Movies That Everyone Should See: “Citizen Kane”

In 1941, Orson Welles co-wrote, directed and starred in “Citizen Kane”. It was his first feature-length film in each regard. Though a box office disappointment at the time of its release, it has since come to be regarded as “The Greatest Film of All Time”.

Not bad for a rookie.

And yet, the same brash, talented persona that led him to take bold chances as a filmmaker with “Kane” led him to challenge one of the most powerful men in America via its very creation. It was a legendary act of hubris and daring which would have a profound impact on Welles’ career, and almost undo the film itself.

And thus “Citizen Kane” is not just “The Greatest Film” of all time, but one of the most legendary film stories of all time.

Orson Welles was a boy genius, a wunderkind. His father had made a fortune by inventing a bicycle lamp, which afforded Welles the opportunity for a private school education. However, both of his parents died while he was still young. His mother, when he was 9, his father, when he was 15. Still, his non traditional education, heavy on the creative arts, would serve him well. He was awarded a scholarship to Harvard.

He passed it up.

His forray into show business, at age 20, was putting on a version of “Macbeth”, using funding from a depression era program – The Federal Theatre Project – which was created to create jobs for people in the performing arts. Staged in Harlem with an African-American cast, Welles changed the play’s location from Scotland to Haiti, and replaced the Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s work with Voodoo, leading to the production’s nickname “Voodoo Macbeth”.

“Voodoo Macbeth” was a resounding box office success, in no small part to the controversy surrounding it.

A scant two years later, after a string of other highly succesful plays and the formation of his own stage company (The Mercury Theatre), Welles was given a weekly radio show by CBS. He was the voice of “The Shadow”. His theatre company was also given an hourly radio program to perform the classics. It was, however, their Halloween eve performance of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” in 1938 which would become the stuff of legends. Done in mock “News Bulletin” style and without commercial interruption, and timed to put the most sensational elements on when other radio broadcasts would be going to breaks, the “War of the Worlds” broadcast legendarily hoaxed many listeners… causing them to believe that the alien invasion was happening for real.

Hollywood took note.

And so, in 1939, Orson Welles was offered an unprecendented Hollywood contract with RKO pictures. He was given complete creative control, and large (but not unlimited) budgets for a two picture deal.

Wells was 24 years old.

His first Hollywood film was “Citizen Kane”. It was a work of daring. Technically innovative, and controversial in its subject, “Kane” was the bold work of a brash young man who didn’t know fully what he was getting into – in many different ways. Welles attributes the chances the film took and the innovations it made to “ignorance…sheer ignorance. There is no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you are timid or careful.”

“Citizen Kane” is a biography of the fictional Charles Foster Kane. Kane was an amalgam of several notable figures, including Welles himself. Yet mainly, he was based on real life Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Opening with the news of his death, the film lays out Kane’s story via flashbacks, as reporters interview those who knew him in an attempt to learn who the man really was, and to learn the meaning of his final word, “Rosebud”. Born into enormous wealth, Kane went into the newspaper business and created a media empire, partially through the practice of “Yellow Journalism” He ran unsuccessfully for political office. He traveled the world, collecting priceless works of art. He had an enormous palatial estate built, complete with the world’s largest private zoo.

Kane has everything that money can buy, almost literally. But the movie makes no bones about the fact that he failed to make genuine human connections. At no shortage of happy hirelings and sycophants, Kane had few genuine friends, and over time, his wealth and ambition separate him from them. He fails to find true love with either of his wives. He dies alone, longing for the days of his youth, when he was still with his family. The innocent days, prior to inheriting his trust.

“Citizen Kane” doesn’t just still hold up today, it’s still a phenomenal movie. Thematically, as long as there’s wealth, power and loneliness, the lessons of Charles Foster Kane will always stay valid. But in tone and in style, the movie still feels very fresh. It was so far ahead of its time that it’s formidable seven decades later.

The movie has garnered an incredible reputation for itself over time, but it’s not simply due to the fact that it’s a great piece of dramatic fiction. “Kane” is also one of the most technically innovative films in movie history, pioneering several techniques that are still in use to this day. Here are some of the most notable technical innovations of “Citizen Kane”.

  • Deep Focus Deep Focus is a film technique where the foreground, middle-ground and background of a scene are all in focus at the same time. This was prior to the invention of the split-diopter lens, so a variety of techniques were necessary in order to achieve the results. Telephoto lenses were used for closeups, matte shots and overlays were used at points, and super bright lighting in conjunction with wide camera lenses utilizing small apertures. Deep focus was a revolutionary effect, and gave the movie a much different look than other contemporary films.
  • Low Angle Shots. The film makes use of upward camera angles at several points. This was an unheard of technique at the time, as movie cameras and soundstages weren’t made to accommodate the technique… the “rooms” of soundstages had no ceilings, and cameras weren’t designed to get low in order to get these angles. Welles actually had cloth stretched across soundstages to create fake ceilings, and created “trenches” made for his cameras so he could set them below the scene.
  • Non-Linear Storytelling. Though not the first film to tell its story in a non chronological manner, “Citizen Kane” is considered a pioneer of the technique. Aside from being told mainly in non sequential flashbacks, the film also makes use of several montages (themselves a compressed chronology). Again, not the first time the technique was used on film, but the first time they were used to such great effect.
  • Multiple Narrators. Citizen Kane isn’t told from a singular point of view. Several people within the story retell the events of the life of Charles Foster Kane. No less than five different voices are represented in “Kane”, and some with limited reliability. For this reason, the film is considered the introduction of the literary concept of the “Unreliable Narrator” to the world of cinema.
  • Creative Use of Sound “Kane” was one of the first films to explore the artistic possibilities of film audio. At the time, filmmakers were content to simply have sound effects mirroring events onscreen, sync dialogue with the actors lips, and overlay a score. Welles, coming from radio, realized more was possible, and began mixing sounds in ways that had never been utilized before, using sound effects to reinforce themes and editing sound to film in new ways.

As inventive and creatively rich as the film was, however, Welles hadn’t factored in the fight that William Randolph Hearst would put up over it.

Newspaper Magnate William Randolph Hearst

Welles was no stranger to controversy and criticism. If anything, the “backlash” against his previous works such as “Voodoo Macbeth” and “War of the Worlds” propelled his career forward. It’s safe to assume that at this point in his career he felt as though a touch of controversy was beneficial.

But William Randolph Hearst was an extremely powerful man. Born the son of a mining magnate, Hearst bought his way into the newspaper business and earned his own fortune by expanding his newspaper chain nationally. He made his media empire by appealing to common individuals, not necessarily the well educated. His papers emphasized large print, pictures, and sensationalized stories. They often practiced “Yellow Journalism”, most famously in the sabre rattling lead up to the Spanish-American War.

Hearst’s empire had weakened some during the depression, and the man himself was 76 years old. So perhaps Welles didn’t anticipate the kind of vitriol he could muster. Nonetheless, he still controlled a national media empire, and was one of the wealthiest people alive on the planet. Hearst got hold of Mankiewicz’s unflattering script, and attempted to quash the film prior to its release. He threatened to run blackmail stories and exposes on Hollywood figures – not just related to Welles, “Kane” and RKO – but any Hollywood figure, unless the picture was stopped. Thus a cabal of Studio heads (led by Louis B Mayer) gathered and offered to buy the picture from RKO for the cost of its production plus a reasonable profit – with the intention of never letting it be shown to the public. RKO held a screening and a meeting in New York in order to discuss the situation with the other studios. Welles was in attendance. Legend holds that prior to the screening, Welles gave an impassioned plea… the “Speech of his life”, and that that speech helped save the movie.

RKO didn’t sell.

Hearst wasn’t finished with it, however. Not only did he refuse to advertise for it in his national newspapers, he refused to run ads for other RKO films as well. He threatened individual theatre locations with not running ads for them if their theatres showed the film. As a result. RKO had difficulty rolling the film out to the public. Welles at one point offered to buy the film himself and screen it in tents across the country. That never happened. But perhaps, in the lowest blow of this battle, Hearst ran articles insinuating that Welles was a Communist… to the extent that Hoover’s FBI “opened a file” on him.

All of these factors contributed to “Kane”‘s lack of success at the box office. The film failed to recoup its production budget in its initial run, losing approximately $150,000.

In spite of its failure at the box office, the movie was a critical success upon release. It earned rave reviews and was nominated for nine Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Art Direction (Black-and-White), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Music, and Best Sound Recording. However, due to William Randolph Hearst’s ongoing vendetta against the film, and the resentment many Academy members held towards Welles for his unprecedented creative control and resources (he was a first time filmmaker and a 25-year-old), Welles was actually booed at several points during the ceremony. The film wound up only taking home the award for Best Screenplay, and it may not have even won that if it weren’t for the good Hollywood standing of co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz (many historians consider it a career award).

Neither Welles nor Hearst was the ever same man again. The viciousness that Hearst employed attempting to quash “Kane” gave validity to the speculation that the film was based on him. To this day, the public perception of Hearst is founded on the film. Welles’ career was irreparably damaged. He never held complete creative control over a film again. In fact, the second film in his contract with RKO was taken from his control and finished by the studio. He remained a Hollywood player as an actor and director, but the heights his career might have reached had he not tangled with Hearst are one of the great Hollywood “What ifs?”

“Citizen Kane” would see its day in the sun, however. Due to the timing of its original release (the dawn of WWII), the film never had an initial european run. So it was rereleased in Europe in the late 40s. It was extremely well received. RKO was also one of the first film studios to sell their film catalogue for television broadcast, and subsequently, “Kane” was one of the early wave of films to be broadcast on TV in the mid 1950s. These re-release runs helped the film begin its climb to the top of filmdom.

It stands now as one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time.

“Citizen Kane” has famously been awarded the #1 spot on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies, and held onto its crown ten years later with the release of the 100 Years… 100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition. It has also held the top spot through each of the past five Sight & Sound (The official magazine of the BFI) polls of the Greatest Films of All Time. A feat made more impressive when the fact that the polls are only done once a decade. Meaning Citizen Kane has held their title for over 50 years (a new one should be released this year). But lest I lead people to believe the film is only revered in academic circles, it also cracks the top 40 on IMDb’s Top 250 (#38), a much more populist list.

It’s a movie with an impeccable pedigree. It has been decreed “The Greatest Film of all Time” by the most significant film organizations in existence. It was filmed at the onset of World War II, yet still remains relevant, because of its timeless qualities and remarkable craftsmanship.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

Of course, not everyone agrees! For a counterpoint, check out “Classically Shitty: Citizen Kane” over at Awesomely Shitty! We’ve released these articles concurrently in order to present both sides of the picture, so be sure to check out the other side of the coin!!

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