A groundbreaking cinematic wonder, commonly regarded as the greatest film ever made
“Citizen Kane” is a must-see for anyone interested in cinema. Aside from the silent era, it is conceivably the most influential film of all-time. Commonly labelled the "greatest film ever made", the American Film Institute (AFI) voted it the #1 Greatest American Film of All-Time (in both of their lists – 1998 and 2007), the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound critics named it the #1 Greatest Film of All-Time consecutively from 1961 through 2011 (moving to #2 on their 2012 list), and Cahiers du Cinéma voted it #1 of the 100 Top Films in History. It was the film debut of twenty-four year old cinematic titan Orson Welles, and its story of success, corruption, and failure remains frighteningly relevant. Like all great movies, “Citizen Kane” is something to witness, as it provides a hauntingly gripping experience. Other films may have more belly laughs, heartbreak, emotional release, or introspection, but what “Citizen Kane” does better than perhaps any other film is take a basic story and with spectacular cinematic storytelling, turn it into magic.
In a nutshell, “Citizen Kane” is a search to discover the inner workings of an enigmatic and powerful man named “Charles Foster Kane”. The film opens as he dies, uttering his last word, "Rosebud" (which AFI voted the 17th Greatest Movie Quote of All Time). Immediately after “Kane’s” death we are shown a quick paced “News on the March” newsreel obituary (a spoof of the “Time Marches On” news short films shown before features at the time), ingeniously providing pertinent background information to us about “Kane”. The producer of the newsreel is not happy with its encyclopedic approach, instead wanting it to reflect the real "Kane". Feeling that he could learn who this man was if the meaning of “Rosebud” were revealed, he sends reporter “Jerry Thompson” on a mission to find it out. The remainder of the film is “Thompson's” search for “Rosebud” via a series of interviews and flashbacks with people that knew “Kane”.
At the helm of “Citizen Kane” is its director, producer, star, and co-writer, Orson Welles. Already having conquered stage and radio with unorthodox storytelling approaches, Welles quickly gained a working knowledge of every studio film department and managed to create a boldly fresh use of cinema. With the help of immensely talented people, including cinematographer extraordinaire Gregg Toland, Welles made astounding use of lighting, extreme camera angles, camera pans, deep focus, overlapping dialogue, and transitions in time – all of which had been used before, but never taken to such extremes or as overwhelmingly artful. As a result, “Citizen Kane” looked like no previous film and had such an impact it changed the look of cinema, influencing every film that came afterwards.
Perhaps what “Citizen Kane” is best known for is its use of deep focus (having objects close to and far away from the camera in crisp focus at the same time) – a major feat accomplished by using cutting-edge camera lenses, film stock, lighting, forced set perspectives, and even occasionally combining two separately filmed shots into one. Its effect is powerful, such as in one of the film’s most famous extended shots which begins with the young “Kane” playing in the snow. As he throws snowballs, the camera travels through a window inside his home where we see his mother talking with his father and “Mr. Thatcher”. The camera continues to follow his mother into an adjoining room where she sits in the foreground and signs papers that decide “Kane’s” fate – all while we continue to see the boy joyfully playing outside the window. By keeping it in one shot (instead of combining multiple shots), Welles intensifies the scene’s drama, family dynamics, and a feeling that “Kane” is ultimately alone. It is an inspired and revolutionary use of moviemaking.
"Citizen Kane" is also esteemed for its adventurous lighting, camera movements and angles, and there are glorious shots throughout of light streaming through doors or skylights, and many in which an important character is shown entirely darkened in silhouette. The film brims with never-before-seen camera movements, such as rising up theater rafters, over roofs, down skylights, and through windows. Having the camera move from a far shot to a close-up and vise versa devoid of edits was also unique. Use of fresh perspectives, such as a distorted view of a nurse through a broken snow globe, or the famous shot of "Kane" and "Jedediah" after the election seen from an extremely low angle (achieved by placing the camera in a hole in the floor), also elevate this film into an extraordinary, otherworldly creation.
Welles also employs a Promethean approach to time, showing scenes of characters in nonlinear fashion by jumping from them as old to young to old. One of the film's most breathtaking uses of time is when “Kane” and his first wife “Emily” repeatedly have breakfast over the course of nine years in a series of six scenes, lasting just over two minutes. Through editing, camera movements, changes in wardrobe (“Emily” goes from very open neckline to very high collar), music, and more, we see the disintegration of a marriage without any mention of it. An atypical and poetic approach to drama.
After conquering theater and radio, Welles was offered an unprecedented Hollywood contract with RKO Studios in which he was given carte blanche over every aspect of his films. After pitching several film ideas to RKO (who retained story refusal and refused his first two ideas), he worked with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (brother of writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and grandfather of TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz) on what became "Citizen Kane”. It was to be the story of a newspaper tycoon who was one of the wealthiest, most significant figures of the century, lived in an immense castle upon a mountaintop, collected art and antiquities from around the world, dabbled in politics, unscrupulously shaped American opinion, rose to great heights, and ended up alone and unhappy. Mankiewicz knew real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and the script was undeniably a veiled portrait of him (mixed with events from Welles’ life such as losing his parents at a young age and being raised by a guardian named “Bernstein”). Hearst was married and famously lived with his mistress, silent screen star Marion Davies, in their California antique-filled castle named San Simeon (which is now a museum).
Though the height of Hearst’s rein had past, he still held major power in Hollywood. When he got wind of the film and in particular its depiction of Davies as a talentless, drunken, jigsaw puzzle-playing opera singer (which she wasn’t - except for the puzzle playing), he did everything he could to stop the film from being seen, including threats of lawsuits and vaguely stating he would reveal Hollywood's skeletons if the film were released. It was such a serious threat that other Hollywood studios got together and offered to buy the film’s negative from RKO for $805,000, just to burn it. Hearst forbid the mention of “Citizen Kane" in any of his publications (including advertising and reviews) and had his press attack Welles. No theaters would show the film. After much delay, a few independent theaters released it to an almost unanimous reaction was that it was a masterpiece. Critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote in his review, "'Citizen Kane' is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood". Regardless of its critical success, "Citizen Kane" was a box-office failure, though Mankiewicz and Welles won an Academy Award (the film's only win) for Best Original Screenplay. Their process writing “Citizen Kane” was the subject of the 2020 Oscar winning film, “Mank”.
Welles denied that “Citizen Kane” was about Hearst despite its obviousness. The film largely tarnished Davies' reputation and image, and Welles said on various occasions that he felt badly about that since he claims it was based on based on the wife or girlfriend of Samuel Insull, who built Chicago's Civic Opera House. In any case, this story of a dishonest egomaniac posing as a man of the people still resonates today. What Mankiewicz and Welles did not foresee is that their tale is not only of Hearst and his ilk, but unfortunately a slice of the human condition, as many of the film’s scenarios ring close to home with figures of today. Scenes of fake news and the manipulative power of media (such as when “Kane’s” newspaper is choosing which headline to run (“Kane Elected” or “Fraud at Polls” before the close of the election) strike a chilling chord when seen today. Unfortunately, we humans don't seem to learn from our past so history just keeps repeating. Yet another reason to watch classic films!
Born to an affluent Wisconsin family, Orson Welles' parents separated when he was about four, his mother died when he was nine, and his father died when he was fifteen. He chose a friend of his parents, Maurice Bernstein (whom he loved), as his guardian. During his tenure in preparatory school, Welles began to experiment in theater and radio, and after graduating, found a love for painting. After his father's death, he traveled to Europe, and while in Ireland ventured into Dublin's Gate Theater pretending he was a Broadway star and ended up making his stage debut in their 1931 production of "Jew Suss". He continued to work in Dublin (acting, producing and designing productions) until returning the US in 1932. In 1934, he made his Broadway debut as "Tybalt" in a production of "Romeo and Juliet", and also began working in radio (which included a regular stint on the CBS Radio series, "The March of Time"). He joined actor/producer John Houseman in working for the Federal Theater Project (a program of the government's New Deal), and in 1936 staged and produced a revolutionary all-Black adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth". After a couple more shows, Welles and Housemen formed their own repertory company, The Mercury Theatre, and their first production was a modern anti-fascist flavored adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", made to echo the Nuremberg Rallies. Another resounding success, it was followed by additional trailblazing productions which landed Welles on a 1938 cover of Time Magazine at twenty-three years old.
While directing theater, Welles also worked in radio with major success, including a seven-week series based on "Les Misérables" with his Mercury Theatre troupe. Always the innovator, Welles is credited with inventing narration on radio. In 1938 came the Mercury Theatre landmark radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds". Since their show was not the most popular at that hour, many listeners tuned in to "The War of the Worlds" during the commercial breaks of the other stations, missing Mercury's introduction, and thought “The War of the Worlds” was a news program and that the show's alien attack was actually happening. The show caused major panic and brought Welles international attention. That was enough for RKO to offer him a dream contract and lure him to Hollywood without ever having made a film (other than a never finished short titled, "Too Much Johnson” made for a theater production that never happened). Studios, trade papers, and Hollywood folk resented the fact that this twenty-four year old newcomer was granted creative control over his films – an honor previously bestowed upon the likes of Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and possibly no one else. But true to Welles' genius, he delivered a monumental leap in cinema with "Citizen Kane". But this masterpiece came with a price. His enviable contract, brashness, and rebellion against established norms peeved many. "Citizen Kane" earned nine Academy Award nominations (four personally for Welles - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and his Screenplay win with Mankiewicz), and when Welles’ name was mentioned at the ceremony, it was continuously accompanied by audible boos. In a 1982 interview, Welles said, “There just seemed to be no limit to what I could do. I was spoiled in a very strange way as a child because everybody told me from the moment I was able to hear that I was absolutely marvelous. I never heard a discouraging word for years, you see", and then added with a laugh, "I didn’t know what was ahead of me”.
Welles never again gained complete control over any of his films. He directed just twelve (plus one finished well after his death – "The Other Side of the Wind" in 2018),. Several were completely altered by studios or other filmmakers (though they somehow retain Welles’ uniquely original cinematic approach). His other directorial works include "Touch of Evil", "The Magnificent Ambersons", "Chimes at Midnight", "The Lady from Shanghai", "Othello", "The Trial" and "The Stranger". Sadly, many people think of Welles as a one hit wonder, with "Citizen Kane" being his only film people can name. “Citizen Kane” was also his first film as an actor (he previously appeared in a few short films and a TV series), and he continued to act in films, radio, TV shows, and commercials, often lending his famous deep voice for narration, largely to earn money to fund his own film projects. Some of his nearly 130 films and TV acting credits (other than those he directed) include "A Man for All Seasons", "Casino Royale", "The V.I.P.s", "Is Paris Burning?", "Compulsion", "The Long, Hot Summer", "Moby Dick", and perhaps his most famous role as "Harry Lime" in the classic, "The Third Man" (already on this blog).
In addition to producing, writing, directing and acting, Welles was also a prolific painter and professional magician. Some of his other awards (along with his Oscar win and three nominations for “Citizen Kane”) include an honorary Academy Award for his superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures in 1970, three Grammy Awards, the 1952 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, the Venice Film Festival's Career Golden Lion in 1970, the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1975, induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1972, the Order of Commander of the Legion d’honneur in 1982, and being named the 16th Greatest American Screen Legend by AFI. He was married three times, each to an actress (Virginia Nicolson, Rita Hayworth, and Paola Mori). Orson Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70. Like "Kane", Welles was somewhat of an enigma, though his overwhelming contribution to cinema is quite clear.
By the time of "Citizen Kane", Illinois-born Gregg Toland was already an Oscar-winning cinematographer. He began at William Fox Studios when he was a teenager and became an assistant cameraman to cinematographers such as Daniel B. Clark and Arthur Edeson (who I wrote about in my "Frankenstein" post). Toland's first solo venture as cinematographer came with the 1931 Eddie Cantor musical comedy, "Palmy Days". He earned his first Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination for 1935's "Les Misérables", his second for 1937's "Dead End”, his only Oscar win for 1939's "Wuthering Heights”, and two more consecutive Best Cinematographer Oscar nominations (for "The Long Voyage Home" in 1940, and his fifth and final for "Citizen Kane”). Able to convey many moods through light, Toland became known for his use of high-contrast lighting and deep focus. Other classics he photographed include "The Grapes of Wrath", "Intermezzo", "The Little Foxes", "Ball of Fire", "The Outlaw", "The Best Years of Our Lives", and his final film, "Enchantment" in 1948. Noted today as one of film's greatest cinematographers, Toland left an indelible mark on cinema and is particularly remembered for his startling work in "Citizen Kane". He was married twice. Sadly, Gregg Toland died in 1948 of coronary thrombosis at the age of 44.
The film’s unique score is by composer Bernard Herrmann. With very minimal emotional music (a brief romantic interlude when young “Kane” is sledding in the snow, and a waltz of sorts during the first breakfast shot), Hermann’s score acts more as an accent, often enhancing the film’s quick pace with fanfares and levity rather than working to invoke deep feelings. He also composed the operatic music for all opera scenes. His score is a masterful accompaniment, earning Herrmann the first of five Oscar nominations (taking home the statue for a different film that same year, "All That Money Can Buy"). You can read a bit more about Bernard Herrmann in my post on "The Day the Earth Stood Still".
Another familiar name is that of “Citizen Kane’s” editor, Robert Wise. He earned his only Best Editing Academy Award nomination for this film before retiring from editing in 1943 and becoming one of Hollywood's most versatile and respected directors. He was nominated for an additional six Oscars (three as Director and three as Producer for Best Picture) winning two each for "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music". You can read a bit more about him in another classic he directed, "The Day the Earth Stood Still").
Welles cast many actors from his Mercury Theatre troupe in “Citizen Kane”, including Ray Collins, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, and Everett Sloane. Welles wanted “Citizen Kane” to feature only a cast of first time film actors – and it did, with few exceptions. One of the Mercury Theater actors was Joseph Cotten, who stars as “Kane’s” best friend and reporter for The Inquirer, “Jedediah Leland”. In his first feature film performance, you can already see Cotten’s trademark subdued emotions, eloquence, and honesty. “Citizen Kane” put him on the radar, and within two years he became one of the most popular Hollywood actors of the 1940s. I wrote more about the life and career of Joseph Cotten in my posts on two more of his classics, “The Third Man”, and in particular, “Gaslight”. Please check them out for more.
Dorothy Comingore is fabulous as “Susan Alexander Kane”, “Kane’s" mistress and second wife. She easily projects a downtrodden, kindhearted gal who innocently mingles with people who don't have her best interests at heart. Comingore’s portrait of “Susan” is incredibly layered, whether seductively asking "Kane" to come into her apartment for some hot water, slowly falling in love as she and "Kane" talk about singing, or her wonderfully stirring scene keeping a stiff upper lip when interviewed about "Kane".
Los Angeles-born Dorothy Comingore was first spotted onstage by Charlie Chaplin, who helped her get a Hollywood contract. Her movie career began with a succession of disappointing bit parts and uncredited roles, starting with the 1938 short film, "Campus Cinderella". After nearly two dozen ostensive extra parts in features and shorts (credited as Linda Winters), she met Welles at a party and he immediately tested her for the part of "Susan". She earned solid praise for her performance, and had hopes that her career would finally flourish. Not happy with the roles being offered her after "Citizen Kane", she turned down most of them. Furious with her depiction of Davies, Hearst invented a smear campaign to destroy Comingore’s career, and labelled her a communist. She appeared in three more films, "The Hairy Ape" in 1944, "Any Number Can Play" in 1949, and "The Big Night" in 1951, before being called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (which I explain in my "High Noon" post). Comingore refused to name names and was blacklisted from Hollywood, and her career ended after appearing on two TV shows in 1952. In addition to being blacklisted, she was spied on and harassed by HUAC with trumped up charges of prostitution and a legal battle over custody of her children. She was married three times, including her first to TV producer Richard Collins and her second to writer Theodore Strauss. Dorothy Comingore died in 1971 of pulmonary disease at the age of 58.
Another Mercury Theatre player making a screen debut is Agnes Moorehead who plays “Kane’s” mother, “Mary”. She appears in one key scene, putting the young “Kane” under the guardianship of banker "Walter Parks Thatcher”. Though her appearance is brief, one gets the sense that she is tough, loves her son, wants a better life for him, and may even feel his enormous inheritance is a bad thing.
Massachusetts-born Agnes Moorehead wanted to be an actress from a very young age, and when her family moved to Missouri she appeared in the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera when she was ten years old. While appearing in college plays, Moorehead earned an honorary doctorate in literature, and later taught in public school while earning a masters degree in English and public speaking. She then made her way to New York and studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating with honors. She began to work in radio and joined the Mercury Players in 1937, acting on their radio shows and appearing on the TV show, "The Mercury Theater on the Air" in 1938 (she worked with Welles for seventeen years). Moorehead came to Hollywood with the Mercury Theatre and began her film career with "Citizen Kane". Her second film was also Welles' second, "The Magnificent Ambersons", for which she received the first of four Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations (the others were for "Mrs. Parkington", "Johnny Belinda", and "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte", though she never won a statue). Moorehead went on to become one of Hollywood’s most popular character actresses, especially known for playing arrogant, haughty, puritanical, or neurotic spinsters, matrons, or mothers in films, radio, stage, and television. Her 114 acting credits include "How the West Was Won", "All That Heaven Allows", "Show Boat", "Dark Passage", "Since You Went Away", "Jane Eyre", and "Journey into Fear". In the late 1950s Moorehead began working extensively on television and is best remembered as "Endora", "Samantha Stephens's" redheaded mother on the classic 1960s/70s TV series, "Bewitched". She also appeared in "The Invaders", a 1961 classic episode of "The Twilight Zone" TV series which many consider one of the series' best. In addition to her Oscar nominations, she earned seven Emmy Award nominations (winning one) and won two Golden Globes. Moorehead was a devoutly religious Christian who was married twice, including her second marriage to actor/director Robert Gist. Many (such as actors Paul Lynde and Elsa Lanchester) have said she was a lesbian who became more and more closeted as her career took off, while others (like Debbie Reynolds) have said she wasn’t. But the rumors appear often enough to warrant a mention. Agnes Moorehead died in 1974 at the age of 73.
Everett Sloane is outstanding as “Mr. Bernstein”, “Kane’s" friend who works at The Inquirer. Like most of the main characters, he is seen both young and old, and Sloane believably plays him at every age. He’s given one of the most famous bits of dialogue (Welles’ favorite in the entire film) about seeing a girl on a ferry in a white dress. The simplicity in his delivery is indicative of Sloane's excellence in the role. Like his fellow Mercury players, “Citizen Kane” was his first film.
New York City born Everett Sloane decided to become an actor when he appeared in a school production of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream” at the age of seven. While in theater, he started working in radio around 1930. Sloane made it to Broadway with "Boy Meets Girl" in 1935. He worked with Welles as part of the regular cast of the radio show, "The March of Time", and when Welles formed Mercury Theatre, Sloane became one of its stock actors. "Citizen Kane" was the start of his very successful career as a character actor in films, TV, radio and theater. Working extensively on television, he appeared only in about two dozen films, which include, "Lust for Life", "Somebody Up There Like Me", "The Men", "The Patsy", "Marjorie Morningstar", and two more Welles films, "The Lady from Shanghai" and "Journey into Fear". His nearly ninety TV credits include appearances on "The Twilight Zone", "Inner Sanctum", "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", and an episode of the "Kraft Television Theatre" titled "Patterns", for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination. He also provided voices for such TV shows as "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo" and "The Dick Tracy Show". He was married once for thirty-two years, until his death. Afraid he was going blind from glaucoma, Everett Sloane committed suicide (overdosing on barbiturates) in 1965 at the age of 55.
In addition to its Best Original Screenplay Oscar win and the already mentioned nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Cinematographer, Editor, and Music Score, “Citizen Kane” also earned Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration (Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, A. Roland Fields, and Darrell Silvera), and Best Sound Recording (John Aalberg).
Films are visions which contain perhaps a haunting moment here and an unforgettable plot twist there. But unlike just about every other film ever made, this week’s pick is one magically grand illusion from its opening until its close. Enjoy what many consider the greatest film of all-time, “Citizen Kane”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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