Citizen Kane


This movie, more than any other, is listed as the greatest movie of all time by those who are directors and movie critics.  It is a wonderful film and it was groundbreaking in many ways.  Those filmmakers who came after Orson Welles made Citizen Kane owe him many thanks.  The lighting, the angles, the depth of scenes, the brilliant and clever scenes where years are presented in a moment---yes, it is a wonderful film.  However, the lessons from the film go way beyond the movie itself.  The film is co-written (along with Mankewitz), directed, produced, and stars Orson Welles. 


Citizen Kane starts and ends with basically the same shot of a gate with a "No Trespassing" sign on it and a view of a hilltop palace far beyond.  As we will learn as the movie unfolds is that the movie is all about trying to understand a person, the person being Kane, the powerful newspaper mogul and owner of the hilltop palace.  Ultimately we are trespassing when we try to explore what makes a person tick because our inner secrets are really no one else's business.  Orson Welles knew he was trespassing and delving into secrets where he had no business going, but he went there anyway.  This turns out to be both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this powerful and influential movie.


As Kane dies he utters the word: "Rosebud."  This is the first words of the film and to this day remains one of the most famous lines of any movie.  After Kane utters this word and dies, we are then given a newsreel summary of his life, and the picture we get of Kane is anything but flattering.  Kane was a very powerful but not a very nice person according to the newsreel.  Then we discover that we are watching a newsreel of Kane that has not yet been released to the public and that the producer wants something more and decides to assign a reporter to try to find out what the word "Rosebud" meant.


During the rest of the film we are following the reporter around as he interviews the key people in Kane's life.  During these interviews we usually go from the interview to flashbacks on Kane's life as viewed by this person.  The ex-wife, Kane's second one, is visited.  Walter Thatcher the banker that handled Kane's estate is dead but we are able to learn how he saw things from reading his autobiography.  We see how Kane inherited a vast mining fortune and was taken from his parents when just a child to be raised in the big city.  We find out that at age 25 Kane takes control of his fortune, the world's sixth largest private fortune, and starts running a newspaper that just happens to be part of the holdings acquired by his estate over the years.  The reporter also visits Jed Leland (played by  Joseph Cotten) who is Kane's closest friend, perhaps his only friend, in his life.  We see Kane also through the eyes of Bernstein his business manager who worked closely with him for many years. 


This is a wonderful way for the audience to begin to understand who Kane was, Charles Foster Kane.  The picture of him develops greater depth by seeing him from different angles, but at the same time you begin to realize that you really can't understand a person this way.  Is there any way that you can really understand another person?  Some will find the answer in the final scene when we finally learn that "Rosebud" is the name of the sled Kane was playing with in the snow as a child when he was taken away from his parents.  Therefore, one explanation of who Kane is, is a Freudian explanation.  Kane's psychological development was distorted by this profound loss as a child.  He was always fixated on the loss throughout his life.  This is why he built his palace and collected things throughout his life.  He was trying to compensate for the lost love of his parents through material acquisitions.  (In order for you to better understand how humans really do compensate in this way for the love they never had you should read Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving.)  Despite the tendency for the audience to reach this conclusion, Welles doesn't feel that there is such a simplistic solution to the question of who Kane was---just the opposite.  Welles is trying to tell you that humans are too complex to ever really and deeply understand.  We are giant jigsaw puzzles like the ones that Kane's wife is constantly putting together.  But, and here is the real key, no one has all of the pieces to the puzzle, not even the person themselves.  Charles Foster Kane cannot be understood by understanding the word Rosebud, or by interviewing every person in his life, or even interviewing him if he were still alive.  Life is too wondrously complex.  However, we can develop an overall picture of that person that helps us to better understand them, and that should satisfy us, as it is the best we can do.


Welles uses a lot of wonderful techniques to help us develop our understanding of Kane.  One of the cleverest ones is the breakfast sequence where Kane is having breakfast with his first wife.  The scene is repeated over and over.  Each take they get older.  At first he is very attentive and loving toward his new wife.  Then we see them grow increasingly distant toward one another, as Kane becomes less interested in her and increasingly involved in his newspaper.  The final version of the breakfast scene shows them not talking to one another at all and reading newspapers---Kane is reading the newspaper that he publishes and his wife is reading the rival newspaper.  What a wonderful way of communicating a tremendous amount about his principal character in just a few brief moments.  That is what great movie making is all about.  It is more than words; it is a visual art form.  Yes, words are usually necessary; however, it is far more important how you use silence, how you juxtapose and cut from one scene to the next---and Wells taught us all how he was a master at using film.


At the start of the movie it really comes alive when the Kane character as a young adult and played by Orson Wells is presented to us.  The lines are snappier and Orson Wells was a great actor who could easily dominate a scene.  At this point he is alive and vibrant, Kane is called Charlie by his associates and is having a ball with running a newspaper.  But, we then watch as he deteriorates and destroys himself by becoming a vicious tyrant.  In the end he is all alone in his castle, his second wife has left him, he is a pathetic old man.


The lesson is clear.  Don't give up on your principles and values.  At the start of the movie Charlie Kane is a creative, fun loving person in love with life and the newspaper business.  He has dedicated himself and his millions and his newspaper to helping those less fortunate in life.  Along the road he gives up on all of this and in essence he has given up on himself.  He has at the end become Charles Foster Kane the recluse who is exactly the type of tyrant that the younger Charlie Kane fought against.


The Bigger Story


Although Citizen Kane is an important movie, the really bigger story is about the making of this movie.  First, as story telling goes, it is a despicable product!  Welles was vicious and nasty and a liar in how he created this movie.  Over 40 years after making the movie he was able to admit that it was a "dirty trick" how he portrayed Kane's second wife in the movie.  You see, everyone knew that this was only a slightly veiled attack upon William Randolph Hearst and his mistress the actress Marion Davies.  Welles had nothing against Davies.  He was not attacking her because she wasn't married to Hearst, quite the opposite because Welles in his own personal life was involved with numerous women---some of whom were married to others.  This was a low blow in order to hurt Hearst because Welles saw Hearst in nothing but the most negative of terms.


Hearst inherited his fortune from the mining fortune created by his father.  His father acquired a newspaper along the way and his son William decided to take it over---it was the San Francisco Examiner and the Hearst family still owns it to this day.  He built that paper into one of the world's greatest media empires just as the Kane figure does and he helped start the Spanish American war to boost publication and was willing to create stories to sell his product---just as the Kane character in the movie version does.  He ran for public office, as does Kane in the movie, and he became involved with a younger woman after leaving his wife and spent tons of money trying to push her career, just as Kane does in the movie.  And, Hearst built one of the grandest palaces American has ever seen on the headlands of the California Coast (you can visit it today as it is a state park)---in the movie Kane builds such a palace but supposedly in Florida.  Kane pushes his second wife in a singing career; Hearst pushed his mistress (he never married her) in an acting career.  So the parallels were obvious to everyone.  What was not as obvious were the differences between Kane and Hearst.  And that is where the viciousness comes in.


By everyone's account, Marion Davies was a very lovely, charming person.  Yes, she did jigsaw puzzles just as her movie version did; however, her personality was very different than the one portrayed in the movie.  The Hearst Castle was the place for all the Hollywood elite to party, like in the movie; however, one of the key reasons for this was Marion as she was the main reason they came.  In the movie version we don't ever see these wonderful qualities.  The Marion character in the movie leaves the broken old pathetic Kane.  In real life it was very very different.  Hearst was still alive at the time the movie was released.  He also was not a pathetic figure.  In fact, he was enjoying life and Marion was very much in love with him.  She told people how she married him because she was a gold digger but along the way fell in love with him.  They never married and when Hearst was having financial troubles, Marion, who had become quite rich in her own right, sold off jewels and other assets and gave Hearst $1 million in cash to help him.  (This in today's dollars would be more like $10 million!)  Welles' attack upon Hearst by attacking Davies was a "dirty trick" and was just the type of tactic that the elder Hearst would use to smash a rival.  So Welles was stooping down into the gutter and smearing an innocent in order to hurt the person he was principally attacking. 


What is also fascinating is how certain aspects of this movie are more revealing about Orson Welles than they are about William Randolph Hearst.  Hearst, unlike the Kane character, never lost the love of his parents.  It was Orson Welles that lost both of his parents!  His parents divorced at age 6, his mother died at age 9, his father was a drunk and died when Orson was 15.  Not much of a childhood.  Welles says of himself: "I was spoiled in a very strange way as a child because everyone told me from the moment I was able to hear that I was absolutely marvelous.  I never heard a discouraging word for years."


Hearst, like the Kane character, was into politics.  However, Hearst was elected to office with the help of his newspapers.  He was elected to the United States House of Representatives twice.  However, he rarely showed up there because he didn't have the time.  He felt he was better able to serve the voters through his newspapers.  He attacked one of the most powerful railroads and was a fearless crusader.  When the Spanish American War finally happened with his help, he offered his services to be an officer and was turned down.  No problem for Hearst, he chartered a yacht and sailed off and fought in the war anyway!  He started the nation's first nationwide newspaper chain and thus was the first person to have access to homes throughout the nation.  He had visions of running the country, of becoming President.  He hired thugs to damage the newspaper stands of the opposition so the public would only have his paper available to buy.  Then he called for someone to shoot President McKinley and someone did!  The President was dead!  Hearst was hanged in effigy and the public indignation was fierce.  He then ran for Mayor of New York City, Governor of the State of New York, and even was trying to capture the nomination for the Presidency---but lost all these efforts to gain public office.  He became a political joke.  He was called Willam Alsorandolf Hearst.  He finally realized that he could not become the political leader of the country and turned his efforts into developing Marion Davies' career and building his famed castle.


Both Hearst and Welles were brilliant innovators who were way ahead of their times in the areas of mass media.  Hearst changed the way newspapers were created.  Welles changed the way movies were created.  Both of them had egos the size of a pyramid.   Welles knew he was going to create controversy, his entire short career up to that point was built upon controversy.  (He is famous for a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' classic work of literature The War of the Worlds in which he deliberately scared thousands of people who thought it was a news broadcast of an actual alien invasion of our country.) 


This broadcast significantly raised his visibility and was one of the reasons he was brought to Hollywood to make films and given total control over what he would produce---which was an almost unbelievably great opportunity that other directors and producers were not being given.  When he arrived he thought he would make Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness into a movie.  Then he thought he might produce some type of movie thriller.  Meanwhile, he was running out of time as the studio was pushing him to do something.  At this point the writer Herman Mankewitz suggested that he base the film on the life of Hearst.  Mankewitz had visited the Hearst castle and was a friend of Marion Davies so he was to a degree an insider who already had researched the topic and could just sit down and start writing.  Welles thought it was a great idea and seized upon it.  At the time in 1941 that Welles was making the movie he was 24 and Hearst was 76.  Both loved power, both were corrupted by it.


When Hearst found out that the film was about him and anything but flattering and also attacked Marion, he did everything he could to destroy the film and Welles.  Hearst would probably have attack Welles for what he said about Hearst, but the fact that Marion was also under attack heightened his anger.  Marion was the great love of his life.  When he was 52 and she was 18 the relationship began.  At the time of the movie they had been devotedly together for 24 years.  Hearst tried to buy the film so that it could be burned.  When that didn't work, he ordered that no positive reviews of the film would appear in any of his papers and that no adds for the film would go into any of his papers.  He also attacked Welles and branded him a communist and got the FBI to start a file on Welles.  He played hard and dirty.  It worked.  He undermined the financial success of the film.  Money talks louder than anything else in Hollywood.  When the film turned out not to be a big moneymaker, Welles never was able to have the total control of a major film again.  He next made The Magnificent Ambersons, a fine film but not as great as his first one.  From then on his life as a movie producer was a pathetic disaster.  By the end of his life he was very overweight and supporting himself with television commercials.


Hearst and Welles were both proud and gifted geniuses---and the making of Citizen Kane ended up destroying both of them.  It destroyed Welles because he got caught up trying to be a movie producer in an industry where those in charge considered him financial poison.  When he looked back over his career toward the end of his life, he realized that after making the movie he probably should have gone back to New York and continued to produce stage plays.  Welles had developed a production of Julius Caesar in which the first night audience left without applauding.  He bombed!  He immediately reworked it and it became a smash hit---some consider it the greatest production of Julius Caesar EVER---and was lauded by everyone and his face grace the cover of TIME at the age of 23.  What fantastic resilience!  What creative prowess!  Most people would have responded to the opening night disaster by slinking off and licking their wounds.   Few would have dug deeper and creatively turned the disaster into triumph.   He would have most likely lived a far more fulfilling life had he returned to the stage after Citizen Kane.  However, he had played with one of the greatest creative toys ever developed, the movie, and was not able to let go of the dream that he would return to his past glory. 


It destroyed Hearst because we have come to think of Hearst as though Kane represented who Hearst really was---and that is the greatest danger of the movies.  Movies have the power of distorting reality and creating false images that live on forever.  The way we begin to understand, or more accurately misunderstand, history can be influenced by what we learn through movies.  This is a dangerous form of power that moviemakers have and Orson Welles misused this power.  Yes, Hearst was a tyrant.  Yes, Hearst deserved to be attacked and Welles should be lauded for this---if he had just not done so in such a sleazy manner with regard to Marion Davies.


A. E. Houseman, who was involved in the making of Citizen Kane, has said: "The deeper we penetrated into the heart of Charles Foster Kane, the closer we seemed to come to the identity of Orson Welles."  The person we see on the screen in many tragic ways turned out to be portraying Welles more than Hearst.  Welles lived out most of is life in isolation, much like the Kane character, nothing like Hearst's life.  Welles had a phenomenal run of success and luck for five years on the stage, on radio, and in the movies---then he rather quickly became one of the youngest "has beens" in the history of entertainment.  Hearst died at the age of 88 in 1951, ten years after the movie, and he died in the home of Marion Davies.  Orson Welles died at age 70 from a heart attack, which in part was a result of his obesity.  The lessons are obvious: genius ensures neither happiness nor success, humility is a virtue that holds great value for us all and even greater value for those who are capable of greatness.