Citizen Kane (1941): Orson Welles Stunning Debut

Orson Welles made the most stunning feature directorial debut in American film history in 1941 with Citizen Kane.

Welles also co-authored with Hermann Mankiewicz the screenplay, which is a fictionalized biopic of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing mogul.

Upon its release, Hearst prohibited mentioning of the film in any of his newspapers (more about it later).  Despite critical acclaim, Citizen Kane was a huge commercial flop.

The film traces the life and career of Charles Foster Kane, a man whose career in the publishing world is born of idealistic social service, but gradually devolves into a ruthless pursuit of power for power’s sake.

Narrated through several long flashbacks, the tale is revealed through the research conducted by a newspaper reporter, seeking to solve the mystery of the newspaper magnate’s dying word: “Rosebud.”

From the beginning, Welles felt like an outsider in Hollywood, a status that he maintained–even cultivated–to draw comparison with the industry’s studio directors who conformed to classic narrative.

The scholar Philip Kolker has pointed out that with Citizen Kane Welles used elements of European (German) expressionism and film noir.  Rather than just tell the story of the rise and fall of great man, Welles chose to break with the then prevalent realistic conventions, which were based on the construction of seamless narrative and invisible style.

Both thematically and visually, Welles made a playful film that experimented with what viewers were accustomed to see and not to see.  In other words, he reoriented the viewers, calling attention to elements of mise-en-scene (deep focus) that deliberately emphasized not only what the spectators sow but also how they saw it.

 

Plot

The story begins at night, on a vast palatial estate, on which the sign “No Trespassing” is posted. It’s the land of Xanadu, where the last word spoken by the wealthy media magnate, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) is “Rosebud,” uttered while holding a snow globe which then drops, rolls, and smashes.

An obituary newsreel chronicles the main events and turning points in Cane’s public life. After its preview, the producer of the newsreel feels that it lacks something and asks his reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), to find out about Kane’s private life, in particular the meaning behind his last word.

Embarking on a journey, the reporter interviews the great man’s friends and associates, and Kane’s story unfolds as a series of flashbacks, some of which present the same incidents portrayed in the newsreel, but from different POVS.

Thompson approaches Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), now an alcoholic woman, who runs her own night club, but she refuses to sgare any information

Thompson then goes to the private archive of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), a deceased banker who served as Kane’s guardian during his childhood. In the first flashback, Kane as a young child is painfully forced to leave his beloved mother (Agnes Moorehead) and live with Mr. Thatcher.

Thompson then interviews Kane’s personal business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Susan, for a second time.

Kane’s butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) recalls him saying “Rosebud” while holding a small glass globe, the same one we observed Kane dropping as he died. However, Thompson thinks this item in minor and worthless

Other flashbacks show Kane’s entry into the newspaper business and his quick success with low-quality tabloid (“yellow”) journalism.  He takes control of the newspaper, the New York Inquirer, and hires all the best journalists (which he hires away from the Chronicle, the rival of the Inquirer).

His rise to power is documented, including his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick, a President’s niece. he is shown disintegrating through fragments of conversations at breakfast over many years.

Also chronicled are his campaign for the office of governor of New York State.  A scandalous affair with Susan Alexander, who he meets on the street one rainy night, ends both his first marriage and his political aspirations. Kane marries his mistress, and driven by domineering personality, he forces Susan into an operatic career for which she has no talent or ambition.  His zealous obsession destroys all of his relationships, including with Susan, who leaves him after being forcefully locked in the castle.

Kane spends his last years building his vast estate and lives alone after Susan leaves him, barely interacting with anyone, even his staff.

Despite Thompson’s interviews, he is unable to solve the mystery and concludes that “Rosebud” should remain an enigma.

The camera tracks workers burning some of Kane’s many possessions. One throws an old sled into the furnace, the same sled that Kane was riding as a child the day his mother had decided to send him away. The word “Rosebud,” which painted on the sled, burns as the camera closes in on it in the furnace.

There is a shot of a chimney with black smoke coming out, an image that reportedly influenced Hitchcock when he directed “The Birds.”

The “Rosebud” mystery turns out be mythic and nostalgic element–the sled is a token of the only time in Kane’s life when he was truly happy.

After this “twist” finale, the film ends as it began, with the “No Trespassing” sign at the gates of Kane’s estate, Xanadu.

Status

Citizen Kane is considered to be one of the most innovative and influential films in cinema history.

The American Film Institute (AFI) placed it at number one in its list of 100 greatest U.S. movies in 1997 and again in the revised list of 2007.  In recent polls of film critics and directors by the British Film Institute (BFI), Citizen Kane was ranked the number one best film of all time.

 

Credits

RKO Radio (Mercury Production)

 

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by Orson Welles

Director: Orson Welles

Screenplay (Original): Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

Actor: Orson Welles

Cinematography (b/w): Gregg Toland

Interior Decoration (b/w): zperry Ferguson and Van Nest Polglase, art direction; Al Fields and Darrell Silvera, set decoration

Sound Recording: John Aalberg

Scoring (Dramatic): Bernard Herrmann

Film Editing: Robert Wise

 

Oscar Awards: 1

Screenplay

 

Oscar Context:

John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” was selected as Best Picture by the Academy while the U.S. had already been involved in the War.  The film’s warmly sympathetic depiction of family unity must have hit deep chords in the country’s collective consciousness, which may explain, at least in part, why its two major competitors, Orson Welles’s masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” and William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” each with nine nominations, were the big losers.  Both films particularly “Little Foxes,” represented dark and somber visions of the American family.  Once again, the “right” contents and ideological approach made the difference, though it’s noteworthy that “How Green” was as visually distinguishable as it was thematically acceptable.

The most nominated film in 1941 was Howard Hawks’ patriotic saga, “Sergeant York,” which received 11 nominations and won two: Gary Cooper as Best Actor and Film Editing for William Holmes.

 

Cast

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles)

Emily Monroe Norton Kane

William Alland  (Jerry Thompson)

Georgia Backus (Bertha Anderson)

Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste)