Citizen Kane is a 1941 mystery/drama film released by RKO Pictures, the first feature film directed by Orson Welles. It tells the fictional story of Charles Foster Kane, a man whose fight for power in the publishing world transformed from sheer thrill-seeking to ruthless war, and how his life affected everyone in his orbit. The storyline follows a reporter seeking to find what Kane meant by his dying word: “Rosebud.”
The film’s main character, Kane, is a composite of several historical individuals: newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst; the reclusive aerospace and movie mogul Howard Hughes; and the Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull. Citizen Kane is widely considered to be a masterpiece by critics and viewers alike, and is often cited as being one of the greatest and most innovative works in the history of film.
Awards and recognition
Best Original Screenplay – Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Best Picture – Orson Welles
Best Director – Orson Welles
Best Actor – Orson Welles
Best Film Editing – Robert Wise
Best Art Direction – Perry Ferguson, A. Roland Fields, Van Nest Polglase, Darrell Silvera
Best Cinematography (black and white) – Gregg Toland
Best Sound Mixing – John Aalberg
Best Music Score – Bernard Herrmann
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.
Citizen Kane was little seen and virtually forgotten until its release in Europe in 1946, where it garnered considerable acclaim, particularly from French film critics such as Andre Bazin. In the United States, it was neglected and forgotten until its revival in the late 1950s, and its critical fortunes have skyrocketed since. Critics worldwide began listing it among the best films ever made. For Welles, however, this was too late. Hearst had been successful in blacklisting Welles in Hollywood so that no studio would agree to work with him.
The American Film Institute put the film at the top of its “100 Greatest Movies” list; it has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry; and it is consistently in the top 30 on the Internet Movie Database. Beginning in 1962, and every ten years since, it has been voted the best film ever made by the Sight and Sound critics’ poll. The quote, “Rosebud,” was listed as no. 17 on the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes. The film has also ranked number one in the following film “best of” lists: Editorial Jaguar, FIAF Centenary List, France Critics Top 10, Kinovedcheskie Russia Top 10, Romanian Critics Top 10, Time Out Magazine Greatest Films, and Village Voice 100 Greatest Films.
Welles’ career suffered a crippling blow with the box-office failure of Kane, and he spent the rest of his life struggling to make films on his own terms. He lived 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.
Despite its status, Citizen Kane is not entirely without its critics. Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, although noting its technical achievements, criticized what he saw as the film’s lack of emotional depth, shallow characterization and empty metaphors. Listing it amongst the most overrated works within the film community, he accused the film of being, “an all-American triumph of style over substance… indistinguishable from the opera production within it: attempting to conceal the banality of its performances by wrapping them in a thousand layers of acoustic and visual processing.” Of its director, he went on to state, “Welles is Kane – in a sense he couldn’t have intended – substituting razzle-dazzle for truth and hoping no one notices the sleight of hand.” He also criticized critics and scholars of allowing themselves to be pandered to, stating “critics obviously enjoy being told what to think or they’d never sit still for the hammy acting, cartoon characterizations, tendentious photography, editorializing blockings, and absurdly grandiose (and annoyingly insistent) metaphors… When will film studies grow up? Even Jedediah Leland, the opera reviewer in the film, knew better than to be taken in by Salammbo’s empty reverberations.”
On the movie’s release, Jorge Luis Borges opined, “It suffers from grossness, pedantry, dullness. It is not intelligent,” and predicted “Citizen Kane will endure in the same way certain films of Griffith or Pudovkin endure: no one denies their historical value but no one sees them again.
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.
Welles’s original master film negative of Citizen Kane was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. Until 1991, all existing theatrical prints of the film were made from copies of the original. When the film was purchased by Ted Turner’s Turner Entertainment (which bought the rights to the MGM and RKO film libraries), film restoration techniques were used to produce a pristine print for a 50th Anniversary theatrical revival reissue in 1991 (released by Paramount Pictures). The 2003 British DVD edition is taken from an interpositive held by the British Film Institute. The current US DVD version (released by Warner Home Video) is taken from another digital restoration, supervised by Turner. The transfer to Region 1 DVD has been criticised by some film experts for being too bright. Also, in the scene in Bernstein’s office (chapter 10) rain falling outside the window has been digitally erased, probably because it was thought to be excessive film grain. These alterations are not present in the UK Region 2, which is also considered to be more accurate in terms of contrast and brightness.
In 2003, Orson Welles’ daughter Beatrice sued Turner Entertainment and RKO Pictures, claiming that the Welles estate is the legal owner 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 ownership of the film was null and void. Beatrice Welles also claimed that, if the courts did not uphold her claim of ownership, RKO nevertheless owes the estate 20% of the profits, from a previous contract which has not been lived up to.
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 had retained control over the film in his original contract, a provision that would prevent any editing or other tampering with the film without the express permission of Welles or his estate. 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 never had any intention of colorizing the film.
The Battle over Citizen Kane
In 1995, Thomas F. Lennon and Michael Epstein’s acclaimed documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane was aired as part of the PBS television series The American Experience. Narrated by Richard Ben Cramer, it chronicled the lives of Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst and the furor caused by Citizen Kane. It was later packaged as a bonus disc with the Citizen Kane DVD, which features audio commentary by film critic Roger Ebert and director Peter Bogdanovich. In part, the documentary inspired the 1999 HBO biographical film RKO 281.
David Nasaw, who appears in The Battle Over Citizen Kane as a Hearst expert, questioned some of the traditional wisdom about the movie in his book The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. The documentary essentially lays the blame for Citizen Kane’s relative failure at the feet of Hearst. The film did decent business at the box-office and went on to be the sixth highest grossing film in its year of release, which fell short of its creators’ expectations but was still acceptable to its backers. Nasaw agrees Hearst’s refusal to advertise the film hurt its chances of profitability, but also notes that 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). He goes on to say:
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.
The documentary points out the great irony that Welles’ own life story resembled that of Charles Foster Kane far more than Hearst’s: an overreaching wunderkind who ended up mournful and lonely in his old age. Director 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…” The documentary closed with an archived interview with Welles, who sadly closed the documentary:
…I have wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox, which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about two percent moviemaking and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, The Battle over Citizen Kane lost to Anne Frank Remembered.
There are several technical mistakes in the film. In the scene where the young Charles Foster Kane is sent away from his parents, the camera dollies backwards revealing a top hat on a table. The top hat is teetering back and forth, because the table on which it is sitting had just been moved into place to allow the camera to dolly between the two halves. Later in the scene, as the camera moves with Mrs. Kane to the window in the background, a chair is yanked out of the picture by a stagehand to clear the way for the moving camera. Late in the film, a white parrot links one scene with the next. The parrot is superimposed and the background can be seen through its eye. The “beach party” scene was shot in a studio against a blank grey screen. The background, which was matted in later, is stock footage from an earlier RKO Pictures jungle movie. In one shot, we can see pteranodons flying in the background.
In F for Fake, Welles claims Kane was originally intended to be based on Hughes (to be played by Joseph Cotten) but he changed it to Hearst. During production, Citizen Kane was referred to as RKO 281.
Sonny Bupp, who played Kane’s young son, Charles Foster Kane III, is the last credited cast member still alive. Robert Wise, who was the last living credited crew member, died of heart failure on September 14, 2005. Richard Baer, who acted both as an uncredited assistant director and as an uncredited extra in the film, is listed by the Internet Movie Database as still being alive as of 2006.
In a series of documentaries about Welles’ career made and broadcast by the BBC in 1982, several anecdotes about the aftermath of the film’s release included a policeman advising Welles not to go back to a hotel room in Buffalo, New York where he was giving a lecture, because apparently an undressed, underage girl was waiting there along with several photographers. “So I didn’t go back to my hotel room that night, it was a set-up”, Welles explained.
Another described Welles’ only apparent sole meeting with William Randolph Hearst in an elevator in a building in San Francisco, where the film was apparently being premiered. Welles offered Hearst some free tickets but the tycoon declined to answer; Welles later stated that if the same person had been Charles Foster Kane instead of Hearst, he would’ve probably accepted the offer.
Orson Welles attended and graduated from the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, and thus would have been influenced by and knowledge of the other major living characters of this particular era (in addition to William Randolph Hearst) that inspired the Kane character in the movie. These were the Chicago Utilities Magnate Samuel Insull (1859-1938) and Chicago Tribune Publisher Robert McCormick (1880-1955). Both of the Chicago men were featured prominently in the news of the day. The story of how Kane built “Chicago’s” opera house for his wife was partially inspired by the true story of Insull’s construction and funding of Chicago’s Lyric Opera building which featured performances of Insull’s wife, Gladys.
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, coincidently, the last name of the only major character in Citizen Kane who receives a completely positive portrayal in the film.
The character of political boss Jim Gettys is based on Charles F. Murphy, a political leader in New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine. In one scene Gettys chews out Kane for printing a cartoon showing him in prison stripes. In real life, Murphy, who was a horsecar driver and owned several bars, was depicted in a 1903 Hearst cartoon wearing striped prison clothes. A caption, referring to the restaurant Murphy frequented, said: “Look out, Murphy. It’s a short lock-step from Delmonico’s to Sing Sing.”
The English captions on the US DVD seem to paraphrase the spoken dialogue: The meaning they convey is almost identical, but the actual diction differs constantly in almost every scene. While small, occasional discrepancies in captions are common, the discrepancies in the Citizen Kane captions are ubiquitous and sometimes go as far as to change the tone (if not the actual meaning) of the dialogue.
There is also an Audio Commentary Track by Film Critic Roger Ebert .
Language(s):English ( with audio commentary by roger ebert)
Subtitles:English ( srt )