Citizen Kane is often cited as being one of the most innovative works in the history of film. The American Film Institute placed it at number one in its list of the 100 greatest U.S. movies of all time in 1997 and again in the revised list of 2007. In a recent poll of film critics and directors conducted by the British Film Institute, Citizen Kane was ranked the number one best film of all time by both groups.
An obituary newsreel follows which documents the events in his public life. After its preview, the producer of the newsreel feels that it lacks something and asks a reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), to find out about Kane's private life and personality, in particular to discover the meaning behind his last word. 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 recollections.
First, Thompson approaches Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), now an alcoholic who runs her own club, but she refuses to tell him anything. 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. It is through Thatcher's reminiscences that Thompson learns about Kane's childhood. In the first flashback, Kane as a young child who is forced to leave his beloved mother (Agnes Moorehead) when he becomes suddenly wealthy after becoming an heir to a gold mine, and is sent to live with Mr. Thatcher.
Thompson then interviews Kane's personal business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), Susan for a second time, and Kane's butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) who recalls him saying "Rosebud" while holding a small glass globe — the same globe Kane dropped as he died. However, Thompson thinks this is worth very little. Other flashbacks show Kane's entry into the newspaper business and his profit-seeking with low-quality "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 main rival of the Inquirer). His attempted rise to power is documented, including his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a President's niece, shown disintegrating through fragments of breakfast intercourse over many years, and his campaign for the office of governor of New York State. A "love nest" scandal with Susan Alexander ends both his first marriage and his political aspirations. Kane marries his mistress, but as a result of his domineering personality, he forces Susan into an operatic career for which she has no talent or ambition, destroys his relationships and pushes away his loved ones. Kane spends his last years building his vast estate and lives alone after Susan leaves him, interacting only with his staff.
Despite Thompson's interviews, he is unable to solve the mystery and concludes that "Rosebud" will forever remain an enigma. At that point, the camera pans over 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 sent him away. The word "Rosebud" 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. For the viewer this solves the "Rosebud" mystery, the sled is a token of the only time in his life when he was poor; but it also represents the only time in his life when he was truly happy and wanted for nothing. After this twist ending, the film ends as it began, with the "No Trespassing" sign at the gates of Kane's estate, Xanadu.
|Orson Welles||Charles Foster Kane|
|William Alland||Jerry Thompson|
|Georgia Backus||Bertha Anderson|
|Fortunio Bonanova||Signor Matiste|
|Sonny Bupp||Charles Foster Kane III|
|Ray Collins||Jim W. Gettys|
|Dorothy Comingore||Susan Alexander Kane|
|Joseph Cotten||Jedediah Leland|
|George Coulouris||Walter Parks Thatcher|
|Agnes Moorehead||Mary Kane|
|Erskine Sanford||Herbert Carter|
|Gus Schilling||The Headwaiter|
|Harry Shannon||Kane's Father|
|Everett Sloane||Mr. Bernstein|
|Buddy Swan||Young Charles Foster Kane|
|Ruth Warrick||Emily Monroe Norton Kane|
|Philip Van Zandt||Mr. Rawlston|
Once they settled on this project, Welles abandoned two other projects, The Smiler with a Knife and an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Mankiewicz was put under contract by Mercury Productions and was to receive no credit for his work as he was hired as a script doctor. According to his contract with RKO, Welles would be given sole screenplay credit. He had written a rough script consisting of 300 pages of dialogue with occasional stage directions under the title of John Citizen, USA.
There is an explicit reference to Hearst at the beginning of the film, possibly to imply that the film is not about him, where one of the men who is involved in making a newsreel documentary about Kane asks "How does Kane differ from other famous newspaper magnates like Hearst, or Pulitzer?"
The most overt reference to Hearst comes early in the film, as Kane provides a quote that paraphrases an apocryphal quote attributed to Hearst on the Spanish American War: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Kane states, "You provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war." In real life, Hearst denied saying it, and the only source for the quote is a James Creelman memoir published several years after the statement was reportedly made.
Welles himself insisted that there were also differences between the men. In 1968, he told Peter Bogdanovich, "You know, the real story of Hearst is quite different from Kane's. And Hearst himself—-as a man, I mean—-was very different." In his documentary F for Fake, Welles claims Kane was originally intended to be based on Howard Hughes (who was to be played by Joseph Cotten) but he later changed it to Hearst. Hearst's biographer, David Nasaw, finds the film's depiction of Hearst unfair:
Welles' Kane is a cartoon-like caricature of a man who is hollowed out on the inside, forlorn, defeated, solitary because he cannot command the total obedience, loyalty, devotion, and love of those around him. Hearst, to the contrary, never regarded himself as a failure, never recognized defeat, never stopped loving Marion [Davies] or his wife. He did not, at the end of his life, run away from the world to entomb himself in a vast, gloomy art-choked hermitage.
Several other candidates for the basis of the Kane personality have been suggested, the most likely being that of Jules Brulatour, millionaire head of distribution for Eastman Kodak and co-founder of Universal Pictures. Brulatour's second and third wives, Dorothy Gibson and Hope Hampton, both fleeting stars of the silent screen who later had marginal careers in opera, are also believed to have provided inspiration for the Susan Alexander character.
Orson Welles also claimed that Harold Fowler McCormick's lavish promotion of his second wife Ganna Walska's opera career–despite her renown as a terrible singer–was a direct influence on the screenplay. Roger Ebert, in his DVD commentary on Citizen Kane, suggests that the Alexander character had very little to do with Davies, but, rather, that it was based on Walska, mistress and later wife of Chicago heir Harold Fowler McCormick. McCormick spent thousands of dollars on voice lessons for her and even arranged for Walska to take the lead in a production of Zaza at the Chicago Opera in 1920. But unlike Alexander, Walska got into an argument with director Pietro Cimini during dress rehearsal and stormed out of the production before she appeared.
Like the Susan Alexander character, she had a terrible voice, pleasing only to McCormick. Other sources say the Alexander role - and the disastrous opera singing - is a composite of Hampton, Davies, Walska, and the story of Samuel Insull, who built the Chicago Civic Opera House in 1929 for his daughter, who hoped to become famous and sing at the Metropolitan Opera but never did.
There are autobiographical elements to the film. Orson Welles lost his mother when he was only nine years old and his father when he was 15. After this, he became the ward of Chicago's Dr. Maurice Bernstein--and Bernstein is the last name of the only major character in Citizen Kane who receives a completely positive portrayal.
The documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane points out the great irony that Welles's own life story resembled that of Kane far more than Hearst's: an overreaching wunderkind who ended up mournful and lonely in his old age. Citizen Kane's editor Robert Wise summarized: "Well, I thought often afterwards, only in recent years when I saw the film again two or three years ago when they had the fiftieth anniversary, and I suddenly thought to myself, well, Orson was doing an autobiographical film and didn't realize it, because it's rather much the same, you know. You start here, and you have a big rise and tremendous prominence and fame and success and whatnot, and then tail off and tail off and tail off. And at least the arc of the two lives were very much the same..."
Peter Bogdanovich, who was friends with Welles in his later years, disagreed with this on his own commentary on the Citizen Kane DVD, saying that Kane was nothing like Welles. Kane, he said, "had none of the qualities of an artist, Orson had all the qualities of an artist." Bogdonavich also noted that Welles was never bitter "about all the bad things that happened to him," and was a man who enjoyed life in his final years.
Orson Welles, explaining the idea behind the word "Rosebud," said, "It's a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud. The symbolic sled 'Rosebud' used in the film was bought for $60,500 by film director Steven Spielberg in 1982. Spielberg commented, "Rosebud will go over my typewriter to remind me that quality in movies comes first. According to Peter Bogdanovich, Welles' reaction to Spielberg's purchase of the sled was "I thought we burned it..."
According to Louis Pizzitola, author of Hearst Over Hollywood, "Rosebud" was a nickname that Orrin Peck, a friend of William Randolph Hearst, gave to his mother, Phoebe Hearst. It was said that Phoebe was as close, or even closer, to Orrin than she was to her own son, lending a bitter-sweet element to the word's use in a film about a boy being separated from his mother's love.
In 1989, essayist Gore Vidal cited contemporary rumors that "Rosebud" was a nickname Hearst used for his mistress Marion Davies; a reference to her clitoris, a claim repeated as fact in the 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and again in the 1999 dramatic film RKO 281. A resultant joke noted, with heavy innuendo, that Hearst and/or Kane died "with 'Rosebud' on his lips."
Another unorthodox method used in the film was the way low-angle shots were used to display a point of view facing upwards, thus allowing ceilings to be shown in the background of several scenes. Since movies were primarily filmed on sound stages and not on location during the era of the Hollywood studio system, it was impossible to film at an angle that showed ceilings because the stages had none. In some instances, Welles' crew used muslin draped above the set to produce the illusion of a regular room with a ceiling, while the boom mikes were hidden above the cloth.
One of the story-telling techniques introduced in this film was using an episodic sequence on the same set while the characters changed costume and make-up between cuts so that the scene following each cut would look as if it took place in the same location, but at a time long after the previous cut. In this way, Welles chronicled the breakdown of Kane's first marriage, which took years of story time, in a matter of minutes.
Welles also pioneered several visual effects in order to cheaply shoot things like crowd scenes and large interior spaces. For example, the scene where the camera in the opera house rises dramatically to the rafters to show the workmen showing a lack of appreciation for the second Mrs. Kane's performance was shot by panning a camera upwards over the performance scene, then a curtain wipe to a miniature of the upper regions of the house, and then another curtain wipe matching it again with the scene of the workmen. Other scenes effectively employed miniatures to make the film look much more expensive than it truly was, such as various shots of Xanadu. A loud, full screen closeup of the typewriter typing a single word magnifies the review for the Chicago Inquirer—"weak".
The film broke new ground with its use of special effects makeup, created by makeup artist Maurice Seiderman, believably aging the cast many decades over the course of the story.
Welles brought his experience with sound from radio along to filmmaking, producing a layered and complex soundtrack. In one scene, the elderly Kane strikes Susan in a tent on the beach, and the two characters silently glower at each other while a woman at the nearby party can be heard hysterically laughing in the background, her giddiness in grotesque counterpoint to the misery of Susan and Kane. Elsewhere, Welles skillfully employed reverberation to create a mood, such as the chilly echo of the monumental Thatcher library, where the reporter is confronted by an intimidating, officious librarian.
In addition to expanding on the potential of sound as a creator of moods and emotions, Welles pioneered a new aural technique, known as the "lightning-mix". Welles used this technique to link complex montage sequences via a series of related sounds or phrases. In offering a continuous sound track, Welles was able to join what would otherwise be extremely rough cuts together into a smooth narrative. For example, the audience witnesses Kane grow from a child into a young man in just two shots. As Kane's guardian hands him his sled, Kane begrudingly wishes him a "Merry Christmas". Suddenly we are taken to a shot of his guardian fifteen years later, only to have the phrase completed for us: "and a Happy New Year". In this case, the continuity of the soundtrack, not the image, is what makes for a seamless narrative structure.
Welles also carried over techniques from radio not yet popular in the movies (though they would become staples). Using a number of voices, each saying a sentence or sometimes merely a fragment of a sentence, and splicing the dialogue together in quick succession, the result gave the impression of a whole town talking - and, equally important, what the town was talking about. Welles also favored the overlapping of dialogue, considering it more realistic than the stage and movie tradition of characters not stepping on each other's sentences. He also pioneered the technique of putting the audio ahead of the visual in scene transitions (an L-cut); as a scene would come to a close, the audio would transition to the next scene before the visuals did.
Despite numerous positive reviews from critics at the time, the film was not a box office success, just making back enough to cover the budget, but not enough to make a profit. This resulted in Welles's career suffering a crippling blow. He spent the rest of his life struggling to make films on his own terms. He did live long enough to see his debut film acknowledged as a classic, and late in life he famously remarked that he'd started at the top and spent the rest of his life working his way down.
Due to the Second World War, Citizen Kane was little seen and virtually forgotten until its release in Europe in 1946, where it gained considerable acclaim, particularly from French film critics such as André Bazin. In the United States, it was neglected and forgotten until its revival on television in the mid-1950s, and its critical fortunes have been significantly transformed since then. Critics worldwide began listing it among the best films ever made. The Sight & Sound Top Ten list, revised every ten years, began in 1952 and first listed Citizen Kane in 1962.
When RKO rejected Hearst's offer to suppress the film, Hearst flew into so extreme a rage that he banned every newspaper and station in his media conglomerate from reviewing - or even mentioning - the movie. The documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane lays the blame for Citizen Kane's relative failure squarely at the feet of Hearst. Even though it did decent business at the box-office and went on to be the sixth highest grossing film in its year of release, this fell short of its creators' expectations but was still acceptable to its backers. In The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, David Nasaw points out that Hearst's actions were not the only reason Kane failed, however: the innovations Welles made with narrative, as well as the dark message at the heart of the film (that the pursuit of success is ultimately futile) meant that a popular audience could not appreciate its merits (Nasaw, 572-573).
In a pair of Arena documentaries about Welles' career made and broadcast domestically by the BBC in 1982, Welles claimed that during opening week, a policeman approached him one night and told him: "Do not go to your hotel room tonight; Hearst has set up an undressed woman to leap into your arms when you enter and a photographer to take pictures of you. Hearst is planning to publish it in all of his papers". Welles thanked the man and stayed out all night. However, it is not confirmed whether this was true or not. Welles also described his only meeting with William Randolph Hearst: in an elevator in a building in San Francisco, where the film was being premiered. Welles offered Hearst some free tickets but the tycoon declined to answer; Welles later stated that Charles Foster Kane would probably have accepted the offer.
Although Hearst's efforts to suppress it damaged the film's success, they backfired in the long run, since almost every reference of Hearst's life and career made today typically includes a reference to the film's parallel to it. The irony of Hearst's efforts is that the film is now inexorably connected to him. This connection was reinforced by the publication in 1961 of W. A. Swanberg's extensive biography titled Citizen Hearst.
Boos were heard almost every time Citizen Kane was referred to during the Oscars ceremony that year. Most of Hollywood did not want the film to see the light of day considering the threats that William Randolph Hearst had made if it did.
One of the long standing academic debates of Citizen Kane has been the nature of the authorship of the original screenplay, which the opening credits attributes to both Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. According to film biographer David Thomson, however, "No one can now deny Herman Mankiewicz credit for the germ, shape, and pointed language of the screenplay..."
Film historian Otto Friedrich wrote, it made Mankiewicz "unhappy to hear Welles quoted in Louella Parsons's column, before the question of screen credits was officially settled, as saying, 'So I wrote Citizen Kane.' Mankiewicz went to the Screen Writers Guild and declared that he was the original author. Welles later claimed that he planned on a joint credit all along, but Mankiewicz claimed that Welles offered him a bonus of ten thousand dollars if he would let Welles take full credit. ... The Screen Writers Guild eventually decreed a joint credit, with Mankiewicz's name first."
Most famously, film critic Pauline Kael, in an essay titled "Raising Kane" (originally published in The New Yorker in 1971 and later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book and in her omnibus collection For Keeps) claims that Welles downplayed veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz's contribution. Kael argues that Mankiewicz was the true author of the screenplay and therefore responsible for much of what made the movie great. This angered many critics of the day, most notably critic-turned-filmmaker (and close friend of Welles) Peter Bogdanovich, who rebutted many of Kael's claims in an article for Esquire titled The Kane Mutiny.
Robert L. Carringer, in a 1978 essay titled "The Scripts Of Citizen Kane," and in his 1985 book The Making Of Citizen Kane, refutes Kael's claim that Mankiewicz was the sole author of the screenplay. After analysis of the seven script revisions of the film, Carringer found the film's dual credit for both Welles and Mankiewicz to be accurate. The script revisions indicate the different contributions and the author of each of those contributions and prove, according to Carringer, that Mankiewicz did not write the script entirely on his own and that Welles contributed to it significantly.
Bernard Herrmann was equally vocal in his criticism of Kael's claim not only on her position that it was Mankiewicz, not Welles, who made the main thrust of the film but also in her assumptions about the use of music in the film without consulting him:
Pauline Kael has written in The Citizen Kane Book (1971), that the production wanted to use Massenet’s "Thais" but could not afford the fee. But Miss Kael never wrote or approached me to ask about the music. We could easily have afforded the fee. The point is that its lovely little strings would not have served the emotional purpose of the film.
Similarly, James Agate wrote, "I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull...Mr. Welles's high-brow direction is of that super-clever order which prevents you from seeing what that which is being directed is all about.
In 2003, Orson Welles' daughter Beatrice sued Turner Entertainment and RKO Pictures, claiming that the Welles estate is the legal copyright holder of the film. Her attorney said that Orson Welles had left RKO with an exit deal terminating his contracts with the studio, meaning that Welles still had an interest in the film and his previous contract giving the studio the copyright of the film was null and void. Beatrice Welles also claimed that, if the courts did not uphold her claim of copyright, RKO nevertheless owed the estate 20% of the profits, from a previous contract which has not been lived up to.
On May 30, 2007, the appeals panel agreed that Beatrice Welles could proceed with the lawsuit against Turner Entertainment, the opinion partially overturns the 2004 decision by a lower court judge who had found in favor of Turner Entertainment on the issue of video rights.
In the 1980s, this film became the catalyst in the controversy over the colorization of black and white films. When Ted Turner told members of the press that he was considering colorizing Citizen Kane, his comments led to an immediate public outcry. Welles supposedly told friends that he intended to "keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movie." The uproar was for naught, as Turner Pictures had never actually announced that this was an upcoming planned project. Turner later claimed that this was a joke designed to needle colorization critics, and that he had never had any intention of colorizing the film. Turner could not have colorized the film had he wanted to. Welles' original contract prevented any alteration to the film without his, and eventually his estate's, express consent.
The 2004 play about Orson Welles, Rosebud by Mark Jenkins takes it name from the last words uttered by Charles Foster Kane.
The lyrics to the White Stripes' song "The Union Forever" (J. White, V2 records, 2001), off the album White Blood Cells, consist mainly of lines from Citizen Kane.
In an episode of The Simpsons entitled Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner? there are a number of references made to Citizen Kane and Orson Welles as well as Homer Simpson imitating Charles Foster Kane in one scene in particular. Also, in the episode Sideshow Bob Roberts, Sideshow Bob gives his mayoral acceptance speech underneath a giant poster with a picture of himself on it; this is a reference to the campaign speech scene in the film.