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Well, I always gagged on that silver spoon.


Citizen Kane


No, I don’t think Citizen Kane’s the greatest film ever made, any more than I do The Godfather. I can entirely appreciate why it has been regarded as a peak achievement in cinema for more than eighty years, though. In numerous ways, it remains a quite extraordinary work, an almost wholly successful dive into experimentation with the artform by a young debutant, with results he’d never be able to equal. Which was, alas for him, most likely the hubristic consequence of believing he could get away with the subject matter.

The real stunner with Citizen Kane is that, on pretty much every level, it’s an innovative effort, and on pretty much every level, it succeeds in what it’s attempting. The unreliable narrator story – we’re piecing together a picture of Kane, so we can never really say we know him, or have been accurately informed about him – is fundamental to the structure, various disparate reminiscences (and, at the outset, media-nourished ones) feeding into the whole. There are only two “objective” instances in the film, the death of Kane and his “Rosebud” utterance, and the final reveal of its meaning, the precious sled thrown on the fire that represented the divergence of his timeline from a naturally nourished child to an artificially infused member of the elite.

There’s the filmmaking technique – Welles was unstinting in his praise for cinematographer Gregg Tolland (he’d won an Oscar for Wuthering Heights), who took the project on for the opportunity to work with someone inexperienced but creative; he was proved right on the money. There’s often extraordinary visual acumen here, not just in the deep focus and use of angle, but special effects, makeup and score. Welles called his work on it “Ignorance, ignorance, sheer ignorance—you know there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid or careful“. Some have suggested Citizen Kane had nothing actually new in it, in terms of technique and tone – the opening undeniably owes a debt to the previous year’s Rebecca, with its neo-gothic foreboding – but the vitality and martialling of elements and talents is everything; anything else is just petty sleights at the achievement. 

The actors, the troupe deriving from Welles’ Mercury Theatre, are also outstanding. It’s still scarcely conceivable that Welles was 25-26, not just in his command of the production, but also his performance of a protagonist/antagonist across the span of decades. He’s undoubtedly assisted immeasurably by appliances, but he’s at all times entirely convincing and compelling in each stage of rise and fall. Others deserve due credit – Joseph Cotton, in the straight audience-identification role, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick (all reserve and decorum of chosen families, knowing how best to go about things in the face of imminent scandal) and perhaps most of all Dorothy Comingore, whose reluctant descent from happy-go-lucky into puppeteered would-be-star by Kane is both pathetic and tragic. 

As a piece of storytelling, there’s something endlessly fascinating about the reveal and obfuscation of its subject. Citizen Kane’s the product of an industry of make-believe, fashioned by someone new to the medium, that interrogates a medium of manipulation and fabrication of facts. It works its way back from fatuous newsreel puffery of the man’s death to a nominal investigation of why his last word was “Rosebud”, so as a piece, it’s telling us it isn’t going to give us something definitive about its subject. The only definitive is that its subject was as unreliable with the truth as the film itself, someone who dictates headlines and public opinion through appealing to tabloid scandal and gossip, yet is hoisted by his own petard when he seeks to avoid such attention shone on his own personal life (and in applying the same tools to it – turning his second wife into an opera star – invites abject derision). 

 There’s a readily discernible alchemical quality to the picture, above and beyond the starch of a thousand treatises that would necessarily bring it down to the level of dusty veneration, and sixty years atop critics’ lists (it seems it was only with its “rediscovery” by Bazin in the late ’50s and beyond that Kane actually began to exude the status it now holds). There have been countless accounts of its making (most recently David Fincher’s Mank) and projects influenced by it, not least Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker (Darren Aronofsky was looking to adapt it at one point) and Nic Roeg’s Eureka. Its authorial authenticity has also been exhumed and raked through ad nauseum, as alluded, most damagingly (to Welles’ legacy) by Pauline Kael.

I make no great attestations of excellence towards Welles’ oeuvre as a whole, other than his being a mighty and charismatic presence and a consummate raconteur, but you have to sit up and pay attention when someone can martial their troops this effectively (if you wish to reduce it to such rudiments). Kael, it should be stressed, wasn’t denying the titan’s talents, but the takeaway was by necessity diminishing him, since the authorship of the text is all anyone takes away from it. It’s generally agreed that Mank had the “prismatic” biopic idea (several POVs) and suggested Hearst (a newspaper magnate with a starlet mistress and an unfinished castle). 

Anthony Holden (in The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards) regurgitated the Kael doctrine on Welles not deserving his screenplay credit (and thus Oscar win) but also recognised Frank Brady’s defence. Kael argued “people he robbed of credit went on working with him for years”, and we’ve certainly seen the auteur greedy for any and every credit going elsewhere, of course (Kubrick and the 2001: A Space Odyssey effects). It’s simply that this one has many more acres of ink spilled over it. Robert L Carringer’s 1978 shooting scripts analysis surmised the “full evidence reveals that Welles’s contribution to the Citizen Kane script was not only substantial but definitive“. But the debate rages on. My feeling? If Fincher decides to weigh in saying it was all Mank (per dad’s screenplay), then Welles probably had a good 50-50 say in it at least.

The major major (to put it in terms of a movie Welles starred in much later) legacy of the picture, besides the film itself, is the effect on Welles’ career. Which nose-dived. Citizen Kane didn’t bomb, but it didn’t do the business it should have done. His next picture was pulled from beneath him, since he didn’t have final cut on The Magnificent Ambersons, and he was subsequently somewhat adrift from Hollywood, no one willing, for various reasons, to take a regular punt on his projects. With Kane, the entry points were the deal he made in Hollywood terms and the effect his subject matter had on the great and powerful, with resulting pushback. 

It’s been noted that, in order to lure Welles, RKO president George Schaeffer offered the theatre maestro an unheard-of deal – including hands-off and final cut; this was one resented within the industry and by RKO’s own board (who would delay its release). That in itself would have been enough to set a town of notorious pettiness and vindictiveness against the novice filmmaker, regardless of destined success, but there was the added issue of making a movie about, irrespective of denials and attempts to say it was non-specific, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst was nearing the end of his eighth decade when Welles made the film (he died in 1951 aged 88), and many of Kane’s hallmarks resemble those of his real-life model: the bent for “Yellow journalism” (salacious gossip mongering) upon taking up an interest in a small offshoot of the fortune no one much cared for (as Kane does with Inquirer). Both variously supported left and right political factions (in the opening newsreel, Kane is pointedly accused of being both communist and fascist, a neat summary of the media’s role in promulgating the Hegelian dialectic. Hearst first supported Russian Revolution, then turned against it). 

Both nearly went broke in the Great Depression (and kept a grip on their interest in newspapers and magazines). Both went after talented writers from other publications to build their media empires. Both lost money in the first few years on Journal/Inquirer. Both met Hitler. Both had a castle/Xanadu that was never completed. Both conducted an affair with a much younger woman; in Hearst’s case, however, he knew his thing with Marion Davies would spell an end to political aspirations – he had already reached House of Representatives (Democrat) twice, run for President, New York Mayor and Governor – so the scandal that undoes Kane was unnecessary. Welles had it that “Many people sat for it, so to speak” (Samuel Insull re the Chicago Opera House and Harold McCormick’s second wife’s opera career among them) and expressed regret for the knock on of comparisons between Davies (a successful actress) and Susan (a dreadful opera singer Kane attempts to fashion for greatness), in terms of the former’s career.

Nevertheless, there was surely damage limitation going on with some of Welles’ public statements, such that he would reveal an apocryphal tale to Peter Bogdanovich he didn’t include in the movie because it would have endangered him, so he said. This was the affair documented in The Cat’s Meow, that Davies had an affair with Charlie Chaplin, and Hearst tried to shoot him, hitting Thomas H Ince (who died from his injury). Further still, the key component that is Rosebud was claimed – by Gore Vidal – to have been Hearst’s name for Davies’ clitoris. 

Given what we know – or assume to know about – Elite wheels, why was Welles even allowed to get as far as he did? Why did Schaeffer support him against pressure? It’s possible that, by this point, whatever expiring influence Hearst still wielded, he was no longer seen as either relevant or entirely reliable. In 1937, his woes – bankruptcy, pretty much – reduced him to the status of employee, yet he still had “massive influence and resources” in 1941 when it came to attempting to suppress Kane. He was friends with Joseph P Kennedy, who offered to buy the magazines (John D Rockefeller bought some of his silver). 

In RKO terms, Joseph P was instrumental in its creation, and the Rockefellers were already major stockholders by the mid-30s, becoming increasingly involved in its running. Nelson Rockefeller replaced Leo Spitz with George J Schaefer, who went for prestige projects; when this led to losses, the Rockefellers lost interest, selling off their stock after profits rose following Floyd Odium taking a majority holding and turning the company around in 1942. So at this point, the Rockefellers, via board member Nelson, were on board with Welles’ production. 

Given the repercussions, it’s always possible Kane’s “the one that got away”, but possibly, if certain interests and certain times did not align, it may have been expedient to let Hearst suck it (Hearst’s father was a senator, his family money coming from mining, albeit not as randomly as Kane’s). In 1903, he married a chorus girl (whose mother ran a brothel near the headquarters of NYC political power; does that not sound like the sort of thing reeking of Elite compromise, blackmail and dodgy dealings from the get-go?) Curiously, the original script had Kane’s son joining a radical group attempting to overthrow government. Patty Hearst was, of course, William Randolph’s granddaughter.

On the antagonistic scale, Welles supported Roosevelt – McCormick and Hearst didn’t rate his desire to attempt to control print and radio. So again, while there’s something to be said for controlled opposition – indeed, it’s essential – it could be that Hearst simply wasn’t sufficiently in step. Either way, he began rumbling against RKO when he found out. Louella Parsons threatened a lawsuit. Hearst made threats to expose the private lives of Hollywood and banned his group from reviewing or mentioning the film. Louis B Mayer intermediated a cash offer, refused by Schaefer, to destroy the negative and all prints. Ultimately, though, Hearst had worked his effect, with few chains wanting to show the picture.

One can’t help wonder if there’s an accelerated reflection of Welles himself in Hearst/Kane, bypassing all that success and cutting straight to the failure. Let’s not kid ourselves with regard to Welles’ connections. Hearst and his father were acquaintances; like Kane, Welles had a guardian appointed (although, this was when his father died and he was 15). Welles Sr had invented a popular bicycle lamp, Orson was at school with the Aga Khan and earned (but didn’t take) a Harvard scholarship. 

You could distil an argument that Welles was chaperoned by the elites but bit the hand that fed him, groomed for success in much the way that Kane is, yet refusing to take the path most travelled, and falling foul when, Icarus like, he flew too high. His fate being of those allowed a seat at the table only for a time. There are some curious points in the Kane story, such as the way his mother effectively sells him off for a better life (to be trained for success), and the whole film – irrespective of Davies’ clitoris – is a reflection on what transpires when a boy is traumatised into a life that isn’t off his choosing or natural progression. We see this repeated later, in the controlled, conditioned product that is Kane attempting to do likewise with another (Susan) against her protests, but with disastrous results (despite the butterfly, monarch hair broach, her programming doesn’t take). 

Whatever the truth of the situation – we mustn’t forget that Hollywood royalty and reputedly depraved sicko John Huston was famous friends with Welles, and can be seen in the latter’s finally completed, much-less-than-masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind – Welles’ Hollywood goose was pretty much cooked. Come awards season, the picture had swept New York Critics and garnered nine Oscar nominations. But per Kael via Holden, the Academy “failed in what they believed in; they gave in to the scandal and the business pressures… by their failure to support Citizen Kane at this crucial time – the last chance to make Kane a financial success – they had started the downward spiral of Orson Welles, who was to become perhaps the greatest loser in Hollywood history”.

Kael doesn’t say that they were surely, given Hearst’s activities, also reluctant to shine a celebratory spotlight on a movie whose very existence made them uncomfortable, since it might, through prolonged exposure, shine a less auspicious spotlight on their indiscretions. She emphasised its “aroma of box-office failure”, but the “hisses or loud boos” when Welles’ name was read intimate much more underlying unease in the opprobrium with which “the film community had closed ranks against Welles”. Still, he would remain the only nominee for Best actor, Director and Screenplay until Woody Allen and Annie Hall, and he did get himself an Oscar, disputed or otherwise.

Of the film itself, Kael attested “it may be more fun than any other great movie”, and more still, it was “an exuberant, muckraking attack on an archetypal economic baron”. Time Out’s Tom Milne called it “absolutely riveting as an investigation of a citizen… under suspicion of having soured the American Dream” and “A film that gets better with each renewed acquaintance”. I don’t necessarily agree it gets better, but it undoubtedly reveals new facets. Whether the same can be said for Vertigo and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, I guess that’s one to ask Sight and Sound, now Kane has fallen to their No. 3. There’s a point with this kind of moviemaking where it’s understandable that the maker is bolstered with not just the tones of the mythic, but also those of the magician working a spell. Alas, in Welles’ case, it’s a spell that rather backfired.

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