Classic Movies: Citizen Kane


EVERY now and again in art, a work comes along which seems to make the whole medium worthwhile.

The Taj Mahal and the Empire State Building in architecture; the Mona Lisa and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in fine art and fresco; the Statue of David in sculpture, and perhaps the landscapes of Ansel Adams in photography; the 1812 Overture in music and Hamlet in literature.

Many film critics regard Citizen Kane to be the finest example of the medium of film. For many it is too dark and brooding, and too much an ego-centric vehicle of Orson Welles.

But many film critics for years have habitually listed Orson Welles’s 1941 black and white classic in their top ten – if not at No.1.  The Battleship Potemkin and Buster Keaton’s The General, and also Casablanca habitually appear in such.

Like many of the above, Citizen Kane works well on many levels; its depth and multi-facetedness is its key appeal.

Both in terms of screenplay, technique, acting and principally cinematography, it’s hard to fault.

Kane is the Gatsby-type character who, born into poverty, inherits a fortune on maturity thanks to his mother unwittingly being handed the deeds to a wealthy mining lode in default of payment.

Buying a daily newspaper, the already spectacularly wealthy Kane slowly drives the competition out of business and sets up a media empire large enough to make the likes of the Murdochs blush.

Reputedly based on the life of media baron William Randolph Hearst – complete with Xanadu like mansion – the film, if nothing else, underscores the power of the media and its ability to influence all quarters of life.

Hearst entered the publishing business in 1887 after taking control of The San Francisco Examiner from his father.

Moving to New York City, he acquired The New York Journal and engaged in a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World that led to the creation of ‘yellow’ journalism—sensationalized stories of dubious truth.

Acquiring more newspapers, Hearst created a chain that numbered nearly 30 papers in major American cities at its peak. He later expanded to magazines, creating the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world.

He was twice elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, and ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York City in 1905 and 1909, for Governor of New York in 1906, and for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1910.

Nonetheless, through his newspapers and magazines, he exercised enormous political influence, and was famously blamed for pushing public opinion with his yellow journalism type of reporting leading the United States into a war with Spain in 1898.

In 1947, Hearst left his San Simeon estate to seek medical care, which was unavailable in the remote location. He died in Beverly Hills on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88. He was interred in the Hearst family mausoleum at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

Like their father, none of Hearst's five sons succeeded in graduating from college, but they all followed their father into the media business, and Hearst's namesake, William Randolph, Jr., became a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter.

Welles’s Charles Foster Kane’s character mirror’s such  - ageing throughout the film  - and along the way amassing a fortune akin to that of Croesus.

But he loses every woman he ever loves – and on his death, reporters are intrigued by the meaning of his last enigmatic words in the film: ‘Rosebud’.

Viewers are left to themselves to try to puzzle this simplest of mysteries. Fans of the Disney film ‘Ratatouille’ might recognise a slight homage when the food critic Anton Ego is transported back to a memory of his youth.

Perhaps fittingly, the story of Citizen Kane is told in retrospect; following the reporter on his trail of the meaning of Kane’s last words, and via newsreels.

The whole story of Kane’s life is actually told in the first ten minutes of the film via cinema reels – a bit like Hamlet’s play within the play – but it is the slow roll out of the fascinating life of Kane which captures the imagination.

If nothing else, it also serves as an adroit reflection on the American Dream, and the capitalist system. But is it also important as, by putting capitalist excess in the spotlight, it causes audiences to question the alternatives.

Released in 1941, at the height of the Nazi threat, the scenes in which Kane runs for governor, as sole orator before a political rally, with stylistic, austere lighting, the scene must have struck a chord with 1941 viewers, reminding them of the rallies across the Atlantic. Pearl Harbour would be bombed by the Japanese later in the year of release.

Kane is no Hitler – he actually is depicted as meeting Hitler in the film, having once honoured him but then repudiated him (let us not forget that Hitler was Time magazine Man of the Year in 1938).

Just as America became paranoid in the 50s about homeland Communist infiltration, Americans in 1941 must have wondered what life might be like under a totalitarian regime had Hitler or the Japanese won.

Welles had already ‘scared’ America with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and it was reputedly on the back of such that RKO backed the film using players from the Mercury Theatre project.

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 theatres got Welles's film as part of a package but refused to play it, reportedly out of fear of Hearst.

Hearing about the film reportedly 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 succeeded in having many movie theatres 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 initial failure squarely at the feet of Hearst.

The film however 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.

It has been reported that that Hearst newspapers's disruption of the film's release damaged its box office performance and, as a result, Citizen Kane lost $160,000 during its initial run.

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.

Behind all the intrigue, perhaps the cinematography remains the main draw of the film. There are few films in which almost every frame is lovingly set up and shot in such a stylistic way. Lighting, camera angles and the drama of light and shade play strikingly important roles in the film, as well as the lavish studio sets.  There’s clearly a great creative imagination behind the whole work and visual look.

It was nominated for Oscars in nine categories including Cinematography and Art Direction, as well as Best Film, Actor, and Screenplay, but would only win one award in the latter category.

It was not until 1946 that it was shown in France, where it gained considerable acclaim, particularly from film critics such as André Bazin and from Cahiers du cinéma writers, including future film directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

In his 1950 essay "The Evolution of Cinema", Bazin placed Citizen Kane centre stage as a work which ushered in a new period in cinema.

In the United States, it was neglected and forgotten until its revival on television in the mid-1950s. Three key events in 1956 led to its re-evaluation in the United States: first, RKO was one of the first studios to sell its library to television, and early that year Citizen Kane started to appear on television; second, the film was re-released theatrically to coincide with Welles's return to the New York stage, where he played King Lear; and third, American film critic Andrew Sarris wrote "Citizen Kane: The American Baroque" for Film Culture, and described it as ‘the great American film’.

During Expo 58, a poll of over 100 film historians named Kane one of the top ten greatest films ever made (the group gave first-place honours to The Battleship Potemkin).

In the decades since, its critical status as one of the greatest films ever made.

The late, renowned critic Roger Ebert called Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made: "But people don't always ask about the greatest film. They ask, 'What's your favourite movie?' Again, I always answer with Citizen Kane."