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Citizen Kane

Directed by Orson Welles with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick, George Coulouris, Paul Stewart and Dorothy Comingore, black and white, 119 minutes, 1941

Cover of VHS edition of Citizen Kane

Cover of VHS tape version of "Citizen Kane"

By Carter B. Horsley

"Citizen Kane" is the most legendary film ever made in Hollywood, in part because of its brilliance and in part because it dared to caricature a famous publishing mogul, William Randolph Hearst, by basing its main character on him, very thinly disguised. Hearst, sought, unsuccessfully, to suppress the film before it was released and ordered his vast media empire not to review it.

The movie is unquestionably great even if the Hearst similarities did not exist. Its use of unusual angles, dramatic lighting, unusual transitions and tracking shots, and deep-focus shots is sensational and the narrative is more "circular," to borrow a description from Roger Ebert’s fine review, than linear. Indeed, the movie begins at its story’s end, the death of Charles Foster Kane, whose last word is "Rosebud."

Part of the mythological status of "Citizen Kane" is that it was directed and written by Orson Welles who also stars in it as Charles Foster Kane and who also was the co-writer of the script with Herman J. Mankiewicz. When he started the film, Welles was only 25 years old and had already gained fame as the director of the Mercury Theater in New York and for his famous radio broadcasts, one of which led to a brief panic about an alien invasion.

The movie received 9 Oscar nominations, but only one for the screenplay, which was shared by Welles and Mankiewicz. Its performers, including Welles, came from the Mercury Theater and had never before acted in a movie. Welles took a relative modest salary for the film, but obtained almost complete creative control over the movie, which was reportedly without precedent in Hollywood. The movie was released by R.K.O. Radio Pictures although a member of the Rockefeller family, who was a friend of Hearst’s, had convinced Louis B. Mayer to offer to buy the film from R.K.O. so that it could be destroyed and not released. Welles, however, had shown it to enough influential people at that time that R.K.O. felt it could not not release it.

The story is not too complex. A young boy is taken away from his parents and his legal guardian becomes a banker who looks after his fortunes, which significantly increase when a deed, which his mother got in lieu of rent at her boarding house, to the Colorado Lode proves not to be worthless. Kane becomes fabulously wealthy, but decides to devote his energies to publishing a newspaper, the New York Inquirer. He marries a niece of the President of the United States, and expands his media empire across the country and has high political ambitions. He runs for governor, but is caught in a "love-nest" and exposed by his political rival. His wife divorces him and he stays with his paramour, whom he marries, and decides to promote her career as an operatic singer over the advice of the voice coach he has employed who feels she is hopeless. Despite bad reviews, he persists in promoting her career but finally she protests and they live together in Xanadu, a spectacular estate on the Gulf Coast of Florida, that clearly is meant to conjure San Simeon, the fabled Hearst estate on the California coast. His second wife eventually divorces him and he lives out his life in Xanadu where he dies alone.

The structure of the film is that a newspaper sends out an investigative reporter to find out the meaning of his last word, "Rosebud," and he interviews many people who had been close to Kane during his life and their interviews flashback to various episodes in his career.

The movie opens with a night scene outside the tall gates of Xanadu, which rises in the distance as some fairy-tale castle. A "No Trespassing" sign is seen as well as part of a menagerie and a single light in the castle. The light then goes out. The next sequence is "newsreel" footage of Kane’s life that gives an overview of his career. The footage is intentionally scratchy and worn.

At one point, the banker who had raised him is seen telling a Congressional committee that Charles Foster Kane "in every essence of his social beliefs, and by the dangerous manner in which he has persistently attacked the American traditions of private property, initiative, and opportunity for advancement, is in fact, nothing more or less than a Communist."

Another person, however, is quoted that "The words of Charles Foster Kane are a menace to every working man in this land," adding that "He is today what he has always been – and always will be – a Fascist."

Kane, of course, maintains that he has been and will be "only one thing – an American."

The newsreel’s narrator notes that "Kane urged his country’s entry into one war," and opposed participation in another, referring, respectively, to the Spanish-American War and World War I.

The newsreel ends and the viewer realizes that it has been only a screening of a work in progress when its producer tells his staff that it needs something more and it is decided to the newsreel’s release should be held up until the meaning of his last word "Rosebud" is found and a newsreel reporter, who is played by William Allard and who is only shown from the back throughout the movie, is given the assignment.

In the next scene, the reporter interviews his second wife, played by Dorothy Comingore, who is singing at a nightclub in Atlantic City, but she does not want to talk to him and the waiter tells him that when he asked her about "Rosebud" that she had said he had never heard of it.

The reporter next goes to the memorial library of Kane’s legal guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher, who is played by George Coulouris, to examine his diaries for clues about "Rosebud." He is taken into a large room that is very theatrically lit and permitted a few hours looking at one diary. The camera zooms in on the diary and pans to the white of the margin, which becomes snow in a flashback to Thatcher’s visit to Mrs. Kane’s boarding house and her agreement to let him become her son’s legal guardian and trustee of her estate. She and her husband will each be given $50,000 a year and her son will get the rest of the fortune when he becomes 25. Before he leaves with Mr. Thatcher, young Kane protests and throws his sled at him. Kane glares at Thatcher, but they leave and the camera focuses on the sled on the ground.

By his 25th birthday, Kane’s fortune has become the sixth-largest in the world. Kane decides to return to the United States from Europe and informs Thatcher that he is not "interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate" but sees on a list that a newspaper, the New York Inquirer, had been acquired in a foreclosure proceeding and thinks "it would be fun to run a newspaper."

Kane proceeds to attack trusts and landlords, much to Thatcher’s consternation. Kane gets a communication from a correspondent in Cuba which said "there is no war in Cuba," to which Kane replies, "you provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war." Thatcher tells Kane that his paper is losing a million dollars a year, but Kane replies that at that rate he will have to close it in 60 years.

Kane’s prediction, however, proves wrong for the next scene is 1929 and Thatcher is meeting with Kane and his general manager, Bernstein, who is played by Everett Sloane, to wrench away control of the newspaper. Thatcher criticizes Kane for buying "things." Kane replies, "Well, I always gagged on that silver spoon." Turning to his assistant, Kane says, "You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man…I think I did pretty well under the circumstances." Thatcher interrupts and asks, "What would you like to have been?" Kane replies, "Everything you hate!"

In the next scene, the newsreel reporter, finished in Thatcher’s library, interviews Mr. Bernstein in his New York office at a desk beneath a portrait of Kane. Bernstein recalls the first day that Kane took over the Inquirer with his best friend, Jedediah Leland, who is played by Joseph Cotton. The scene switches to the newspaper building where Herbert Carter, the editor-in-chief, played by Erskine Sanford, greets them, but mistakes Leland for Kane. Bernstein has brought Kane’s bed and it is moved into Carter’s office. Kane announces that he plans to boldly remake the newspaper into a tabloid and proceeds to remake the front page that night four times and finally four hours after deadline. The front page contains a declaration of principles that states that the newspaper will "tell all the news honestly" and that "no special interest are going to be allowed to interfere" with providing its readers "with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and human beings."

Leland, whom Kane has appointed drama critic, asks to keep the handwritten "declaration."

Kane’s newspaper has a circulation of 26,000 while its competitor, the New York Chronicle has a circulation of 495,000. Kane and Leland and Bernstein look through the window of the Chronicle at a photograph of "the greatest newspaper staff in the world" and the photograph comes alive and the scene is six years later and "the greatest newspaper staff in the world" is now working for Kane’s newspaper. At a party with his staff, Kane announces that his newspaper now has a circulation of 684,000. Chorus girls appear with rifles and Kane asks Leland "are we going to declare war on Spain or not?" Leland replies, "The Inquirer already has." Kane says, "You long-faced, over-dressed anarchist." Leland replies, "I am not over-dressed."

Kane goes to Europe and when he returns he announces his engagement to Emily North, the daughter of a senator and the niece of the President of the United States.

This flashback ends with Mr. Bernstein telling the reporter that "Miss Emily Norton was no Rosebud…. It ended. And there was Susan. That ended too." Susan was Kane’s second wife. Bernstein suggests that the reporter visit Mr. Leland, who, he says, was right to disagree with Kane about the Spanish-American War. Mr. Bernstein, however, adds that "But do you think if it hadn’t been for that war of Mr. Kane’s, we’d have the Panama Canal?"

The reporter then visits Leland in a hospital very close to a bridge in the city. Seated in a wheelchair and wearing an eyeshade, Leland tells the reporter "Maybe I wasn’t his friend, but if I wasn’t, he never had one." He recalls Kane’s first wife and says he knew her as "a very nice girl" in dancing school, adding that "after the first couple of months, she and Charlie didn’t see much of each other except at breakfast." "It was a marriage just like any other marriage," Leland states.

The next sequence shows Kane and his first wife at breakfast at six different stages in their marriage. In the last part of the sequence, his wife is reading the Chronicle.

Leland theorizes that all Kane "really wanted out of life was love," adding "that’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it. You see, he just didn’t have any to give."

Leland then recalls that Charlie called his second wife, Susan Alexander, a "cross-section of the American public."

The next scene, Kane is shown standing on a street corner when a young woman, Susan, comes out of a drugstore laughing. He thinks she’s laughing at him, but she manages to exclaim that she has a "toothache." She invites him into her apartment next door to wash the dirt off his coat. They go in and he closes the door, but she opens it, explaining that her landlady prefers it that way when she has "a gentleman caller." Kane tries to distract her from the pain of her toothache by wriggling his ears and making wall shadows with his hands. He finds it hard to believe that she does not know who he is. He asks what she does. She tells him that she is a salesperson in a music store. What would she like to do, he asks? She tells him that she wanted to be a singer, or at least that her mother wanted her to become one. Kane asks if she has a piano. She does. He asks her to sing. She sings an aria while playing a piano and Kane appears very happy and applauds her performance.

The scene switches to applause during a campaign speech by Jedediah Leland for Kane, seeking to be elected governor of New York in 1916 and that scene quickly to perhaps the movie’s greatest sequence, Kane’s political speech beneath an enormous poster of him in a broad-brimmed hat.

Kane’s speech, an attack on "the downright villainy of Boss Jim W. Gettys’s political machine," is a marvel. Kane’s oratory skills are consummate and brilliant and the camera tracks about him dramatically from many angles as he ends with a pledge to appoint a special district attorney "to arrange for the indictment, prosecution, and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys."

In one of the movie’s many marvelous deep-focus shots, Gettys is shown high up in the arena looking down on Kane as he finishes his speech in which he is very confident of victory.

As Kane is leaving, his wife sends their son home to Kane’s surprise and suggests that Kane get into a cab with her, showing him a note she has gotten from the address where Susan Alexander lives. Kane goes with her and he is recognized by a maid at the front door and then by Susan at her door who exclaims that Gettys forced her to send the letter. Gettys shows himself inside the apartment and admits that Susan did not want to send the letter. Gettys threatens to expose Kane’s "love-nest" with Susan if he doesn’t withdraw from the race. Kane’s wife starts to leave, assuming that Kane will protect his family from scandal, but Kane says he will stay and that he "can fight this all alone," adding that "there’s only person in the world who decides what I’m going to do, and that’s me."

Kane’s wife and Gettys leave and the image of the doorway appears next beneath front page headlines that "Candidate Kane Caught in Love Nest."

Bernstein in the composing room of the Inquirer is next shown being asked which front page will be printed, "Kane Elected," or "Charles Foster Kane Defeated, Fraud at Polls." Kane was defeated. Kane then has a marvelous talk with Leland, who tells him that "you talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you." Kane tells Leland that he will get drunk, "if it’ll do any good." Leland replies that it won’t. Kane says, "A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows – his own."

Kane is next scene after his marriage to Susan Alexander. He builds an opera house for her. In a scene with her Italian voice coach, she practices hard but to little avail, as her voice is weak and off-pitch. At the premiere, the camera pans up from the stage to the rafters where one of two stagehands holds his nose. After the premiere, Kane returns to his newspaper office where Bernstein tells him that all the stories are in but Leland’s drama review. Kane walks into Leland’s office to find him passed out with his head on his typewriter. Kane demands that Bernstein read what Leland has written so far. Leland has described Susan as a "pretty but hopelessly incompetent amateur." Kane rips the paper out of Leland’s typewriter and proceeds to "finish" his review. Leland finally wakes up and Bernstein tells him that Kane is finishing the review "just the way you started it." Leland walks over to Kane. Kane says, "Hello Jedediah." Leland responds, "Hello Charlie. I didn’t know we were speaking." "Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah, you’re fired!" Kane replies.

Leland tells the reporter, whom he begs for cigars, that he did not respond to a letter from Kane five years ago. "I guess he was pretty lonely down there in that Coliseum all those years. He hadn’t finished it when she left him. He never finished it. He never finished anything, except my notice."

The reporter revisits Susan Alexander at the nightclub and this time she agrees to talk and recalls her opera opening night, which is shown from her perspective. Later, at home with Kane she unleashes a furious verbal attack on him for letting Leland write a bad review, not knowing that Kane had himself finished it. A messenger enters and hands Kane an envelop. Susan screams at Kane that he ought to have his head "examined" for sending Leland "a letter telling him he’s fired with a $25,000 check in it." Kane opens the envelope and a torn-up check falls to the fall. Also in the envelope is Kane’s "Declaration of Principles" note, which Kane proceeds to rip up. Susan declares that she is through with singing, but Kane insists that she continue and the screen flashes with newspaper articles announcing her performances in different cities.

Susan is next seen in bed, ill, with a bottle of pills next to her bed, and has apparently attempted suicide. Kane comes in and she tells him that she could not continue singing knowing that "a whole audience doesn’t want you." Kane counters that "that’s when you’ve got to fight them," but soon gives in to her pleas and says "It’s their loss."

Susan is next seen with a jigsaw puzzle on the floor in front of a large fireplace at Xanadu, an enormous castle-like mansion Kane has built for them on 49,000 acres in Florida. The camera focuses on Susan’s puzzle as it changes from one scene to another, indicating the passage of time. Kane asks her how she knows she has not done the puzzles already. Susan replies that "it makes a whole lot more sense than collecting statues." Kane answers that she "may be right, I sometimes wonder, but you get into the habit."

They go on an elaborate picnic and Susan complains that Kane has never given her anything that belongs to him, that he cares about. "Whatever I do, I do because I love you," Kane declares. "You don’t love me. You want me to love you," she says contemptuously. She imitates him saying "Whatever you want, just name it and it’s yours, but you’ve gotta love me." Kane hits her and she says, "Don’t tell me you’re sorry." Kane says he is not sorry.

Susan packs her bags to leave Xanadu and Kane implores her not to, promising that "everything will be exactly the way you want it to be," adding "You can’t do this to me." "Oh, yes I can," she says on her way out.

Susan tells the reporter that perhaps he should interview Kane’s butler and the reporter tells her that he feels sorry for Kane and she replies, "Don’t you think I do?"

The reporter goes to Xanadu to interview, Raymond, the butler. His recollection of Susan’s departure has Kane storming into her room after she has left and tearing it apart savagely. In the scene where he is smashing everything in the room, Kane comes across a crystal paperweight of a snow scene and he murmurs "Rosebud" and stuffs it into his pocket. Raymond admits he does not know the meaning of "Rosebud" and shows the reporter some of Kane’s treasures, piled in boxes in a memorable pan shot that shows a cavernous room with seemingly thousands of unpacked boxes. Someone asks the reporter what he found out about Kane. "Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he didn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life." He leaves, but the camera shows workmen in the basement throwing items they considered junk into a incinerator. Raymond tells a worker with a sled to "throw that junk" into the incinerator. The camera zooms in on the sled as it burns to show that it has the name "Rosebud" painted on it. It is the sled that young Kane had hit Thatcher with it as he was about to leave his parents.

The last shot in the movie is similar to the first and shows Xanadu from a distance only this time dark smoke is billowing from one of its chimneys and the camera pans back to the fence with the "No Trespassing" sign.

Kane is an arrogant, egotistical man and inconsistent. He campaigns for the people and workers against the bosses, but he is not concerned with whether a war he reports is real or not. He has enough respect for Leland to finish his review for him, but fires him for going against his grain, and then sends him a nice severance check and years later makes an effort to get back in touch with him. He falls for the simplicity of Susan and dominates her life and forces her into public humiliation, but at the end agrees to all her demands, too late.

Despite his faults, however, he has a splendid charisma and a gargantuan drive. His fiery political speech is spellbinding. He is in total command. The performance of Orson Welles as Kane is "terrific," as many of the original posters of the film declared. He is extremely handsome, debonair, passionate and a real presence. His voice is magical and his range of emotions wonderful. He is sensitive in Susan’s parlor as she sings for the first time. He is beguiling as the new publisher at the newspaper. He is exuberant at a staff party and with reporters after he has married Susan. He is a conquering hero in his political speech. He is imperious with his wives. He is bemused when he loses control of his newspapers. He is rampaging when he wrecks Susan’s room after she leaves Xanadu. He becomes a bitter, lonely, sad, old man. As a dashing young man, Welles is irresistible and full of life, larger than life. He is sardonic, sophisticated, and commanding, qualities that he would have again as Harry Lyme in "The Third Man," Carol Reed’s brilliant thriller a decade or so later (see The City Review article on "The Third Man.").

Dorothy Comingore is quite remarkable as Susan. When she smiles at Kane in her parlor, she is very beautiful. When she is forced by Kane to perform publicly, she is excruciatingly miserable and petrified. When she finally unleashes her verbal attacks on Kane, she is a haradon. When she is interviewed by the reporter, she is tired, broken and sad.

Kane loved her, on his terms, and she loved him.

Joseph Cotton is fine as the young friend/sidekick, although he hams it up a bit as an old man but his twinkling eyes keep his performance in check.

George Coulouris is excellent as the legal guardian and authority figure, as is Raymond Collins as the political boss calmly set upon saving his political skin.

Ruth Warrick is lovely and elegant as Kane’s first wife.

Everett Sloane is a bit corny as the "assistant," but his very distinct personality permits him a wide berth.

Paul Stewart is almost too sleazy as the butler, yet the autocratic rule of Kane would most likely have needed someone to put out the fires. One is actually eager to hear his stories, although he does not offer them up.

What does Kane really represent? What was Welles trying to say with this film? Is it a paen to individualism? Is it an attack on unfettered capitalism? Is it a portrait of Modern Man who has no solace in other men’s religions? Is it merely a study of obsessions, or dreams, or nostalgia? Is it an attack on simplistic notions of character that brook no contradictions? Is it a psychological study of selfishness and resentment?

Kane is an American story. It is sort of a reversal of Theodore Dreiser’s book, "An American Tragedy," which was made into a movie called "A Place in the Sun" with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Kane, of course, is a much stronger character than the role played by Clift, but there is a sense of doom and gloom about "Citizen Kane," albeit one that is detached and not without vitality and some humor. Opportunities are not lost, but seized by Kane. He is fortunate but riches perhaps do not always bring happiness. Why shouldn’t he strive for greatness and/or love? This is America. Kane is not portrayed as a ruthless robber baron, but his ambition leaves him pretty heartless. Certainly, he is inconsistent, at times espousing just causes and at times bad causes. What is missing in the film is his art appreciation. It is referenced, but not analyzed or explained. Did he ever see what was in the packed cases? Did he buy them himself or just have agents ferret them out and send them? How big an interest/passion was it? Was he a dilettante connoisseur, or did he have the eye? If he was that cultured, how could he be so blind to Susan’s inadequacies as a singer? In the scene in which he is taken from his parents by Thatcher, he turns to Thatcher with a very, very mean glance that almost indicates that he was by no means angelic even as a child.

Did Welles go too far in making the film so obviously a parody of Hearst? Probably. One suspects he just got carried away with it and really did not have that big an axe to grind about Hearst personally. Would it be considered such a great film if the focus had not been Hearst? Probably not, although it still would be a great film because of Welles’s performance and direction and the fabulous cinematography of Gregg Toland.

The VHS tape version of the film has an excellent added feature in which actress Ruth Warrick, film editor Robert Wise, who worked on the film, and film directors Martin Scorcese, Ridley Scott and John Frankenheimer comment extensively on the film.

Click here to go to Tim Dirks's excellent and long essay on "Citizen Kane"

This film is rated 1st in the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 films, 5th in the Internet Movie Data Base Top 250 poll and 16th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

Click here to go to Roger Ebert's review of "Citizen Kane"

Click here to order the VHS tape of "Citizen Kane" from amazon.com for 10 percent off its $19.98 list price

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