles’s work and, after weighing both sides of the argument, including sworn testimony from Mercury assistant Richard Baer, concluded, “We will probably never know for sure, but in any case Welles had at last found a subject with the right combination of monumentality, timeliness, and audacity.” Harlan Lebo agrees, and adds, “of far greater relevance is reaffirming the importance of the efforts that both men contributed to the creation of Hollywood’s greatest motion picture.”
Carringer notes that Citizen Kane was unusual in relation to his later films in that it was original material rather than adaptations of existing sources. He cites that Mankiewicz’s main contribution was providing him with “what any good first writer ought to be able to provide in such a case: a solid, durable story structure on which to build.”
For his part, Welles stated the process of collaborating with Mankiewicz on the Citizen Kane screenplay in a letter to The Times (London), November 17, 1971:
The initial ideas for this film and its basic structure were the result of direct collaboration between us; after this we separated and there were two screenplays: one written by Mr. Mankiewicz, in Victorville, and the other, in Beverly Hills, by myself. … The final version of the screenplay … was drawn from both sources.
In his 1982 chronicle of the studio, The RKO Story, scholar Richard B. Jewell concluded the following:
Besides producing, directing and playing the role of Kane, Welles deserved his co-authorship credit (with Herman J. Mankiewicz) on the screenplay. Film critic Pauline Kael argues otherwise in a 50,000 word essay on the subject, but her case against Welles is one-sided and unsupported by the facts.
Charles Foster KaneWilliam Randolph Hearst was born rich. He was the pampered son of an adoring mother. That is the decisive fact about him. Charles Foster Kane was born poor and was raised by a bank. —Orson Welles
Orson Welles never confirmed a principal source for the character of Charles Foster Kane. John Houseman, who edited and collaborated on the draft of the script written by Herman Mankiewicz, wrote that Kane is asynthesis of different personalities:
For the basic concept of Charles Foster Kane and for the main lines and significant events of his public life, Mankiewicz used as his model the figure of William Randolph Hearst. To this were added incidents and details invented or derived from other sources.
The film is commonly regarded as a fictionalized, unrelentingly hostile parody of William Randolph Hearst, in spite of Welles’s statement that “Citizen Kane is the story of a wholly fictitious character.” According to film historian Don Kilbourne, “much of the information for Citizen Kane came from already-published material about Hearst … [and] some of Kane’s speeches are almost verbatim copies of Hearst’s. When Welles denied that the film was about the still-influential publisher, he did not convince many people.”
Hearst biographer David Nasaw finds the film’s depiction of Hearst unfair:
Welles’ Kane is a cartoon-like caricature of a man who is hollowed out on the inside, forlorn, defeated, solitary because he cannot command the total obedience, loyalty, devotion, and love of those around him. Hearst, to the contrary, never regarded himself as a failure, never recognized defeat, never stopped loving Marion [Davies] or his wife. He did not, at the end of his life, run away from the world to entomb himself in a vast, gloomy art-choked hermitage. Orson Welles may have been a great filmmaker, but he was neither a biographer nor a historian.
Arguing for the release of Citizen Kane before the RKO board, Welles pointed out the irony that it was Hearst himself who had brought so much attention to the film being about him, and that it was his own columnist Louella Parsons who was doing the most to publicize Kane’s identification with Hearst. Public denials aside, Welles held the view that Hearst was a public figure and that the facts of a public figure’s life were available for writers to reshape and restructure into works of fiction. Welles’s legal advisor Arnold Weissberger put the issue in the form of a rhetorical question: “Will a man be allowed in effect to copyright the story of his life?”
In an interview comprised in the 1992 book This is Orson Welles, Welles said that he had excised one scene from Mankiewicz’s first draft that had certainly been based on Hearst. “In the original script we had a scene based on a notorious thing Hearst had done, which I still cannot repeat for publication. And I cut it out because I thought it hurt the film and wasn’t in keeping with Kane’s character. If I’d kept it in, I would have had no trouble with Hearst. He wouldn’t have dared admit it was him.
Critic Pauline Kael wrote that a vestige of this abandoned subplot survives in a remark made by Susan Alexander to the reporter interviewing her: “Look, if you’re smart, you’ll get in touch with Raymond. He’s the butler. You’ll learn a lot from him. He knows where all the bodies are buried.” Kael observed, “It’s an odd, cryptic speech. In the first draft, Raymond literally knew where the bodies were buried: Mankiewicz had dished up a nasty version of the scandal sometimes referred to as the Strange Death of Thomas Ince.” Referring to the suspicious 1924 death of the American film mogul after being a guest on Hearst’s yacht, and noting that Kael’s principal source was John Houseman, film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that “it seems safe to conclude, even without her prodding, that some version of the story must have cropped up in Mankiewicz’s first draft of the script, which Welles subsequently edited and added to.”
One particular aspect of the character, Kane’s profligate collecting of possessions, was directly taken from Hearst. “And it’s very curious – a man who spends his entire life paying cash for objects he never looked at,” Welles said. “He just acquired things, most of which were never opened, remained in boxes. It’s really a quite accurate picture of Hearst to that extent.” But Welles himself insisted that there were marked differences between his fictional creation and Hearst. He acknowledged that aspects of Kane were drawn from the lives of two business tycoons familiar from Welles’s youth in Chicago — Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick.
A financier closely associated with Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull (1859–1938) was a man of humble origins who became the most powerful figure in the utilities field. He was married to a Broadway ingenue nearly 20 years his junior, and built the Chicago Civic Opera House. In 1925, after a 26-year absence, Gladys Wallis Insull returned to the stage in a charity revival of The School for Scandal that ran two weeks in Chicago. When the performance was repeated on Broadway in October 1925, Herman Mankiewicz — then the third-string theatre critic for The New York Times — was assigned to review the production. In an incident that became infamous, Mankiewicz returned to the press room drunk and wrote only the first sentence of a negative review before passing out on his typewriter. Mankiewicz resurrected the experience in writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane, incorporating it into the narrative of Jedediah Leland.
In 1926 Insull took a six-year lease on Chicago’s Studebaker Theatre and financed a repertory company in which his wife starred. Gladys Insull’s nerves broke when her company failed to find success, and the lease expired at the same time Insull’s $3 billion financial empire collapsed in the Depression. Like that of Charles Foster Kane, the life of Samuel Insull ended in bankruptcy and disgrace.
According to composer David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann used to say that much of Kane’s story was based on McCormick, but that there was also a good deal of Orson Welles himself in the flamboyant character. Welles lost his mother when he was nine years old and his father when he was 15. After this, he became the ward of Chicago’s Dr. Maurice Bernstein. Bernstein is the last name of the only major character in Citizen Kane who receives a generally positive portrayal. Although Dr. Bernstein was nothing like the character in the film, Welles said, the use of the name “Bernstein” was a family joke. “I used to call people ‘Bernstein’ on the radio, all the time, too – just to make him laugh. … Mank did all the best writing for Bernstein. I’d call that the most valuable thing he gave us.”
Welles cited financier Basil Zaharoff as another inspiration for Kane. “I got the idea for the hidden-camera sequence in the Kane ‘news digest’ from a scene I did on March of Time in which Zaharoff, this great munitions-maker, was being moved around in his rose garden, just talking about the roses, in the last days before he died,” Welles said. Robert L. Carringer reviewed the December 3, 1936, script of the radio obituary in which Welles played Zaharoff, and found other similarities. In the opening scene, Zaharoff’s secretaries are burning masses of secret papers in the enormous fireplace of his castle. A succession of witnesses testify about the tycoon’s ruthless practices. “Finally, Zaharoff himself appears — an old man nearing death, alone except for his servants in the gigantic palace in Monte Carlo that he had acquired for his longtime mistress. His dying wish is to be wheeled out ‘in the sun by that rosebush.'”
In Hollywood in 1940, Orson Welles invited longtime friend and Mercury Theatre colleague Joseph Cotten to be part of a small group reading the script aloud for the first time. They got together around the pool at the Beverly Hills home of Herman Mankiewicz, Cotten wrote:
“I think I’ll just listen,” Welles said. “The title of this movie is Citizen Kane, and I play guess who.” He turned to me. “Why don’t you think of yourself as Jedediah Leland? His name, by the way, is a combination of Jed Harris and your agent, Leland Hayward.” “There all resemblance ceases,” Herman reassured me. These afternoon garden readings continued, and as the Mercury actors began arriving, the story started to breathe.
“I regard Leland with enormous affection,” Orson Welles said to filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. He told Bogdanovich that the character of Jed Leland was based on drama critic Ashton Stevens, George Stevens‘s uncle and a close boyhood friend of Welles:
What I knew about Hearst came more from him than from my father – though my father did know him well … But Ashton had taught Hearst to play the banjo, which is how he first got to be a drama critic, and, you know, Ashton was really one of the great ones. The last of the dandies – he worked for Hearst for some 50 years or so, and adored him. A gentleman … very much like Jed.
Regarded as the dean of American drama critics, Ashton Stevens (1872–1951) began his journalism career in 1894 in San Francisco and started working for the Hearst newspapers three years later. In 1910 he moved to Chicago where he covered the theatre for 40 years and became a close friend of Orson Welles’s guardian, Dr. Maurice Bernstein.
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz incorporated an incident from his own early career as a theatre critic for The New York Times into the narrative of Jed Leland. Mankiewicz was assigned to review the October 1925 opening of The School for Scandal — a production that marked the return of Gladys Wallis to the Broadway stage. A famous ingenue of the 1890s, Wallis had retired upon her marriage to Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull but was now, 26 years later, using her husband’s fortune to form her own repertory company. After her opening-night performance in the role of Lady Teazle, drama critic Mankiewicz returned to the press room “full of fury and too many drinks,” wrote biographer Richard Meryman:
He was outraged by the spectacle of a 56-year-old millionairess playing a gleeful 18-year-old, the whole production bought for her like a trinket by a man Herman knew to be an unscrupulous manipulator. Herman began to write: “Miss Gladys Wallis, an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur, opened last night in …” Then Herman passed out, slumped over the top of his typewriter.
The unconscious Mankiewicz was discovered by his boss, George S. Kaufman, who composed a terse announcement that the Times review would appear the following day.
Mankiewicz resurrected the incident for Citizen Kane. After Kane’s second wife makes her opera debut, critic Jed Leland returns to the press room drunk. He passes out over the top of his typewriter after writing the first sentence of his review: “Miss Susan Alexander, a pretty but hopelessly incompetent amateur …”
Susan AlexanderIt was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story, but the man was not Hearst. Susan, Kane’s second wife, is not even based on the real-life soprano. Like most fictional characters, Susan’s resemblance to other fictional characters is quite startling. To Marion Davies she bears no resemblance at all.
The common assumption that the character of Susan Alexander was based on Marion Davies was a major reason William Randolph Hearst tried to destroy Citizen Kane. In his foreword to Davies’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1975, Orson Welles draws a sharp distinction between the real-life actress and his fictional creation:
That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them: they were pleasure domes indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations. Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape from it. The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.
Welles cited Samuel Insull‘s building of the Chicago Opera House, and business tycoon Harold Fowler McCormick‘s lavish promotion of the opera career of his second wife, as direct influences on the screenplay. McCormick divorced Edith Rockefeller and married aspiring opera singer Ganna Walska as her fourth husband. He spent thousands of dollars on voice lessons for her and even arranged for Walska to take the lead in a production of Zaza at the Chicago Opera in 1920. Contemporaries said Walska had a terrible voice; The New York Times headlines of the day read, “Ganna Walska Fails as Butterfly: Voice Deserts Her Again When She Essays Role of Puccini’s Heroine” (January 29, 1925), and “Mme. Walska Clings to Ambition to Sing” (July 14, 1927).
“According to her 1943 memoirs, Always Room at the Top, Walska had tried every sort of fashionable mumbo jumbo to conquer her nerves and salvage her voice,” reported The New York Times in 1996. “Nothing worked. During a performance of Giordano’s Fedorain Havana she veered so persistently off key that the audience pelted her with rotten vegetables. It was an event that Orson Welles remembered when he began concocting the character of the newspaper publisher’s second wife for Citizen Kane.”
Charles Lederer, Marion Davies‘s nephew, read a draft of the script before filming began on Citizen Kane. “The script I read didn’t have any flavor of Marion and Hearst,” Lederer said. “Robert McCormick was the man it was about.” (Lederer confuses Walska’s husband Harold F. McCormick with another member of the powerful Chicago family, one who also may also have inspired Welles – crusading publisher Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune.) Although there were things based on Marion Davies – jigsaw puzzles and drinking – Lederer noted that they were exaggerated in the film to help define the characterization of Susan Alexander.
“As for Marion,” Orson Welles said, “she was an extraordinary woman – nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie.”
Film tycoon Jules Brulatour‘s second and third wives, Dorothy Gibson and Hope Hampton, both fleeting stars of the silent screen who later had marginal careers in opera, are also believed to have provided inspiration for the Susan Alexander character. The interview with Susan Alexander Kane in the Atlantic City nightclub was based on a contemporary interview with Evelyn Nesbit Thaw in the run-down club where she was performing.
The character of political boss Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) is based on Charles F. Murphy, a leader in New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall political machine. William Randolph Hearst and Murphy were political allies in 1902, when Hearst was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but the two fell out in 1905 when Hearst ran for mayor of New York. Hearst turned his muckraking newspapers on Tammany Hall in the person of Murphy, who was called “the most hungry, selfish and extortionate boss Tammany has ever known.” Murphy ordered that under no condition was Hearst to be elected. Hearst ballots were dumped into the East River, and new ballots were printed favoring his opponent. Hearst was defeated by some 3,000 votes and his newspapers bellowed against the election fraud. A historic cartoon of Murphy in convict stripes appeared November 10, 1905, three days after the vote. The caption read, “Look out, Murphy! It’s a Short Lockstep from Delmonico’s to Sing Sing … Every honest voter in New York wants to see you in this costume.”
In Citizen Kane, Boss Jim Gettys (named Edward Rogers in the shooting script) admonishes Kane for printing a cartoon showing him in prison stripes:
If I owned a newspaper and if I didn’t like the way somebody else was doing things – some politician, say – I’d fight them with everything I had. Only I wouldn’t show him in a convict suit with stripes — so his children could see the picture in the paper. Or his mother.
As he pursues Gettys down the stairs, Kane threatens to send him to Sing Sing. As an inside joke, Welles named Gettys after the father-in-law of Roger Hill, his headmaster at the Todd School and a lifelong friend.
Film critic David Thomson has stated that “Rosebud is the greatest secret in cinema …”
In This is Orson Welles, Welles credits the “Rosebud” device – the journalist’s search for the enigmatic meaning of Kane’s last word, the device that frames the film – to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. “Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville,” Welles said. “It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either.” The dialogue eventually reflects the screenwriters’ desire to diminish the importance of the word’s meaning; “We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it,” Welles said.
As he began his first draft of the Citizen Kane screenplay in early 1940, Mankiewicz mentioned “Rosebud” to his secretary. When she asked, “Who is rosebud?” he replied, “It isn’t a who, it’s an it.” The symbol of Mankiewicz’s own damaged childhood was a treasured bicycle, stolen while he visited the public library and, in punishment, never replaced. “He mourned that all his life,” wrote film critic Pauline Kael, who believed Mankiewicz put the emotion of that boyhood loss into the loss that haunted Kane.
In his 2002 book Hearst Over Hollywood, Louis Pizzitola reports one historian’s statement that “Rosebud” was a nickname given to William Randolph Hearst’s mother by portrait and landscape painter Orrin Peck. The Peck family were intimates of the Hearsts, and Orrin Peck was said to be nearer to Phoebe Apperson Hearst than her own son. Another theory of the origin of “Rosebud” is the similarity with the dying wish of Basil Zaharoff (who is one of the inspirations for the central character), to be wheeled “by the rosebush”.
In 1989 author Gore Vidal stated that “Rosebud” was a nickname which Hearst had used for the clitoris of his mistress, Marion Davies. Vidal said that Davies had told this intimate detail to a close nephew, Charles Lederer, who had mentioned it to him years later. The claim was repeated in the 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and again in the 1999 dramatic film RKO 281. Film critic Roger Ebert said, “Some people have fallen in love with the story that Herman Mankiewicz, the co-author with Welles of the screenplay, happened to know that ‘Rosebud’ was William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for an intimate part of Marion Davies’ anatomy.”
Welles biographer Frank Brady traces the story to the popular press in the late 1970s:
How Orson (or Mankiewicz) could have ever discovered this most private utterance is unexplained and why it took over 35 years for such a suggestive rationale to emerge, although the origins of everything to do with Citizen Kane had continually been placed under literary and cinematic microscopes for decades, is also unknown. If this highly unlikely story is even partially true … Hearst may have become upset at the implied connotation, although any such connection seems to have been innocent on Welles’s part. In any event, this bizarre explanation for the origin of one of the most famous words ever spoken on the screen has now made its way into serious studies of Welles and Citizen Kane.
“Absolutely none,” he said, pointing out that it was inconceivable that he would not have heard of something so provocative at the time, or that Welles could have kept such a secret for over 40 years.
“Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain,” summarized Roger Ebert. “It is the green light at the end of Gatsby‘s pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in 2001.”
Orson Welles said that his preparation before making Citizen Kane was to watch John Ford‘s Stagecoach 40 times. “A lot of people ought to study Stagecoach,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. “I wanted to learn how to make movies, and that’s such a classically perfect one — don’t you think so?”
As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director. I’d learned whatever I knew in the projection room — from Ford. After dinner every night for about a month, I’d run Stagecoach, often with some different technician or department head from the studio, and ask questions. “How was this done?” “Why was this done?” It was like going to school.
Film scholars and historians view Citizen Kane as Welles’s attempt to create a new style of filmmaking by studying various forms of film making, and combining them all into one. However, in an interview in March 1960 with the BBC’s Huw Wheldon, Welles stated that his love for cinema began only when he started the work on Citizen Kane, and when asked where he got the confidence from as a first-time director to direct a film so radically different from contemporary cinema, he responded, “[From] ignorance … sheer ignorance. There is no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you are timid or careful.”
The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane is the extended use of deep focus. In nearly every scene in the film, the foreground, background and everything in between are all in sharp focus. This was done by cinematographer Gregg Toland through his experimentation with lenses and lighting. Specifically, Toland often used telephoto lenses to shoot close-up scenes. Any time deep focus was impossible – for example in the scene when Kane finishes a bad review of Alexander’s opera while at the same time firing the person who started the review – an optical printer was used to make the whole screen appear in focus (visually layering one piece of film onto another). However, some apparently deep-focus shots were the result of in-camera effects, as in the famous example of the scene where Kane breaks into Susan Alexander’s room after her suicide attempt. In the background, Kane and another man break into the room, while simultaneously the medicine bottle and a glass with a spoon in it are in closeup in the foreground. The shot was an in-camera matte shot. The foreground was shot first, with the background dark. Then the background was lit, the foreground darkened, the film rewound, and the scene re-shot with the background action.
Another unorthodox method used in the film was the way low-angle shots were used to display a point of view facing upwards, thus allowing ceilings to be shown in the background of several scenes. Since films were primarily filmed on sound stages and not on location during the era of the Hollywood studio system, it was impossible to film at an angle that showed ceilings because the stages had none. In some instances, Welles’s crew used muslin draped above the set to produce the illusion of a regular room with a ceiling, while the boom microphones were hidden above the cloth and even dug a trench into the floor to allow the low-angle shot to be used in the scene where Kane meets Leland after his election loss.
Toland had approached Welles in 1940 to work on Citizen Kane. Welles’s reputation for experimentation in the theatre appealed to Toland and he found a sympathetic partner to “test and prove several ideas generally being accepted as radical in Hollywood”. Welles credited Toland on the same card as himself. “It’s impossible to say how much I owe to Gregg. He was superb,” Welles said.
Citizen Kane eschews the traditional linear, chronological narrative and tells Kane’s story entirely in flashback using different points of view, many of them from Kane’s aged and forgetful associates, the cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator in literature. Welles also dispenses with the idea of a single storyteller and uses multiple narrators to recount Kane’s life. The use of multiple narrators was unheard of in Hollywood films. Each narrator recounts a different part of Kane’s life, with each story partly overlapping. The film depicts Kane as an enigma, a complicated man who, in the end, leaves viewers with more questions than answers as to his character, such as the newsreel footage where he is attacked for being both a communist and a fascist. The technique of using flashbacks had been used in earlier films such as Wuthering Heights in 1939 and The Power and the Glory in 1933 but no film was so immersed in this technique as Citizen Kane. The use of the reporter Thompson acts as a surrogate for the audience, questioning Kane’s associates and piecing together his life.
One of the narrative voices is the News on the March segment. Its stilted dialogue and portentous voiceover is a parody of The March of Time newsreel series which itself references an earlier newsreel which showed the 85-year old arms czar Sir Basil Zaharoff getting wheeled to his train. Welles had earlier provided voiceovers for the March of Time radio show. Citizen Kane makes extensive use of stock footage to create the newsreel.
One of the story-telling techniques used in Citizen Kane was the use of montage to collapse time and space. Using an episodic sequence on the same set while the characters changed costume and make-up between cuts so that the scene following each cut would look as if it took place in the same location, but at a time long after the previous cut. In the breakfast montage, Welles chronicles the breakdown of Kane’s first marriage in five vignettes that condense 16 years of story time into two minutes of screen time.Welles said that the idea for the breakfast scene “was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder … a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like 60 years of a family’s life.”
Welles also pioneered several visual effects in order to cheaply shoot things like crowd scenes and large interior spaces. For example, the scene where the camera in the opera house rises dramatically to the rafters to show the workmen showing a lack of appreciation for the second Mrs. Kane’s performance was shot by a camera craning upwards over the performance scene, then a curtain wipe to a miniature of the upper regions of the house, and then another curtain wipe matching it again with the scene of the workmen. Other scenes effectively employed miniatures to make the film look much more expensive than it truly was, such as various shots of Xanadu. A loud, full-screen closeup of a typewriter typing a single word (“weak”), magnifies the review for the Chicago Inquirer.
The make-up artist Maurice Seiderman created the make-up for the film. RKO wanted the young Kane to look handsome and dashing, and Seiderman transformed the overweight Welles, beginning with his nose, which Welles always disliked. For the old Kane, Seiderman created a red plastic compound which he applied to Welles, allowing the wrinkles to move naturally. Kane’s mustache was made of several hair tufts. Transforming Welles into the old Kane required six to seven hours, meaning he had to start at two in the morning to begin filming at nine. He would hold conferences while sitting in the make-up chair; sometimes working 16 hours a day. Even breaking a leg during filming could not stop him from directing around the clock, and he quickly returned to acting, using a steel leg brace.
“Before Kane, nobody in Hollywood knew how to set music properly in movies,” wrote filmmaker François Truffaut in a 1967 essay. “Kane was the first, in fact the only, great film that uses radio techniques.”
Behind each scene, there is a resonance which gives it its color: the rain on the windows of the cabaret, “El Rancho,” when the investigator goes to visit the down-and-out female singer who can only “work” Atlantic City; the echoes in the marble-lined Thatcher library; the overlapping voices whenever there are several characters. A lot of filmmakers know enough to follow Auguste Renoir’s advice to fill the eyes with images at all costs, but only Orson Welles understood that the sound track had to be filled in the same way.
In addition to expanding on the potential of sound as a creator of moods and emotions, Welles pioneered a new aural technique, known as the “lightning-mix”. Welles used this technique to link complex montage sequences via a series of related sounds or phrases. In offering a continuous sound track, Welles was able to join what would otherwise be extremely rough cuts together into a smooth narrative. For example, the audience witnesses Kane grow from a child into a young man in just two shots. As Kane’s guardian hands him his sled, Kane begrudgingly wishes him a “Merry Christmas”. Suddenly we are taken to a shot of his guardian fifteen years later, only to have the phrase completed for us: “and a Happy New Year”. In this case, the continuity of the soundtrack, not the image, is what makes for a seamless narrative structure.
Welles also carried over techniques from radio not yet popular in films (though they would become staples). Using a number of voices, each saying a sentence or sometimes merely a fragment of a sentence, and splicing the dialogue together in quick succession, the result gave the impression of a whole town talking – and, equally important, what the town was talking about. Welles also favored the overlapping of dialogue, considering it more realistic than the stage and film tradition of characters not stepping on each other’s sentences. He also pioneered the technique of putting the audio ahead of the visual in scene transitions (a J-cut); as a scene would come to a close, the audio would transition to the next scene before the visuals did.
In common with using personnel he had previously worked with in the Mercury Theatre, Welles recruited his close friend Bernard Herrmann to score Citizen Kane. Herrmann was a longtime collaborator with Welles, providing music for almost all his radio broadcasts including The Fall of the City (1937) and the War of the Worlds (1938) broadcast. The film was Herrmann’s first motion picture score and would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score, but would lose out to his own score for the film All That Money Can Buy.
Herrmann’s score for Citizen Kane was a watershed in film soundtrack composition and proved as influential as any of the film’s other innovations, establishing him as an important voice in film soundtrack composition. The score eschewed the typical Hollywood practice of scoring a film with virtually non-stop music. Instead Herrmann used what he later described as ‘”radio scoring”, musical cues which typically lasted between five and fifteen seconds to bridge the action or suggest a different emotional response. One of the most effective musical cues was the “Breakfast Montage.” The scene begins with a graceful waltz theme and gets darker with each variation on that theme as the passage of time leads to the hardening of Kane’s personality and the breakup of his marriage to Emily.
Herrmann realized that musicians slated to play his music were hired for individual unique sessions; there was no need to write for existing ensembles. This meant that he was free to score for unusual combinations of instruments, even instruments that are not commonly heard. In the opening sequence, for example, the tour of Kane’s estate Xanadu, Herrmann introduces a recurring leitmotiv played by low woodwinds, including a quartet of bass flutes. Much of the music used in the newsreel was taken from other sources; examples include the News on the March music which was taken from RKO’s music library, Belgian March by Anthony Collins, and accompanies the newsreel titles; and an excerpt from Alfred Newman‘s score for Gunga Din which is used as the background for the exploration of Xanadu. In the final sequence of the film, which shows the destruction of Rosebud in the fireplace of Kane’s castle, Welles choreographed the scene while he had Herrmann’s cue playing on the set.
For the operatic sequence which exposed Kane’s protege Susan Alexander for the amateur she was, Herrmann composed a quasi-romantic scene, Aria from Salammbô. There did exist two treatments of this work by Gustave Flaubert‘s 1862 novel, including an opera by Ernest Reyer and an incomplete treatment by Modeste Mussorgsky. However, Herrmann made no reference to existing music. Herrmann put the aria in a key that would force the singer to strain to reach the high notes, culminating in a high D, well outside the range of Susan Alexander. Herrmann said he wanted to convey the impression of “a terrified girl floundering in the quicksand of a powerful orchestra”. On the soundtrack it was soprano Jean Forward who actually sang the vocal part for actress Dorothy Comingore.
In 1972 Herrmann said “I was fortunate to start my career with a film like Citizen Kane, it’s been a downhill run ever since!” Shortly before his death in 1985, Welles told director Henry Jaglom that the score was fifty per cent responsible for the film’s artistic success.
Herrmann was vocal in his criticism of Pauline Kael’s claim that it was Mankiewicz, not Welles, who made the main thrust of the film, and also her assertions about the use of music in the film without consulting him:
Pauline Kael has written in The Citizen Kane Book (1971), that the production wanted to use Massenet’s “Thais” but could not afford the fee. But Miss Kael never wrote or approached me to ask about the music. We could easily have afforded the fee. The point is that its lovely little strings would not have served the emotional purpose of the film.
Opera lovers are frequently amused by the parody of vocal coaching that appears in a singing lesson given to Susan Alexander by Signor Matiste. The character attempts to sing the famous cavatina “Una voce poco fa” from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini, but the lesson is interrupted when Alexander sings a high note flat.
Orson Welles said that the Nat King Cole Trio is heard performing the song, “It Can’t Be Love,” in one of the key scenes of Citizen Kane, the fight between Susan and Kane in the picnic tent. “I’d heard Nat King Cole and his trio in a little bar. I kind of based the whole scene around that song,” Welles said. “The music is by Nat Cole — it’s his trio. He doesn’t sing it — he’s too legitimate, we got some kind of low-down New Orleans voice [Alton Redd] — but it was his number and his trio.” Bernard Herrmann denied unconfirmed reports that suggest Cole can also be heard playing in the scene where Thompson questions a down-at-heel Susan in the nightclub where she works.
Hearing about the film enraged Hearst so much that he banned any advertising, reviewing, or mentioning of it in his papers, and had his journalists libel Welles. Following lobbying from Hearst, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Louis B. Mayer, acting on behalf of the whole film industry, made an offer to RKO Pictures of $805,000 to destroy all prints of the film and burn the negative. Welles used Hearst’s opposition to Citizen Kane as a pretext for previewing the film in several opinion-making screenings in Los Angeles, lobbying for its artistic worth against the hostile campaign that Hearst was waging.
When George Schaefer of RKO rejected Hearst’s offer to suppress the film, Hearst banned every newspaper and station in his media conglomerate from reviewing – or even mentioning – the film. He also had many movie theaters ban it, and many did not show it through fear of being socially exposed by his massive newspaper empire. The documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane lays the blame for Citizen Kane‘s relative failure squarely at the feet of Hearst. The film did decent business at the box office; it went on to be the sixth highest grossing film in its year of release, a modest success its backers found acceptable. Nevertheless, the film’s commercial performance fell short of its creators’ expectations. In The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, David Nasaw points out that Hearst’s actions were not the only reason Kane failed, however: the innovations Welles made with narrative, as well as the dark message at the heart of the film (that the pursuit of success is ultimately futile) meant that a popular audience could not appreciate its merits.
In a pair of Arena documentaries about Welles’s career produced and broadcast domestically by the BBC in 1982, Welles claimed that during opening week, a policeman approached him one night and told him: “Do not go to your hotel room tonight; Hearst has set up an undressed, underage girl to leap into your arms when you enter and a photographer to take pictures of you. Hearst is planning to publish it in all of his papers.” Welles thanked the man and stayed out all night. However, it is not confirmed whether this was true. Welles also described how he accidentally bumped into Hearst in an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel when Kane was opening in San Francisco. Welles’s father had been friends with Hearst, so Welles tried to comfortably ask if Hearst would see the film. Hearst ignored him. “As he was getting off at his floor, I said ‘Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.’ No reply”, recalled the director. “And Kane would have you know. That was his style.”
Although Hearst tried to suppress the film and limit its success, his efforts backfired in the long run, for now almost every reference to Hearst’s life and career includes a reference to the parallels in the film. The irony of Hearst’s attempts is that the film is now inexorably connected to him. This connection is reinforced by W. A. Swanberg‘s extensive biography entitled Citizen Hearst.
Release and contemporary responses
Citizen Kane was to open at RKO’s flagship theatre, Radio City Music Hall, but did not; a possible factor was Louella Parsons‘s threat that The American Weekly would run a defamatory story on the grandfather of major RKO stockholder Nelson Rockefeller. Other exhibitors feared retaliation and refused to handle the film. Schaefer lined up a few theaters but Welles grew impatient and threatened RKO with a lawsuit. Hearst papers refused to accept advertising for the film. Kane opened at the RKO Palace on Broadway in New York on May 1, 1941, in Chicago on May 6, and in Los Angeles on May 8.:115 Kane did well in cities and larger towns but fared poorly in more remote areas. RKO still had problems getting exhibitors to show the film. For example, one chain controlling more than 500 theaters got Welles’s film as part of a package but refused to play it, reportedly out of fear of Hearst.:117 The Hearst newspapers’s disruption of the film’s release damaged its boxoffice performance and, as a result, Citizen Kane lost $160,000 during its initial run.
The reviews for the film were overwhelmingly positive, although some reviewers were challenged by Welles’s break with Hollywood traditions. Kate Cameron, in her review for the New York Daily-News, said that Kane was “one of the most interesting and technically superior films that has ever come out of a Hollywood studio”. In his review for the New World Telegram, William Boehnel said that the film was “staggering and belongs at once among the greatest screen achievements”. Otis Ferguson, in his review for The New Republic, said that Kane was “the boldest free-hand stroke in major screen production since Griffith and Bitzer were running wild to unshackle the camera”. John O’Hara, in Newsweek, called it “the best picture he’d ever seen”
Count on Mr. Welles: he doesn’t do things by halves. … Upon the screen he discovered an area large enough for his expansive whims to have free play. And the consequence is that he has made a picture of tremendous and overpowering scope, not in physical extent so much as in its rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts. Mr. Welles has put upon the screen a motion picture that really moves.
Critic James Agate was decidedly negative in an October 1941 review, countering the superlatives given Citizen Kane by critics C. A. Lejeune and Dilys Powell. “Now imagine my horror, which includes self-distrust, at seeing no more in this film than the well-intentioned, muddled, amateurish thing one expects from high-brows. (Mr. Orson Welles’s height of brow is enormous.) … I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull.”
Agate continued his review two weeks later:
Citizen Kane has entirely ousted the war as conversation fodder. Waiters ask me what I think of it, and the post is full of it. … You know now that all the vulgar beef, beer and tobacco barons are vulgar because when they were about seven years of age somebody came and took away their skates. That is one explanation of this alleged world-shaking masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Another point of view is that Citizen Kane is so great a masterpiece that it doesn’t need explaining. … In the meantime I continue to steer a middle course. I regard Citizen Kane as a quite good film which tries to run the psychological essay in harness with your detective thriller, and doesn’t quite succeed.
In a 1941 review, Jorge Luis Borges called Citizen Kane a “metaphysical detective story”, in that “… [its] subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined …” Borges noted that “Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and reconstruct him.” As well, “Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum.” Borges points out, “At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.”