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 Eberts fine review, than
linear. Indeed, the movie begins at its storys 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 Hearsts, 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 Kanes 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 newsreels narrator notes that "Kane
urged his countrys 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 newsreels 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 Kanes 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 Thatchers visit to Mrs. Kanes
boarding house and her agreement to let him become her sons
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
By his 25th birthday, Kanes 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 Thatchers 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, Ill 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.
Kanes 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 hadnt 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 Thatchers 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 Kanes bed and it is moved into
Carters 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."
Kanes 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 Kanes 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
Kanes 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 hadnt been for that war of
Mr. Kanes, wed 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 wasnt
his friend, but if I wasnt, he never had one." He recalls
Kanes 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 didnt 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 "thats Charlies
story, how he lost it. You see, he just didnt have any to
Leland then recalls that Charlie called his
second wife, Susan Alexander, a "cross-section of the American
The next scene, Kane is shown standing on a
street corner when a young woman, Susan, comes out of a drugstore
laughing. He thinks shes 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 movies
greatest sequence, Kanes political speech beneath an enormous
poster of him in a broad-brimmed hat.
Kanes speech, an attack on "the
downright villainy of Boss Jim W. Gettyss political machine,"
is a marvel. Kanes 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 movies 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 Kanes 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 Kanes "love-nest"
with Susan if he doesnt withdraw from the race. Kanes
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 "theres only
person in the world who decides what Im going to do, and
Kanes 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 itll
do any good." Leland replies that it wont. 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 Lelands
drama review. Kane walks into Lelands 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 Lelands 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 didnt know we were speaking." "Sure
were speaking, Jedediah, youre 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 hadnt 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 hes 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 Kanes
"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 doesnt want you."
Kane counters that "thats when youve got to fight
them," but soon gives in to her pleas and says "Its
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 Susans 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 dont love me. You want me to love
you," she says contemptuously. She imitates him saying "Whatever
you want, just name it and its yours, but youve gotta
love me." Kane hits her and she says, "Dont tell
me youre 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 cant do
this to me." "Oh, yes I can," she says on her way
Susan tells the reporter that perhaps he should
interview Kanes butler and the reporter tells her that he
feels sorry for Kane and she replies, "Dont you think
The reporter goes to Xanadu to interview, Raymond,
the butler. His recollection of Susans 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 Kanes 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 didnt get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldnt
have explained anything. I dont think any word can explain
a mans 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 Susans 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
Susans 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 Reeds 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
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 Kanes
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 mens 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 Dreisers 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 shouldnt
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 Susans 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
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 Welless 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