CITIZEN KANE

By Professor Elena Starr, Villanova University

Lobby Card

 

“The word genius was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard, while I was still mewling in my crib. So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t until middle age.” — Orson Welles, Wall Street Journal

 

INDUSTRY APPROACH

Orson Welles was a child prodigy, an “enfant terrible” who excelled at a variety of arts. He was reading Shakespeare by the age of three, and at nineteen he had his own edition of Shakespeare’s works published, which sold 200,000 copies. By his late teens, he had already proven his talent as a painter, a journalist, a magician (as his father was), and an actor and director in Dublin’s prestigious Abbey Theatre. He had also taken up bullfighting in Spain, where, even today, he is regarded by many as an authority on the subject. At 20, having returned to the U.S., he became co-producer of the Negro Peoples Theatre, one of then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s public works projects. (This is the topic of Tim Robbins’ fairly recent film The Cradle Will Rock.) One of Welles’ major accomplishments at this point was to partner with actor/director John Houseman (later star of the film and TV versions of The Paper Chase) and to take a group of African-Americans who had never acted before and stage an all-black production of Macbeth, replete with voodoo. A highly audacious venture for its time, the play became the theatrical sensation of 1936.

 

At the age of 22, Welles established the Mercury Theatre, where he acted and directed. At 23, he made the cover of Time. He became important in the world of radio, where he made about $3,000 a week (despite the Depression), primarily as the voice of the eponymous hero of “The Shadow.”  Welles funneled much of his radio earnings into the Mercury Theatre productions, including the infamous radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” in which he convinced audiences that Martians had landed on Earth.

NYC Premier – 1941

 

 

Meanwhile, RKO Studios in Hollywood was keeping tabs on Welles, and he was finally wooed to Hollywood in 1940. Although he had already rejected several other film contracts, the 24-year-old  could not turn down RKO’s offer: $150,000 per picture, plus 25% of gross receipts and total autonomy. This included final cut (one of your vocab terms – look it up if you don’t know it). There were many veteran directors in Hollywood who’d never received final cut, so it was inevitable that some of them would be jealous of the new kid in town. Initially Welles agreed to direct films only to fund his theatre productions, but he ended up getting hooked on filmmaking.

 

Welles’ dream project, a screen version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which would later be loosely adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now), was vetoed by financially strapped RKO as being too expensive. Then Welles proposed an economical thriller, The Smiler with a Knife, based on a pulp novel. This was nixed on casting grounds: Welles wanted Lucille Ball, at the time an also-ran RKO contract player, to star. RKO thought Welles was crazy; Ball (who would ironically wind up owning the studio) couldn’t carry a picture, studio brass explained. Other ideas were also discarded, leading to snickers about Welles’ ability to complete a film project. Finally, Welles embarked on the project that would end up being Citizen Kane.

 

Despite the promise of autonomy, studio honchos paid visits to the set of Kane. To keep their hands off his project, Welles told them that certain scenes were merely being rehearsed, not shot. In this way, Welles was able to film using bold stylistics that the studio heads may not have approved of.

 

Though later lauded as an auteur, Welles was in some ways a collaborative director. He often praised veteran screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz for contributions to the script, Gregg Toland for the film’s cinematography, and even a studio technician for suggesting that an actor playing a stagehand hold his nose during Susan’s operatic debut.

 

“The Union forever!”

 

 

Toland, who’d just won an Oscar, simply showed up at Welles’ Hollywood office one day, saying he was bored and wanted to work with the Boy Wonder. Why? He felt the only way he could learn anything new was to collaborate with a neophyte with no preconceived ideas about the ins and outs of cinematography. In fact, Welles didn’t know Toland was supposed to supervise the lighting; instead, he told Toland what to do and Toland did it, learning new techniques which Welles didn’t realize weren’t generally used in filmmaking (more on the film’s cinematography later).

 

“Rosebud

 

 

Almost every performer was making his/her film debut.  Many, such as Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead (who unfortunately is best known today to “Nick at Nite” denizens as Endora, Samantha’s conniving mother, on Bewitched), were members of the Mercury Theatre’s acting troupe. Ruth Warrick, who plays Kane’s first wife, first caught Welles’ attention when they worked together on a radio show.  One actress who had appeared on film before was Linda Winters, the daughter of a politician, she’d  been discovered by Charlie Chaplin. Welles made her give up her stage name and take back her real name, Dorothy Commingore. She’s the one actor in Kane who never achieved stardom. She went on to bit roles in a couple of B movies, including one with the Three Stooges, but her career was eventually undone by a series of personal misfortunes, including the House UnAmerican Activities Committee’s witch hunts.

 

William Randolf Hearst

 

Gossip columnist Louella Parsons heard that Welles’ film was a thinly veiled biopic about America’s powerful publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst. (It was rumored that Hearst, a ruthless wheeler-dealer for whom the term “yellow journalism” was coined, started the Spanish-American war in order to drum up headlines. This is alluded to in Kane.) The alleged allusions are possible for several reasons: First, Herman Mankiewicz, who cowrote Kane with Welles,  had been a frequent guest at Hearst’s castle until he became persona non grata due to his heavy drinking. Apparently Hearst’s mistress, sometime actress Marion Davies, had a problem with booze, and Hearst didn’t want Mankiewicz as her drinking buddy. So “Mank,” as Welles called him, was certainly privy to goings-on in the Hearst domain until he was ousted. Also, Welles’ dad had been a buddy of Hearst’s when they were “young swingers.” In fact, they had partied together often enough so that Welles had been introduced to Hearst when the future filmmaker was a little boy. Third,  despite his young age, Welles had already been married to and divorced from a wealthy socialite, Virginia Nicolson. Welles’ ex then married a nephew of Marion Davies, and Nicolson and husband #2 became frequent guests at the castle. It’s possible Welles was excluded from the Hearst guest list in order to avoid a confrontation with them. Also, Hearst’s politics were anathema to Welles, a liberal (more on this later). After ‘taking the waters” at a German spa in 1934, Hearst became a Nazi sympathizer. Week after week, Hearst’s publications ballyhooed the fascist regime. There was even a piece in the Hearst papers, written by Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Minister of Aviation, attempting to justify Germany’s rearmament to the American public.

 

Listed below are ways in which Hearst is mirrored in the character of Charles Foster Kane:

  • Both had family fortunes, thanks to oil found on their land
  • Both were newspaper magnates who did underhanded things
  • Both were married men with not-so-talented mistresses in show business
  • Both mistresses were alcoholic blondes who did jigsaw puzzles
  • Kane’s castle, Xanadu, looks a lot like Hearst’s
  • There’s talk about both deliberately starting a war to produce news
  • Quotes about Hearst were inserted in Kane, e.g., someone warning Kane that he was squandering his money and the retort that it would take 30 years for him to do so
  • If you look closely at the famous breakfast montage sequence, two of Hearst’s favorites, ketchup and steak sauce, can be seen on the table
  • “Rosebud” was allegedly Hearst’s pet name for Davies’ private parts

 

Welles, though, denied the connection, saying Hearst was raised by parents, but Kane was brought up by a bank. In fact, there is some truth to this statement. While Kane does have much in common with Hearst, he also shares several of Welles’ own qualities:

  • Both born in America’s heartland
  • Both mama’s boys, who were coddled and spoiled
  • Both were raised by an older gentleman*
  • Both womanizers who possessed bad tempers and megalomaniacal tendencies
  • Both amateur magicians

 

 

 

Still, Hearst thought the film was about him, and so he tried to destroy the negative, as well as every print of the film. When this plan was thwarted, he refused to allow his publications to print any ads for Kane, which resulted in little press coverage for the film upon its release. It also affected the film’s earnings. Citizen Kane opened to strong business in urban areas but did not do well in small towns. After its initial release and run, it showed on the RKO books at a loss of more than $150,000.  In fact, when Welles got a contract for two more films, someone cattily exclaimed that “Orson Welles has a contract for a film that no one will see in 1942 and another movie that no one will see in ‘43.” However, Kane did win critical accolades. The New York Times put it on its 10 Best List of the year.  Novelist John O’Hara, writing in Newsweek, claimed it was the best film he’d ever seen, and Esquire critic Gilbert Seldes effusively praised Welles as a “genius in the monstrously difficult art of writing with images.”  The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including the Best Picture of 1941. (It wound up losing to How Green Was My Valley.) It would win only one award, Best Original Screenplay (Mankiewicz and Welles).  At the Academy Awards ceremony, Welles’ name was booed every time it was mentioned, as he had alienated so many people.

 

Over the years, the film has continued to draw praise. It’s made Sight and Sound’s** 10 Best List, often in the #1 position, since 1962, and the American Film Institute has deemed it the best film ever made. According to French film theorist/critic/director François Truffaut, “everything that matters in cinema since 1941 has been influenced by Citizen Kane.”

 

THEORETICAL APPROACH: FORMALISM & REALISM IN CITIZEN KANE

 

 

The film employs three realistic techniques: The first is the pronounced use of a deep focus camera. Shots done with this kind of camera allow everything within the film frame, whether in the fore-, middle or background, to be in focus. This means a deep focus shot can be heavily detailed, with people, objects and action shown simultaneously in all three grounds. According to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, “there are shots with admirable depth, shots whose farthest planes (as in paintings by the pre-Raphaelites) are no less precise and detailed than the closest.” One important scene shot in deep focus occurs early in the film, in the Kanes’ cabin. Mrs. Kane is signing papers allowing her son to leave home and be raised by the bank. We see Mrs. Kane and Thatcher in the foreground at right, Mr. Kane in the middle ground at left, and young Charlie playing in the snow in the background, at the center of the screen.

 

The second realistic technique employed by Welles is the use of lengthy takes. This goes hand in hand with deep focus shots. Since there is so much information contained in a shot for the viewer to absorb, Welles typically holds his shots for a lengthy period of time, so the audience can absorb all the action and detail on screen. This means, for example, that in the deep focus shot cited above, the viewer has time to assimilate not only the actions of the four characters but also the backdrop — the spare, utilitarian decor of the Kanes’ home.

 

Realism is also showcased in the “News on the March” piece. The newsreel provides a detailed,   chronological synopsis of Kane’s life, appearing authentically scratched, grainy and archival in some segments. The segments helps the audience understand Kane’s character, as the rest of the films jumps back and forth in time and space.

 

On the other hand, much of Kane is expressionistic. One critic called the work a “seven-layer cake profusion.”   Another claims Welles pushed “the limits of then-available technology to create a true magic show, a visual and aural feast.”  And Welles himself insisted that ‘a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” The use of expressionism abounds in the detailed camerawork, a synthesis of techniques that were rarely used at the time. Each shot is scrupulously composed and employs a panoply of camera angles and distances.

 

ANGLES Study the scene that follows Susan’s debt when Kane orders his wife to go on with her “career.” Kane is shot from below, looming over Susan, making him seem threatening, while Susan is filmed from high angles, so she appears vulnerable. Another important use of angles occurs after Kane has lost the election. He goes to the office, where he is shot from a low angle. Why shoot him from below, given his political defeat? Also watch for the effective use of wide-angle shots at Xanadu, used in tandem with deep focus. What do these shots emphasize in the relationship between Kane and Susan at this point in their marriage?

 

EDITING Kane features a variety of editing techniques: dissolves from one scene to another, with one shot fading out as another fades in; wipes in the montage sequence; and shock cuts, employing a jarring transition between shots. An example of the latter occurs when there is a sudden cut to the “News on the March” section, with its newsreel footage and loud voiceover. Dolly shots are also used, particularly on Kane. What’s fascinating is that when there are dolly shots focused on the young Kane, the movement is brisk and steady, but when it focuses on Kane as an older man, the camera movement is slow and languid.

 

LIGHTING Lighting in Kane is formalistic, more appropriate for theatre than film. Many scenes are lit by high-intensity arc lamps, which had been recently introduced for Technicolor production. Lighting is used by Welles to set the mood and reinforce feelings. High-key lighting is used in scenes early in Kane’s life, when he’s still an idealist, while strong shadows appear as he ages and becomes more cynical. One scene that uses lighting effectively is in the newspaper’s screening room; coupled with smoke, it looks like the depths of Hell. But the most potent use of lighting may be in the Declaration of Principles scene. Half of Kane’s face is steeped in shadow as he first reads and then signs the document, while his two friends, who realize the impossibility of his adhering to these principles, are in full light. The symbolism should be obvious.

 

Light often pours in from a single source, as at the Thatcher Library. Also, while most films made at the time are lit from above, many scenes here are from below. This was necessitated by the use of extreme low angles, which would not allow for ceiling mounted lights. You may have even heard that Citizen Kane is the first film to feature ceilings. Also, the reporter’s face is always steeped in shadow. This reflects both the fact that his search for Rosebud’s identity would be in vain, and it is his quest, not the reporter himself, that is important. After all, if he were filmed in bright light, he might have become the film’s protagonist.

 

 

SPECIAL EFFECTS Unlike today, when special effects usually add to a film’s cost, here they were used in approximately 85% of Kane’s shots to keep costs in line. For example, Welles employed an optical printer to render the crowd at the political rally and the picnic caravan. Also, RKO’s art department was renowned, and they came up with the “the Snow White effect,” brooding matte shots of Xanadu that resemble the Evil Queen’s castle in Disney’s animated version of Snow White, as per Welles’ instructions.

 

Pay attention to the interview with Susan early in the film. At first, we see neon lights on a nightclub’s roof, announcing her appearance. The view is punctuated with flashes of lightning, providing illumination. Then the camera seems to pass through the sign and rooftop skylight without a cut. Actually, the shot was done with a miniature set. An edited shot – a dissolve – occurs at the exact moment of the lightning flash. The flash effectively hides the dissolve. Also, by coming through the roof, our first view of Susan is from above, making her appear vulnerable. By the way, we’re also voyeurs here, as we enter the club without an invitation, just as we previously ignored Xanadu’s “No Trespassing” sign and entered the castle as Kane lay dying.

 

ACTING STYLE – The performances, too, are flamboyant, more typical of theatrical productions than of films. The actors project their lines without a hint of naturalism. One cast member claimed that any other director would have toned them down, but Welles encouraged the theatricality of their performances. Watch the characters interact: Instead of looking directly at each other, they are often turned slightly to the front, as in a play. Even the make-up borders on the excessive, as at Susan’s operatic debut.

 

MAKE-UP The make-up, done by Maurice Seiderman, posed a challenge.  The story spans 70-plus years, with characters shown at various ages.  Welles himself had to spend four hours a day getting made up as the older Kane, getting several chins put on.  In addition, Seiderman devised a fake “appliance” for Welles’ nose. His nose was apparently unusually shaped for his type of face– the bridge underdeveloped and the nostrils bigger than normal — causing his face to photograph abnormally flat-looking. Seiderman designed an addition which gave Welles’ nose a long and narrow bridge. After fashioning a mold of the device, Seiderman was able to make new copies out of plastic foam for each day’s shooting.  Welles was so happy with the adjustment that he would continue to wear the Seiderman “nose” in future films, including Touch of Evil.

 

SET DESIGN  – The sets reveal the characters who dwell in them. There’s the aforementioned Kane cabin, with its spare, functional furnishings, and Xanadu’s expansive, empty chamber, with its walk-in fireplace, echoing the vacuous lives led by Kane and Susan. Most telling is the transitional scene, indicating a passage of time, when Kane and Susan meet. At first she’s playing piano for him in a shabby rooming house, and in the next shot, while Susan is still playing, the rundown furniture has been replaced by elegant furnishings. In this way, we are visually clued in to the fact that Susan has become Kane’s mistress and a kept woman.

 

SOUND Thanks to Welles’ radio work, sound was one of his specialties. In fact, sound here is as intricately layered as the deep focus shots. Each camera shot has a corresponding aural technique. In other words, sounds match the visuals: Long shots are associated with distant sounds; close-ups have loud, jarring noises; hand-held shots often have staccato sounds; high-angle shots are matched with high-pitched tones, and low angles with deep, brooding rumbles. And Welles used aural lightning mixes, when one character’s dialogue is abruptly cut off and finished by another, as when Kane says “Merry Christmas” and his guardian issues “and a happy New Year” 20 years later.

 

Sound, like the visuals, is also layered, with back-, middle- and foreground sounds contrasted. A fine example of this is at the banquet, where Leland and Bernstein are having a tête-à-tête in the foreground, and Kane and several chorines are carrying on behind them. We hear the men’s conversation and the singing, as well as the band playing in the background.

 

Music is an integral element here. There are musical leitmotifs associated with various characters and objects. The refrain that accompanies Kane is played in an upbeat manner when he’s young, while it is more of a drawn-out bass when he’s older. Film scorer Bernie Hermann (who is also known for composing the scores for several Hitchcock films) initially did not want to do the music for Kane. However, Welles allowed him to prewrite some of the music, to which Welles matched his edited shots, which gave Hermann a modicum of creativity. This is true of the breakfast montage sequence, with its six parallel scenes. The music gets darker with each subsequent shot, reflecting the Kanes’ deteriorating marriage. relationship.

 

GENRE

It’s possible, as Giannetti explains, to make a case for Kane fitting into a variety of generic models, including film noir (with its claustrophobic environment, expressionistic techniques, reflective surfaces, and Kane’s lust for power), the detective drama (who/what is Rosebud?), or the family melodrama (a boy ripped away from his parents at an early age). While all of these elements are present to a degree, perhaps Kane transcends genre; maybe it shouldn’t be assigned to one specific genre.

 

 

WELLES AS AN AUTEUR FILMMAKER

You’ve already read that Welles conferred with Gregg Toland on the cinematography. Welles also had a hand in the film’s editing, sound (including music) and set design. He cowrote the script, too, though the authorship’s been disputed. (The first draft was written by Mankiewicz, who had initially called the project America.) But as mentioned earlier, Welles lavishly praised others for their contributions to the film. For instance, Mankiewicz was responsible, not only for the Rosebud mystery but also for Welles’ favorite scene in the film: When Bernstein reminisces about catching a glimpse of a woman in white whom he still thinks about every day, even after 40 years. (Does this sound familiar? It should, since it was rehashed in a big hit a few years ago.)

 

While he had a hand in every aspect of Kane, are there themes and/or visuals here that also run throughout his entire oeuvre? The answer is yes. Consider what Welles himself had to say:  “Almost all serious stories in the world are stories of failure with a death in it. But there is more lost paradise in them than defeat.”  In that light, it’s easy to see that virtually all of Welles’ completed films could be entitled The Arrogance of Power, involving the downfall of a powerful figure. Welles paints power and wealth as corrupting influences, and often the corrupt end up “devouring” themselves. Frequently, the moral defeat of these antagonists is depicted in a symbolic fall. (Think about how this symbolic fall is manifest in Kane.)

 

Also, Welles’ films are populated by two kinds of people – predators and victims. In addition to antagonists, there is usually a naive character who doesn’t realize evil when he meets it. (Who is this character in Kane?) Another trait common to many Welles’ films is that they begin at the end and then backtrack, looking into the past.

 

Yet another auteur quality appears in Welles’ pyrotechnic stylistics. As previously shown in regard to Kane, they are for the most part very much in the expressionistic mode, and they would continue in this vein in the rest of Welles’ film work.

 

Unfortunately, Kane would prove to be the apex of Welles’ film career. RKO surreptitiously cut his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, to shreds while Welles was in South America, working on his third picture. Although Welles went on to make several other films, he never had a box-office hit in the U.S. However, Europeans, especially the French, welcomed his movies. (They score one out of three, as the other objects of Gallic veneration are Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke.)  Welles also began work on at least 25 other movies that were never made, which has led to speculation that Welles has a fear of completion. Instead, he made money acting in 60-plus movies and dozens of theatre productions, many of them in Europe. His roles include playing Mr. Rochester in the classic 1939 version of Jane Eyre, opposite Joan Fontaine. In fact, this film seems decidedly Wellesian in tone, with an abundance of expressionistic tendencies, and several of his people, including John Houseman and his make-up man, also worked on the project

 

 

 

 

IDEOLOGY

Kane echoes many of Welles’ own political views. He was a lifelong liberal, and like most intellectuals of the pre-World War II era, was strongly pro FDR’s New Deal in his sympathies. Throughout the 30’s and 40’s, in fact, Welles wrote a number of Roosevelt’s radio speeches and made many public speeches attacking segregation, anti-Semitism, isolationism and fascism. (There is a pointed scene in his noir classic The Lady from Shanghai where Welles’ character – he acted in most of his films – admits to once killing a man, a right-wing supported of Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain. This is probably autobiographical in nature.) How is Welles’ liberalism evinced in Citizen Kane?

 

In conclusion, below are issues to consider as you watch the film:

 

1. Study the strong angles; actor placement; symbolic use of light/shadow; closed forms; length of shots; costumes, make-up and acting; and, use of a deep focus camera. Which are realist and which formalistic? Can you cite examples of light/shadow used effectively? What about specific instances of low angles contrasted with high angles? What is unusual about the placement of actors within the mise en scène?

 

2. Camera shots have their aural equivalents; thus, long shots are associated with distant sounds while close-ups are accompanied by crisp, mostly loud sounds. Ask yourself what sound and its visual equivalent are like when Kane is an idealistic young man, compared to when he’s aged. Can you find examples of sounds overlapping or dissolving into each other?  Welles also made use of sound effects. For instance, how is sound manipulated in the Thatcher Library sequence? Bernie Hermann’s musical score is also effective, using a leitmotif, a musical refrain that is played whenever a given character or object appears on screen. What does the use of such a musical accompaniment do?

 

3. While Welles’ use of deep focus eliminates some cross-cutting, editing is still an artful tool here. How is parallel editing employed at Susan’s debut? How does editing condense her singing career? What info is imparted in the breakfast montage sequence?

 

4. Kinetics are an compelling tool here, too. As with the use of light/shadow and sound, Kane’s movements differ when he’s young from when he’s old. Can you delineate these changes?

 

5. How does Citizen Kane express Orson Welles’ personal ideology, outlined briefly here?

 

*After his parents’ early deaths, Welles was raised by a family friend named Dr. Bernstein, to whom Welles pays homage in Kane by naming a character after him.

 

**This is a prestigious British journal.  What’s ironic is that Sight and Sound first started conducting its poll of the Ten Best in 1952, and at that point, Kane didn’t make the list at all.  This is because after the film’s initial run, it was rarely shown until 1957, when a new print was released.

 

 

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