Sunday, May 01, 2011


The Magician & The Media Baron

"One of the most interesting and technically superior films that has ever come out of a Hollywood studio."
Kate Cameron, New York Daily News (1941)

“Perhaps the one American talking picture that seems to be as fresh now as the day it opened.
It may seem even fresher.”

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (1971)

"Staggering and belongs at once among the greatest screen achievements."
William Boehnel, New World Telegram (1941)

"The boldest free-hand stroke in major screen production since Griffith and Bitzer were running wild
to unshackle the camera."

Otis Ferguson, The New Republic (1941)

“Probably the one film that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers.”
François Truffaut

By John Cochrane
What can you say about Citizen Kane (1941) that hasn’t already been said many times before? Orson Welles’ landmark first feature — which received its American premiere 70 years ago today — has routinely been called by general consensus "The Greatest Movie Ever Made" by countless filmmakers, critics and movie buffs — topping lists such as AFI’s Greatest Films Of The Century, Cahiers du Cinema’s 100 Greatest Films Ever Made and every Sight & Sound Critics and Directors poll since 1962. Despite almost universal acclaim, even from the beginning, the movie was blacklisted on its initial release — and almost literally destroyed by a nervous industry that resented its precocious and talented creator and didn’t want to offend the then-still powerful publisher on which it was largely based. The film miraculously survived though, and many critics say that if D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a watershed moment for the silent period, Citizen Kane was a brilliant summation of the sound era up to that point in time — forever changing how movies could be photographed and edited, and how stories could be told.

Citizen Kane is a fictional biography of an enigmatic newspaper tycoon named Charles Foster Kane — a character largely inspired by William Randolph Hearst, but also borrowing details from real life figures such as Samuel Insull, Harold Fowler McCormick, Howard Hughes and, some would argue, even Orson Welles himself. The film begins with Kane’s death as an old man, and is made up mostly of flashbacks — which are shown in a circular, rather than linear fashion. We watch an almost completed newsreel of his life — which deftly gives a quick summary of the story we’re about to see. We then listen to interviews or diary entries from five different people — Kane’s guardian, his business manager, his closest friend, his second wife and his butler — who all tell overlapping anecdotes and opinions of him, in an attempt to fill in the gaps of who Charles Foster Kane really was. Kane inherited an enormous mining fortune from his mother — who sent him away from home as a child to be raised and groomed to be one of the world’s richest and most influential men. He took over a foundering newspaper at 25; created a publishing empire based on sensational journalism; was derailed from becoming governor of New York due to an extramarital affair; failed to mold his mistress-turned-second wife into an opera star and died alone when she left him. Kane’s last word was “Rosebud” — which has become the most famous single word in the history of cinema — and the quest of News on The March reporter Mr. Thompson is to determine what Rosebud is. He never does, though the audience learns what it means in the closing shots of the film.

Citizen Kane is remembered as Orson Welles’ masterpiece, and no one is more responsible for its greatness than Welles himself — who was heavily involved at practically all levels of the production. But the picture also was a coming together of a group of gifted craftsmen and actors, all working together at the top of their game. The first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Citizen Kane, is Gregg Toland’s amazing cinematography. By 1940, Toland already was one of the industry’s top cameramen — having worked with Hollywood heavyweights John Ford and William Wyler. He lobbied hard to be on Welles’ first picture, and the two made a terrific team. Welles later recalled how he believed that a film director was responsible for lighting a set — as a theatrical director would be. For the first few days of shooting, Toland would quietly shadow Welles — fixing his ideas so that they would work and telling everyone else to keep their mouths shut. When a crew member informed an embarrassed Welles that setting the lights was the cinematographer’s job, Toland was frustrated that his cover had been blown. He explained to Orson, “The only way you learn anything new is from someone who doesn’t know what can’t be done.”

Welles and Toland shot the film in deep focus — an extremely difficult process even today — which keeps the entire visual picture in absolute clarity, just like the human eye. (Toland had previously experimented with the process while making Ford’s The Long Voyage Home in 1940.) Working with special effects by Vernon L. Walker and optical printer effects by Linwood Dunn, Welles and Toland created impressive sets and crowd scenes out of miniatures, dissolves and creative shadows and lighting — most noticeably in photographing Kane’s vast, almost gothic estate of Xanadu — his campaign for governor and Susan Alexander’s opera house performances. Sometimes Welles and Toland double exposed the film to create two simultaneous images in focus — as in when Kane discovers Susan after she’s tried to commit suicide by an overdose of pills. Sometimes they simply spliced two images together, or put the camera in an odd place to get an unusual shot, such as cutting a hole in the floor to get an incredibly low shot of Kane and Leland after Kane loses the election making the characters appear bigger than life. Before Citizen Kane, you rarely saw ceilings in films. Toland and Welles used low cloth ceilings throughout the picture (which looked real in black and white) and concealed microphones to record the sound. Soon afterward, many other American filmmakers began to use this technique as well.

In the News on the March sequence — which wickedly satirizes Time magazine’s then-popular The March of Time newsreels — Welles and Toland dragged the film stock on the floor to make it look old and worn and used more camera effects to seemingly place Kane in historical places with famous figures. Orson once said, “A long playing full shot is what always separates the men from the boys. Anybody can make a picture with a pair of scissors and a two inch lens.” In that respect, Citizen Kane also has a number of long scenes that are played with very few cuts. In the sequence in which Kane’s mother signs away guardianship of him to Mr. Thatcher, the camera starts at a window that looks out at Charles playing in the snow, and then backs up over seemingly invisible furniture that is quietly moved into place beneath the moving camera. As Mary Kane sits down at a table to sign the document, a still-wobbling hat inadvertently shows how the shot was achieved. The scene then continues in one take — until Mrs. Kane returns to the window to call for her son — and the camera follows the Kanes and Mr. Thatcher outside, in the second of three shots for the entire sequence. Welles praised his cinematographer, saying that he would constantly ask for miracles and Gregg would perform them without fanfare, like it was no big deal. Orson would show his gratitude by sharing his director’s title card with Toland — an almost unheard of gesture in motion pictures. (Ford did the same thing on The Long Voyage Home, the previous year.) “He was the greatest cameraman who ever lived,” Welles would say. “He deserved it, didn’t he?”

Another key collaborator on Kane was Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the script. A veteran screenwriter since the silent era, Mankiewicz worked — often uncredited — on dozens of Hollywood pictures such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and comedies by the Marx Brothers. He also was part of the social circle of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies until he was banned from their parties due to his heavy alcoholism and gambling. Mankiewicz was nursing a broken leg in the hospital in 1939 when he met Welles, who was a big fan of Mank’s talent and sharp, cynical humor. After many brainstorming sessions together, Citizen Kane — under the working title The American — was born.

The actual credit for the screenplay has been the subject of debate for decades, with some people such as Pauline Kael and John Houseman suggesting that Mankiewicz was Kane’s sole screenwriter, with Welles usurping a co-writing credit. But these suggestions largely have been discredited by other vocal critics such as Robert Carringer, Jonathan Rosenbaum and filmmaker/writer Peter Bogdanovich. Various Welles’ collaborators on the film also vouched for his screenplay input — including Welles’ own secretary Katherine Trosper, who typed his manuscripts and notes. Welles’ own plausible explanation to Bogdanovich was that he and Mankiewicz discussed the story and characters for a long time and then, in the interest of efficiency, separated to write their own versions. When it came time to make the picture, Orson simply took what he liked from both scripts and improvised and rewrote as needed during the filming process — methods he used on practically every film he ever made — causing Mankiewicz to complain vocally about his many changes.

“Rosebud” was Mankiewicz’s invention. Telling a story from different viewpoints — an idea that was explored more fully by Akira Kurosawa in his great film Rashomon (1950) — was largely Welles’ idea. The breakfast montage between Kane and his first wife showing the disintegration of their marriage also was Welles. Bernstein’s speech about noticing the girl on the ferry for a split second and never forgetting her, was all Mank. It was Welles’ favorite moment in the picture. Despite accusations that likely damaged Welles’ career and that some argue brought a case brought before the Screenwriters Guild, Orson loved Mankiewicz. When the screenplay matter was settled with credit bestowed on both of them, Welles gave Mank top billing and continued to praise him for years afterward, calling his contribution to Citizen Kane “enormous.”

A third essential contribution was from composer Bernard Herrmann, a veteran of Welles’ radio days who was working on his first picture. Herrmann would go on to become synonymous with Alfred Hitchcock, but his score for Citizen Kane is wonderful and varied — sometimes mysterious, grim, tragic and mournful, at others, joyous, energetic or even romantic. Herrmann even created the opera pieces that Susan Alexander sings in her theatrical debut. The music consistently punctuates Kane’s pictures and words perfectly, heightening the emotional impact of the story. Even though Citizen Kane is in many ways a dark film, Herrmann’s score seems to celebrate its artistic quality and achievement and, by the movie’s end, you feel exhilarated. In at least one instance, Welles said that 50 percent of the film’s success was due to Bernard Herrmann. Kane also was a showcase for editor and future Oscar-winning director Robert Wise, who worked closely with Welles on the film’s perfectly cut flash-forward sequences and beautiful dissolves.

The fact that Citizen Kane largely is thought of as a technical masterpiece probably unfairly overshadows the many wonderful performances in the film. Welles used many of his Mercury Theater players in the film, with the idea that he wanted to present fresh faces that never appeared in movies before. He had an ability to bring out the best in his actors — encouraging their creativity, and making them feel like they could accomplish anything. The cast is terrific and their wonderful moments include Joseph Cotten as Kane’s friend and drama critic Jedediah Leland — absent-mindedly tearing up his program to shreds as he watches Susan Alexander perform on stage; Ruth Warrick as Kane’s first wife Emily Norton, arguing with her husband over breakfast; Everett Sloane as Kane’s loyal business manager Mr. Bernstein talking about the girl on the ferry who made a lifelong impression; Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s mother, Mary, calling her son to meet his new guardian and revealing that he’s to leave home and George Coulouris as Kane’s guardian and banker Walter Parks Thatcher, arguing with Kane about using his newspapers to attack companies with which Kane personally has stock in.

Best of all are Dorothy Comingore as Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander, and Welles himself in the title role. Some people may argue that Charlie Kane isn’t a likable character, but Welles does make him sympathetic — particularly in his scenes with Comingore, which are among the most moving in the picture. Closeups reveal Kane’s insecurity and when he meets Susan Alexander for the first time, you can see how much he values being in the presence of someone who doesn’t realize his stature and likes him for who he is. A comment later in the same scene reveals a subtle feeling of wistfulness for his mother (who at this point in the story has died a long time ago). When Susan tries to kill herself with an overdose of pills, Kane looks genuinely fearful for her well-being and tries to cover up the embarrassment of her suicide attempt to the estate’s staff. When Susan finally leaves him, Charles Foster Kane looks sad and lonely. He is a defeated man, close to tears — walking through his castle in a daze, with a snow globe in his pocket — after tearing Susan’s room apart in a rage. As his wife, Dorothy Comingore gives Susan an often tacky and loud quality, but her quiet moments as an older alcoholic reflecting on her ex-husband are beautiful. Looking at him when she awakens in bed from her overdose, she appears like a frightened and vulnerable child. She is apologetic, but unable to endure the harsh notices from her singing career any longer. “The audience doesn’t want you,” she says. “That’s when you’ve got to fight them,” a visibly shaken Kane tells her. “You won’t have to fight them anymore. It’s their loss.”

Orson Welles was able to keep the subject matter of Citizen Kane secret for a long time, thanks to a closed set, very few rushes being seen and by carefully controlling the press. When word got out that Charles Foster Kane closely resembled William Randolph Hearst, Hollywood erupted in turmoil. It didn’t matter that there were many differences between Welles’ fictional character and the actual publisher. (McCormick built the opera house for his wife, not Hearst, for example.) But there were too many similarities, which deep down Welles and Mankiewicz wanted to exploit on some level to attract attention for their film. Hearst may have been 78 years old at the time, but he was still feisty and had a loyal staff that was ready to punish Welles, RKO and even the whole film industry in print for what they perceived to be a harsh portrayal of their employer and his mistress, Marion Davies, who was well-liked in Hollywood. Davies was in fact considered a talented comedienne — though Hearst inadvertently hampered her career by using his influence to miscast her as a starlet in romantic epics. Welles for the record personally liked and admired her, and he would later agree that Hearst had a right to be upset for how she was unfairly caricatured.

Led by Louis B. Mayer, the other Hollywood studios offered to reimburse RKO for all expenses if they burned the film’s negative and all prints. The film escaped that fate by the skin of its teeth but Hearst newspapers still managed to blacklist RKO's movies for two weeks. That ban was lifted, but any mention of Citizen Kane either in articles or advertising still was strictly forbidden. The film also was denied exhibition by most major movie chains — largely owned by the movie studios at that time — as a safety precaution to avoid repercussions from Hearst’s empire, which was more than ready to expose the private, dirty laundry of any Hollywood insider that it didn’t like. Despite rave reviews and good business in big cities — mostly from independent movie theaters that weren’t afraid to show the film — Citizen Kane died in the heartland of America and lost money on its initial run.

Going into the Academy Awards, Kane had nine nominations including best picture, best director, best actor, best black-and-white cinematography and best music score of a dramatic picture, but it only won one Oscar for best original screenplay, which most people acknowledged was really for well-liked Hollywood pro Mankiewicz and not Orson Welles. Nominated editor Robert Wise recalled that every time Citizen Kane was mentioned during the ceremony, the booing became louder. The big winner that year was How Green Was My Valley (1941), a beautiful elegiac story of a Welsh coal mining family by legendary director and industry favorite John Ford — whose classic western Stagecoach (1939) Welles had screened almost 40 times in preparation as a textbook for making his own film. Valley has an unfair reputation today as the film that beat Citizen Kane, but the movie is one of Ford’s masterworks — the finest movie to ever win best picture, according to Bogdanovich — though he was quick to add that Kane was the movie of the decade.

After its disappointing performance at the Oscars, RKO retired the film from distribution, keeping it out of circulation in America until 1956 — five years after Hearst’s death. During this time, the movie’s reputation as an unseen masterpiece began to take shape. Citizen Kane belatedly received its first release in Europe in 1946 after World War II, where it was immediately embraced by the French. The founding members of the New Wave would immediately hail Welles as one of the great American film auteurs, with Jean Luc Godard later exclaiming “Everyone will always owe him everything.”

So what did Orson Welles ever do after Citizen Kane? It was an unfair question that bothered Welles for the rest of his life. Orson was lured to Hollywood in 1939, as a 24-year-old prodigy who seemed to be able to do it all. He had created groundbreaking theatrical productions in New York — including radical re-workings of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (staged in Harlem with an all African-American cast) and Julius Caesar (updating the play with a modern Fascist Rome as its setting). He also had a vastly influential radio career with his company the Mercury Theater, whose countless programs culminated with the notorious broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds in 1938, sending much of the country into hysterics with the idea that aliens were landing in New Jersey. Desperate to bring potential hits and prominence to their movie studio, RKO offered Orson a two-picture deal — with complete creative control as writer, director, producer and star. It even included final cut — a deal that even today few Hollywood filmmakers receive and many would kill for. To give this to an untested, brash 24-year-old rubbed many studio system veterans the wrong way and the town quietly watched with anticipation, waiting for Welles to be taken down. When Kane didn’t live up to box office expectations and only won one Oscar, many in the industry felt a sense of smug satisfaction.

Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests the theory that depending on whether you view Kane as a supreme example of the studio system or as an independent feature made in Hollywood, Orson Welles is either a failed artistic genius who burned bridges, couldn’t complete films and never lived up to his potential or he is a brilliant independent filmmaker who made the most of his opportunity to make one film in Hollywood with a good budget, top talent and complete creative freedom. Welles’ history and legacy is complicated, and there are a lot of conflicting facts and opinions, but Orson Welles was a lot more than just a one trick pony and his standing as a one of the cinema’s greatest directors has only grown since his death in 1985. It’s true that he never had final cut on any of the subsequent motion pictures he would make in Hollywood. His independent features from the '50s through the '70s also would be delayed and hampered by legal issues and a lack of funds which Welles would often raise himself through his many acting jobs, the most famous of these being Orson’s appearance as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s immortal film noir The Third Man (1949) — arguably the greatest extended movie cameo in history.

Welles was a true renaissance man whose talents also included being an accomplished magician and painter. He was a maverick who never would have really thrived in the strict and careful confines of the Hollywood studio system. He also was a contradiction, exuding bigger than life confidence, but also deeply hurt by much of the criticism leveled at him over the years. He strongly disliked talking about his movies as art, but took his work very seriously and would freely admit that he was not a popular artist. Despite a number of setbacks and unfinished projects, Orson Welles would go on to complete 12 more films in his career, including at least three more masterpieces — The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958) and Chimes at Midnight (1965).

The Magnificent Ambersons — a darkly beautiful and disturbing film that depicts the decline of a prominent family, as America ends one era and enters into the age of the automobile — may have even been a better film than Citizen Kane, according to Orson himself and others who saw the original version. But the film was butchered and re-edited by the studio after a disastrous preview during Welles' absence on another project in Brazil, something that Kane never had to endure. Roughly an hour of Ambersons was removed, a happier ending shot by others was tacked on and the discarded footage destroyed. Welles’ cut (with its devastating finale) remains the Holy Grail of lost cinema. Chimes at Midnight (also known as Falstaff) draws from parts of five Shakespeare plays to create a new work about one of the Bard’s most beloved characters. Chimes has been widely unavailable in the United States for decades, but it was Welles’ personal choice for his best film — an opinion that a number of Welles historians and critics might agree with. Two Welles films — Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai (1948) — also are considered classic films noir, a genre almost unthinkable without the visual influence of Citizen Kane. Welles never stopped being an artist and he never repeated himself. His flair for striking visuals and inventive editing always were a constant in his work. If you love the art of cinema, anything he directed is worth seeing.

As the life of William Randolph Hearst faded into history, he became largely remembered through the character and movie that he and his company tried to suppress. Welles himself resented being largely remembered only for Citizen Kane, but the picture’s quality and history captured the public imagination. The legend of a brilliant 25-year-old shaking up Hollywood and redefining the art of filmmaking to everyone’s astonishment was too much to resist. Pauline Kael called the film a shallow masterpiece, but that’s not really true. Everyone remembers Rosebud. (If you don’t know what it is, you deserve to find out for yourself.) What the picture really seems to say is that it is impossible to completely know someone. People are too complicated and mysterious and you can never truly know the secrets of their heart. Sometimes you might not even truly know the secrets of your own heart. We are many people in different situations — as the mirror sequence showing multiple Charles Foster Kanes walking down the hallway so beautifully exemplifies. As filmmaker Ernest R. Dickerson said in Sight & Sound magazine, “One word can't explain a man's life. But the final two words in this film can: "No Trespassing." It’s that mystery, along with the enigmatic genius of Orson Welles that makes Citizen Kane not only a great cinematic work of art, but a terrific entertainment that deserves to be seen and enjoyed.

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That's inspiring!
Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed the visit. :)
One thing I disagree on is Comingore. Some of her line readings grate on me. Also, as great a movie as Kane is especially on technical levels, one technical aspect where I think it could have used improvement is makeup, but then Hollywood even today seems to have a lot of trouble doing convincing old-age makeup. Welles' old age makeup isn't too bad, but Cotten's is pretty terrible. Then again, even the greatest of the greats have flaws.
True, but I think Comingore is supposed to be annoying a lot of the time. It's not a flattering portrait. I like the makeup myself - even Cotton's, which Peter Bogdanovich thought accurately looked like him when he got older.
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