“Citizen Kane,” the most spectacular debut in American film history, shows the intriguing interplay between studio politics and outer societal politics. The reception of Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, film critics, and the lay public illuminates once more the complex interfacing of films as art works and mass entertainment, studio intrigues, and politics of American society at large.
Contrary to popular belief, the merits of “Citizen Kane” were recognized at the time, though not as fully as they should have been. It was gossip columnist Louella Parsons who began spreading the rumor, after seeing an advance preview, that “Citizen Kane” was “a repulsive biography” of her employer, William Randolph Hearst (played by Orson Welles).
Quite conveniently, if uncritically, Hearst accepted Parsons’ view at face value, without even seeing the movie. Nonetheless, because there was nothing libelous about the picture, all he could do was to demand that RKO shelve the movie and threaten to withdraw the support of his press empire from Hollywood.
Evidence shows that there was some talk to can “Citizen Kane” altogether. Indeed, the theatrical release of the film was postponed a number of times until it finally opened in May 1941. RKO had problems convincing owners of movie theater chains to book the movie, and Hearst’s newspapers’ decision to boycot ads and promotions didn’t help either.
“Citizen Kane” received mostly good reviews before failing commercially across the nation. At Oscar nomination time, in January 1942, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, “Citizen Kane” was not exactly overlooked by the industry. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and Orson Welles received three nominations, as co-screenwriter (with Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Director, and Actor. The cinematography, editing, music, sound, and art direction also received nods.
The competition for the Best Picture Oscar in 1941 was extremely intense: Citizen Kane was in contest with no fewer than nine other pictures: Blossoms in the Dust (four nominations), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (seven), Hold Back the Dawn (six), How Green Was My Valley (ten), The Little Foxes (nine), The Maltese Falcon (three), One Foot in Heaven (one), Sergeant York (eleven), and Suspicion (three). With so many good films in the race, it was inevitable that the Oscars would be spread among several films and that some excellent films would leave the ceremony empty-handed.
To the Academy’s credit, the winning film, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, sweeping five awards, might not have been a landmark in American film history, but it was an exquisitely executed movie with a strong visual component, in addition to having more acceptable values and a more traditional morality than Citizen Kane. Ford’s movie was chosen for various reasons: its popular ideology, cherishing the sacredness of the family (after all, the country was at war) as well as its aesthetic merits and fine acting.
Citizen Kane, by contrast, was dumped because of its downbeat, pessimistic message, Hearst’s power in Hollywood, and Welles’s status as an outsider. There is no doubt that Citizen Kane’s cinematic merits were not sufficiently recognized at the time, not just because of the dispute with Hearst, but also because its innovations were revolutionary, well ahead of their time.
Furthermore, Welles was young, only 26, and a newcomer in Hollywood; Citizen Kane was his very first movie.
Ironically, the film’s most controversial element, its screenplay, was the only category honored by the Academy. At the same time, William Wyler’s The Little Foxes was another distinguished movie that lost out in each of its nine nominations. And John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, another classic of its kind, also failed to receive any award.