How ironic that Citizen Kane, which has twice been nominated by the AFI as the greatest American film ever, was made by a man who was a non-Hollywood Hollywood mogul. As immortalized as he was in the movies by Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was a man of theater, radio, and road shows, who built himself a number of Xanadus around the world.
Many of his films were hybrids, drawing in influences from other mediums (usually theater). A great example was his first film the now lost short Too Much Johnson, which was not an entity in itself but an intended celluloid link to a farcical Mercury Theater production. Sadly, a fire at Welles’s home in Spain destroyed the only complete print of this film which also featured Joseph Cotten.
By the time he set out to make the greatest American film, Welles was already a well-known radio and stage personality (he had spooked thousands of Americans with his notorious War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938) but had little experience with film. But even in his early 20s, this gifted young man had a remarkable understanding of spectacles and Citizen Kane feels like the cumulative work of a veteran showman.
Even the trailer confirms that Welles enjoyed kidding his audience, and Citizen Kane is never as droning as its status suggests. It is, as Pauline Kael called it, “the funnest great movie.” It opens on an ominous looking mansion upon a misty cliff. It looks as if nature is starting to take over the land allotted to it. Venturing inside we discover it is inhabited by an unidentified being on his deathbed, whispering “Rosebud” as his final word before death. This hushed scene is immediately followed by a noisy and bouncy newsreel explaining who Charles Foster Kane was and the kind of life his death brought to an end. It’s a subtle trick, but it works. With this juxtaposition, Welles promises not be a drone, but an entertainer of the highest caliber.
One can dispute its placement on the top of the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American films, but no one can deny that Citizen Kane is the most innovative and at least among the most important films ever made. Seventy years later, it remains a most impressive accomplishment, all things considered. The very fact that one can easily see why studios were reluctant to release it and it met with disapproval from early audiences now only proves its significance. It was too revolutionary, too new, and too unlike anything ever attempted before.
In large part, Kane was undoubtedly based on William Randolph Hearst (the “yellow journalism” mudsling is flung at one point), but there is no sense in denying that Welles himself was reaching out through the embodiment of the newspaper tycoon. Kane is as much a failure as the Great Gatsby. He wasted a life building himself a fortress of solitude and were it not for an investigative reporter (William Alland0 assigned to discover the meaning of “Rosebud”, few would likely be interested in him after his passing.
Why don’t we ever get a clear image of the reporter’s face? It cannot be a coincidence with a maestro as meticulous as Orson Welles. Likely, it’s because Welles wants to discourage us from identifying too much with the character and think of him merely as our vehicle through the mysterious and turbulent life of Charles Foster Kane, in search of Rosebud.
There is a certain coldness to the look of the film, evoked through the use of iron doors, spacious but empty marble floored rooms, and frequent use of snow (Kane dies holding a snow globe). Most significantly, at the age of nine, Kane is taken away from his impoverished parents by the kindly Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris) and loses his innocence on a wintry day in 1871. It’s an appropriate atmosphere. This is the story of a man who was never knew love and lived and died alone, after spending his life trying to buy love, the one thing that his fortune could never bring him.
Despite this, and here is where Welles is smiling at the audience, Kane starts his new life in the newspaper industry with promise thanks to the guidance of Mr. Thatcher. But an early sign of his road to ruin is not that he is headstrong. Rather, it’s that he associates money too closely with success and begins to think of power as a permanent state. He measured his success by the number of statues he collected. The women in his life are, to him, just another possession to decorate his Xanadu estate.
His obvious talent and astuteness is testament to his observation that, “If I hadn’t been rich, I’d have been a really great man.” But Kane’s mistakes are all too human errors. Certainly, they are not unheard of in corporate America, especially not in places like Wall St. where greed is often admired. Evidence for this lies in the way Kane is admired even after his fall by those too shallow to see that it was not money that Kane truly wanted. Observe, for instance, the way Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) idolizes his late boss, prominently displaying his portrait in his office.
Oh yes, Citizen Kane is an all-American story of the rise and tumbling fall of the mighty. If Charles Kane represents capitalism corrupted, his best friend Jed Leland (played by wonderfully by Joseph Cotten, Welles’s colleague from his Mercury Theater days) embodies America’s free spirit and idealism. In fact, there is nothing sad about Leland’s eventual retirement to a nursing home after the death of Kane. There is nothing wrong with him, the nurses say, and, if anything, he seems happier than he did when working for Kane as the paper’s drama critic. Still, there is something somber about the effects that a lifetime as Kane’s best friend and employee had on him. His idealism and enthusiasm have vanished giving way to his transformation into a cynic. But he is a cynic with regrets. His regret is having worked for a man who, for all his wealth, was ultimately a phony.
No one knew this better than the two women who had the misfortune of entering his life. His first wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) is well aware of his decaying soul and leaves him once she learns of his affair with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), an aspiring opera singer. She uses Kane to get ahead in her road to stardom despite her lack of talent. At the finale of her disastrous stage debut, Kane’s loud applause cannot conceal the fact that he is the only one clapping. Kane’s corruptive influence also becomes visible in Susan, who goes from a humble airhead to a shrill brat.
Citizen Kane is a different looking film and a carousel of innovation. For the first time, a ceiling was shown in the same shot as the walls, the microphones and headlights concealed with cheesecloth. During the flashback to Kane’s childhood there is a terrific shot of the little boy playing outside in the snow while his saddened parents (Agnes Moorehead and Harry Shannon) discuss their son’s future with Thatcher inside the cabin. In a single shot we see both courses of action and both in sharp focus. Much as been made of the dancing stovepipe hat in this scenes, which is a result of resting the prop on the movable dolly with which Welles expanded the view of the shot. Even the imperfections caused by Welles’s innovations serve as testaments to his genius.
The best complimenting of technical and narrative brilliance are the scenes inside the Kane mansion, as they are the most revealing. The vast rooms are a testament to his empty life. Xanadu was supposed to be his legacy of a successful life, but after he dies his statues, though they are valued in the millions, are heaped into meaningless piles.
Citizen Kane is a film of tremendous visual power and, for once, it’s visual splendors empower the human story instead of the other way around. Guided by Welles’s use of darkness to match the soul of Kane, the artistry paints the picture of a man corrupted by his own success. The more his power grows, the greater his need for control. That Kane’s world crumbles is a tragedy and though we may disagree with the reporter who “can’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Kane”, we have to see that Kane’s fault was not entirely his fault. He never asked to be given everything.