When I was first compiling the list that would eventually become this Cinematic Century project there were a handful of years that were shockingly difficult to come to a consensus on. For the most part things weren’t too hard, there would be a few films that I really enjoyed, but one standout that made sense to be my favorite film of the year. But, every now and then, I came across a year where cinema was really firing on all cylinders, producing a group of near-perfect films that each could be considered some of my favorite films of all time. And 1941 is the first time in this project that we’re going to be seeing one such year. Because it was damn near impossible to pick which film of 1941 I loved the most. As you can see, I picked the somewhat safe choice. I’m not blowing any minds by saying that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is an extraordinary film. I’ve probably screwed myself over, given myself the impossible task of trying to say something about Citizen Kane that feels at all unique. But, even though 1941 had shockingly tough competition, I feel comfortable by choosing Kane was my favorite film of the year. But it was a close one. Because 1941 also gave us two of my favorite films of all time. That’s right, Dumbo and the Wolf Man! Oh, wait. No. Those movies are just kind of mediocre. The real source of struggle for 1941 come from the Maltese Falcon and Sullivan’s Travels. Now, I’ve already talked about Sullivan’s Travels here on the site, and I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t. It’s funny, smart, and completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The Maltese Falcon is one of the finest examples of the noir detective in cinema history, and remains the bar all other must attempt to measure themselves against. They’re two of the finest films in American cinematic history, and I can’t sing their praises enough. But, when we get right down to it, there’s just no denying the power that Citizen Kane holds. It’s trite to call it the “best film ever made,” and I don’t think that I would agree with that statement any way. But, the most important? The most influential? The most defining of American cinema? Well, maybe. At least up until this point. Citizen Kane is a watershed film in American film, a demarcation point. There were American films before Citizen Kane, and American films after Citizen Kane, and that difference is staggering.
And it all came about from a relative amateur. By the mid-Thirties Orson Welles was already pretty well-known, primarily due to his success with The Mercury Theater on the Air and his famous production of War of the Worlds. Hollywood took notice of this rising star, and began courting him to move his brilliance over to the silver screen. RKO won that competition and brought Welles into their studio, but by giving him the most ludicrous contract anyone had ever seen. Welles had to give them two movies, but he was given complete creative control, and even was allowed to have final cut of the film, meaning that the studio couldn’t interfere in the slightest, letting Welles do absolutely whatever he wanted. He then got to work, trying to get an adaptation of Heart of Darkness and a political thriller off the ground, both of which failed. But, while working on these aborted films Welles started working with screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, and the two started to develop the idea of Citizen Kane. Largely based on the life and career of publishing titan William Randolph Hearst, the script eventually became a hodgepodge of different titans of industry, primarily the newspaper business. They began picking and choosing various plot points in the lives of these men to create an idealized American figure, a mythic newspaperman who would come to define them all, while not exactly directly insulting anyone in particular. Welles then got to work filming the movie, which was a little difficult since this was the very first film he was associated with. He ended up bringing a lot of actors from his Mercury Theater with him, most of whom had never acted on the screen, and Welles threw himself into a crash-course film school. Which primarily took the form of Welles watching movies over and over with professionals, learning how the most impressive scenes and frames were accomplished. He took the most interest in John Ford’s Stagecoach, which we talked about a couple weeks ago, and ended up inventing his own film style, pulling from dozens of different sources. Unfortunately, while the film would come to be beloved in the decades after it was released, when it first came out it was a pretty massive failure. And, more than likely, that happened because of William Randolph Heart. He was not amused by Kane, and fought like mad to get the film cancelled. He threatened theaters that offered to premiere the film. But, it eventually got out, and the public just didn’t click with it. Which is kind of understandable, because it’s such an innovative film that I’m sure it felt like the strangest film people had ever seen.
Citizen Kane follows a boisterous and larger-than-life man called Charles Foster Kane. The film begins with the death of Kane, aged and bitter, his cryptic final words “Rosebud.” Kane lived an absurd life, but one that most people already knew. So, when some journalists get to work creating an expose on the life of Kane, they’re in desperate need to find something about Kane that most people don’t know. And, when they learn that no one quite understands his final words, they send a reporter named Jerry Thompson to go interview the people closest to Kane and figure out what Rosebud could possibly mean. He then travels around the country, slowly piecing together the life of Kane. His first source of real information is when he gets to read the private diary of a renowned banker named Walter Thatcher, who was Kane’s guardian when he was young. We learn that Kane’s mother found herself the owner of a massive gold-mine on their property in Colorado, and she decided she needed a better life for young Charles, and basically gave him to Thatcher to ensure Kane’s schooling and fortune would be in good hands. Kane grew to despise Thatcher, and when he became old enough to actually control his own fortune he decided to dedicate his career to spiting the man. Kane learned that one of the companies his trust owned was a washed up newspaper called the New York Inquirer, and Kane decides to give the paper his undivided attention. Kane takes over the paper with the help of his friends Jedediah Leland and Mr. Bernstein, and they quickly started to build up the reader-base of the paper, primarily by engaging in yellow journalism and filling the paper with scandalous reporting, much of it designed to besmirch Thatcher.
With that knowledge in hand, Thompson then heads on to his next source, Bernstein himself. Bernstein then fills Thompson in on the era of Kane’s life where the Inquirer was on top. He tells Thompson about the paper’s meteoric rise, especially due to their involvement in the Spanish-American War. He also talks about Kane’s first wife, Emily Norton, the niece of a President. Kane’s was on top of the world at that point, growing his fortune and spreading his media empire until he had a massive amount of influence on the country. But, Bernstein clearly holds Kane in a state of reverence, so Thompson heads out to find a less glowing source of information. And to get that he seeks out Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland, who is now living in a retirement home, frittering away his final days. Leland tells Thompson all about the darkest period of Kane’s life, which began when his marriage to Norton started to get strained and contentious. And, around this time, Kane decided that being in charge of the media wasn’t enough, and he started toying around with becoming the governor of New York. He runs a pretty successful campaign, primarily railing against a corrupt political mastermind called Jim W Gettes. However, disaster strikes when Kane meets a young woman named Susan Alexander. He falls in love with Susan, who has dreams of becoming a singer, and the two start an affair. And, when Gettes finds out about the affair, he tells Norton and prepares to make the affair public. Kane is then divorced, becomes too scandalous to get the nomination, and ends up marrying Susan.
Kane then became obsessed with showing the world that Susan is as talented as he thinks she is, proving that he made a good choice throwing his political career away for her. The only problem is, she isn’t a great singer. So, Kane does the rational thing and builds his own opera house so that Susan can be a star. And it’s a disaster. No one likes Susan’s singing, and after Leland had the gall to give her a negative theater review he’s fired and never spoke to Kane again. So, Thompson heads out to find Susan, who begins telling him what a nightmare Kane’s final years were. She says that Kane forced her to keep singing, against her wishes, until she finally attempted suicide to end it all. He then finally gave up on his dream, and instead started spending all of his money to build a massive mansion in Florida that he called Xanadu. Kane and Susan then lived in Xanadu, slowly growing to hate one another as they become the only two people in their lives. Kane grows bitter and jaded, and Susan finally can’t take it anymore, leaving Kane. Which is all Susan knows. She doesn’t know what Rosebud means either. So, Thompson heads out to Xanadu, which is in the process of being boxed up, the vast riches and belongings of Kane being cataloged and sold. He meets with Kane’s butler, who does remember Kane saying the word Rosebud when he found a slowglobe in Susan’s room after she left, but doesn’t really know what it meant. So, Thompson figures it’s time to give up. He announces to his colleagues that no one will ever know what Rosebud is, and that they should just move on. And, as they leave the mansion, we see what Rosebud is. It’s a sled. The sled he had in his childhood home in Colorado, a last reminder of his innocence, and the last time that he was truly happy. But, no one sees that, and the sled is burned with the rest of his worthless possessions from Colorado, keeping the mystery intact for all time.
I mean, what is there to say? It’s Citizen Kane! It’s one of the most beloved films of all time, a movie that has been picked apart by dozens of film critics and fans with much more talent and skill that I could ever hope to have. It’s one of the most homaged and parodied movie’s that ever existed. And I love it. It’s incredible to think about what it would have been like to see this film in 1941, because the way Welles made this film feels completely alien. It’s easy to understand the idea that Welles wasn’t quite sure how to make movies, and just dove into film history, because you can see a whole litany of influences. I really does feel like Welles had a specific vision in his head, and because he wasn’t aware of the limitations of the medium at the time, just made the film he wanted to, standard be damned. It’s a film with a non-linear story-line that features shockingly well-done makeup effects, integrates documentary style at times, and is full of almost Expressionistic lighting and shots. It’s very strange, especially for the time. But it works. It works so incredibly well. Orson Welles is one of those people that you can’t help but kind of hate, because he wrote, starred, and directed in one of the most important and influential films of all time, and he was only 26 at the time. It’s a beautiful film, exquisitely shot and full of some of the most poetic direction that I’ve gotten to highlight during this entire project. The idea to fill this film with cavernous and sumptuous sets that both show the wealth and loneliness of Kane is brilliant, and helps create one of the loneliest characters in American cinematic history. It’s a wonderful mystery, expertly unfolded by a group of mostly inexperienced actors who are able to portray these complex characters, even through some rather elaborate makeup to show their transitions through the years. It’s a film that entire books have been written about, and it’s easy to see why. This truly is the Great American Film.
Citizen Kane is a film that may be somewhat hampered by its own legacy at this point. For decades it’s held the honor of being one of the traditional go to examples of “Best Film of All Time.” And that burden can make it kind of hard to get into. A lot of people go into Citizen Kane with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, figuring that there’s no way that Kane will live up to that honor. And, if you’re going into any movie with a combative nature it probably won’t live up to it, let alone a film like Kane, which can sometimes be hard to appreciate when you’re watching it in modern day. Because Citizen Kane really is a film that helped change American cinema forever. So, when you watch it in modern day you’re seeing the decades worth of movies that Kane has influenced, and it can be hard to give it the proper historical context, and realize how revolutionary the film was at the time. Which could be why it was such a failure at the time. It was little too ahead of its time. But, despite all of that technological and craft innovations that the film contained, at its core it’s an incredibly interesting story. Because it’s a story that feels very familiar. It’s a dark reflection of the American Dream. Kane is a character who found himself in a position of accidental wealth and power, which he’s told from childhood is what will make him happy, and he begins a lifelong quest to find that happiness. Americans are taught that the goal in life is to pull yourself up and become a success, because that’s the only way to find true happiness. But Kane shows that that’s not always the case. He spends his entire life doing everything that he possibly can to be loved and accepted, and each and every time he gets shut down. He leads a fascinating life, becomes a captain of industry, holds sway over thousands if not millions of people, and collects an empire of wealth and decadence. And yet, on his deathbed, the only thing on his mind was happiness, and the fact that he was never able to buy or find it. Putting aside all of the film’s massive importance, and it’s enduring legacy, at it’s heart it’s just a film about a man realizing that he squandered his life. Possibly the greatest fear that anyone can have. And it’s heartbreaking.
Citizen Kane was written by Herman J Makiewicz and Orson Welles, directed by Orson Welles, and released by RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.
Categories: Cinematic Century