#500) Citizen Kane (1941) – Part 1

Welcome to movie #500! I’m happy to have made it this far, and there’s no better movie to cover for this milestone than the quote-unquote “greatest movie of all time”. Buckle up, because this is another Horse’s Head three-parter.

#500) Citizen Kane (1941)

OR “Hearst Hassle”

Directed by Orson Welles

Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz 

Class of 1989

Even the trailer for this movie is groundbreaking. Filmed by Orson Welles during production, it’s a four minute teaser for “Kane” that doesn’t show a single frame of the final film.

The Plot: Newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) dies in his palatial manor Xanadu, and his final word is the cryptic “Rosebud”. Upon learning his dying word, a team of reporters attempt to figure out who or what is Rosebud. Among their interviewees are Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s legal guardian in accordance with his parent’s trust fund, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), Kane’s best friend who helped him launch his newspaper empire, and Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s mistress and second wife. Each offers their own often-contradictory perspective of Kane, furthering the mystery of the man. But the biggest mystery surrounding “Kane” isn’t the identity of Rosebud, it’s whether or not real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst will notice some pretty obvious allusions to his own career.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown of plot and production, with the only superlatives going to Gregg Toland’s “stunning black and white cinematography” and the film’s overall status as the “greatest film of all time”. An essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire tries to downplay the hype (calling it “the greatest critic’s film”) and focus instead on its actual accomplishments.

But Does It Really?: While I cannot conclusively deem “Kane” the greatest movie ever made, it is definitely a strong contender for the title. One of my notes simply read “just so fucking engaging”, and if nothing else, “Kane” is an engaging film from start to finish. In his first movie, Orson Welles assembles an awesome array of talent, and uses his natural theatrical flair to create something truly unique. With his outsider status, Welles is able to take apart the standard Hollywood studio film and put it back together in a way that profoundly changed movie making, taking on such subjects as power and corruption in a new, complex way. Many will argue that “Kane” is boring or overrated, and I will agree that there is some homework that needs to be done to fully appreciate this movie, but at the end of the day, “Citizen Kane” is a remarkable accomplishment in film, and one that will stand among the untouchables for generations to come.

Shout Outs: The opening “News on the March” sequence is a full-on parody of the “March of Time” newsreel, for which many of Welles’ Mercury Radio/Theater crew had previously worked as announcers. According to Welles, “March of Time” producer Henry Luce was one of the first people to see “Kane”, and greatly enjoyed the parody. Bonus Shout Out: Among the films Welles viewed to prepare for “Kane” was John Ford’s “Stagecoach” which he screened 40 times during production.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the cast were members of Welles’ Mercury repertory company, and would return for his next film “The Magnificent Ambersons”. The main exceptions were the actors playing Kane’s wives. Ruth Warrick was a radio singer who (along with most of the cast) made her film debut in “Kane”. Dorothy Comingore was recommended to Welles by Charlie Chaplin, and while she was poised to be the next big movie star, she was eventually blacklisted when she refused to testify in front of HUAC. 

Wow, That’s Dated: The main ones for “Citizen Kane” are newspapers as a major influence, and the idea that a single scandal could end a political career. Plus I’ll pour one out for the late great RKO.

Title Track: Herman Mankiewicz’s first draft was originally titled “American”, but RKO studio chief George Schaefer expressed concern it was too close to Hearst’s newspapers “American Weekly” and the “New York Journal American”. Schaefer suggested “Citizen Kane”, which became the official title in June 1940, mere weeks before filming began.

Seriously, Oscars?: At the 1942 Oscars, “Kane” received a respectable nine nominations, but lost in most categories (including Best Picture and Director) to John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”. Welles and Mankiewicz did, however, take home the prize for Original Screenplay. According to “Kane” editor/nominee Robert Wise, several attendees would boo whenever “Kane” was mentioned during the ceremony.

Production Notes 

  • Because we all need to feel bad about our own accomplishments: Orson Welles was 25 when he made “Citizen Kane”! Welles initially had no interest in the movies, opting to stay in New York directing theater and scaring the crap out of radio audiences. Welles ultimately signed a two-picture deal with RKO once they offered him complete creative control of his films, including final cut. An offer like this was unheard of in Hollywood, which led to some animosity towards Welles within the industry.
  • Welles’ original plan for his first film was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, but it was scrapped because its budget would have exceeded his allotted $500,000 (for the record, the final cost for “Kane” was $839,000). After weeks of brainstorming with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, the two agreed on an original screenplay centered around a powerful public figure, told from multiple perspectives. The idea of the protagonist being the president or a political figure was considered before zeroing in on a newspaper magnate.
  • Major Production Note #1: While Charles Foster Kane is not a beat-for-beat stand-in for William Randolph Hearst, there are a number of parallels to declare Hearst the main inspiration. Both men used yellow journalism and sensationalism to influence public opinion, both unsuccessfully ran for US Governor, and both lost a large chunk of their fortunes in the Depression, to name just a few similarities. Other major figures of the day that influenced “Kane” include Joseph Pulitzer (another sensationalist newspaper magnate), Samuel Insull (Chicago businessman, and the inspiration for older Kane’s makeup), and Harold Fowler McCormick (who used his clout to promote his second wife’s opera career, despite her less-than-stellar voice). Still, enough of Kane’s story comes from Hearst, to the point that Hearst famously banned his papers from promoting the film, and tried in vain to prevent “Kane” from seeing the light of day.
  • Major Production Note #2: Stories debating the screenplay’s authorship are not necessarily untrue, but it does depend a lot on perspective. The truth (as best I can tell) is that while Welles and Manckiewicz created the general idea together, Mankiewicz wrote the first few drafts of “Kane”, establishing the characters and overall structure. Welles then took those drafts (which ran over 300 pages!) and did extensive editing and re-writing. Mankiewicz’s contract stipulated that he was a “script doctor” and would go uncredited, but after going to the Writers Guild, Mankiewicz received a co-credit with Welles, who made sure Mankiewicz got top billing. The dispute over who wrote what came to a head in Pauline Kael’s 1971 essay “Raising Kane”, which claimed that Mankiewicz was the sole author and that Welles “never wrote a word”. Many critics and collaborators came to Welles’ defense, and the essay was eventually discredited, but the damage had been done, and the debate still lingers.
  • To ensure that his film came in on time, and to prevent RKO executives from bothering him during production, Welles conducted several “camera tests” through June and July of 1940. These “tests” were actually the first month of principal photography, so that by the time RKO figured out what was going on, there was too much footage in the can to scrap the movie.

For my thoughts on the film itself, keep reading for Part Two!

30 thoughts on “#500) Citizen Kane (1941) – Part 1”

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