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Orson Welles is Charles Foster KaneCitizen Kane

US (1941): Drama

Not rated, Black & White, 119 minutes

Certainly one of the ten best films of all time, Citizen Kane has influenced countless important filmmakers and established the taste of discerning audiences. It is the epitome of filmmaking, and producer-director-co-writer Orson Welles will be forever remembered as one of the greatest practitioners of cinematic art.

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Rosebud. Citizen Kane opens in ominous murkiness with the camera focused on high wrought-iron fencing filigreed with the initial "K". Beyond spreads Xanadu, the vast estate of one of the world's wealthiest men. The camera surveys the grounds—empty gondolas swaying on a private lake, exotic animals penned in a private zoo, manicured lawns and shrubbery—all shrouded in fog. Towering above the mist is the top of a man-made mountain on which sits a castle, a single light shining from it. Within is a dying man who clutches a crystal ball enclosing a winter scene and make-believe snow. He utters one word, "Rosebud," and dies, dropping the ball, which then breaks into tiny shards.

Who was he? The picture cuts to "March of Time" newsreel footage recounting the long and colorful career of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), newspaper magnate, presidential hopeful, wielder of power and influence. The newsreel stops and, in the darkened screening room, Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt), an editor, badgers a group of reporters to find the real Kane: "It's not enough to tell us what a man did. You've got to tell us who he was...What were the last words he said on earth? Maybe he told us all about himself on his deathbed...When Charles Foster Kane died he said but just one word, 'Rosebud...' Now what does that mean?"

Five accounts of one life. Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) traces five accounts of the millionaire's life. Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), a J.P. Morgan-like character, is long since dead, but Thompson visits his library and is allowed to inspect the financier's memoirs in manuscript. Through  Thatcher's words we see Kane as a boy (Buddy Swan), playing with his sled on a snow-swept Colorado farm. Through his mother, the boy has just inherited a great fortune. Unable to settle his bill, a prospector who boarded with the Kanes left behind stock certificates that make Mrs. Kane (Agnes Moorehead) the sole owner of "Everybody's Talking About It!"one of the world's great silver mines. She then makes her son the ward of the bank that administers her estate, and Thatcher, whom the angry young Kane bashes with a sled, takes the boy East to be raised. Through a series of quick cuts, Kane is shown growing up, making life miserable for Thatcher. The mature Kane (played by Orson Welles) decides to take direct control of a small, struggling newspaper, which is really an insignificant portion of his holdings, and immediately begins using it to attack Thatcher and others among America's financial elite.

Loyal assistant's account. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane's devoted assistant, now picks up the tale, relating the magnate's beginnings as a newspaper czar and his takeover of the New York Enquirer, in which he fired its editor, hired an expensive, top-notch staff, and enlisted his college friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) as the drama critic. Kane is at first a crusader for the downtrodden, opening his first editorial with a "declaration of principles." He becomes a champion of the little person, hyping his circulation with juicy scandals, crime exposes, and, like newspaper czar William Randolph Hearst, goading the U.S. into the Spanish-American War. Bernstein discusses Kane's marriage to Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), the president's niece. The marriage is depicted in several quick scenes, all set in the breakfast room. Spanning nine years, these scenes trace the couple from happy newlyweds to virtual strangers who sit in stony silence. Bernstein is pressed by reporter Thompson for the meaning of "Rosebud", but he doesn't really know.

A former friend speaks. The newsman next visits Leland (Cotten), a crotchety resident of a Manhattan retirement center who begs for cigars. Leland relates his early days in Kane's newspaper Kane, dwarfed by his own imageempire and talks about the boss' first marriage to Warrick and his second to singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), whose abortive opera career Kane masterminded, going so far as to build a $3 million opera house for her in Chicago.

They meet on a New York City street after Alexander laughs at Kane when a carriage splashes him. Scenes from their disastrous marriage show the mismatched pair at Xanadu, with Kane wandering from chamber to chamber as Alexander sits working enormous jigsaw puzzles. She is responsible for Leland's losing his job when he pans her first major operatic performance, an incident that also marks the end of his friendship with Kane.

A wife's story. Thompson then visits a half-drunk Alexander in a nightclub. Her flashback narration recounts her meeting and eventual affair with the married Kane and their discovery by Warrick, who is led to their love nest by Kane's political rival, "Big Jim" Gettys (Ray Collins). Until that point, Kane is heavily favored to defeat Collins in an upcoming senatorial election, but Gettys warns that unless the publisher withdraws from the race, he'll take the story to the media. Furious, Kane refuses, and the following day his political aspirations are dashed by newspaper accounts. He does not have to deal with an ugly divorce, however, since his wife and son are killed in an auto accident.

Citizen KaneAfter her marriage to Kane, Alexander is forced into an impossible operatic career. Her first appearance ends in utter failure. She attempts suicide and later begs Kane to allow her to stop singing, finally convincing him to let her miserable opera career die. Both retire to Xanadu, where hordes of servants and friends accompany them on picnics and other outings, but there is no pleasure for them, nor is there love. Alexander finally leaves the media mogul, and Kane is left alone in his vast mausoleum of enormous rooms, and his art collection, thousands of statues and paintings, is never displayed. Raymond (Paul Stewart), the shifty-eyed butler at Xanadu, recollects the last moments between Kane and Alexander, but he, too, is puzzled by the meaning of "Rosebud."

Rosebud revealed. At the conclusion, reporters gather at Kane's estate, moving through a warehouse that is being cleared of endless piles of curios, stacks of furniture, and countless crates containing Kane's purchases. As they move off into the dark recesses, a high boom shot reveals a staggering collection of toys, paintings, and statues. Slowly the camera pans the heaps of Kane's possessions until it comes to a blazing furnace into which workmen throw all items considered to be junk.

One of the workers picks up a sled—the very one Kane had as a boy in Colorado—and throws it into the fire. The camera closes in tightly on the top of the sled, and as it catches fire, the name "Rosebud" is revealed before the letters burn away. The scene shifts to the outside of the looming castle, panning upward to the high chimney from which Kane's youth curls upward in smoke into the night sky. The camera backs from the edifice until the film concludes with the shot of the iron fence with which it began.


Citizen Kane is a landmark film for myriad reasons, not the least of which is the variety of techniques employed—quick cuts, imaginative dissolves, even the iris device once popular in silent films. Indeed, none of the filmmaking methodology of the past is left unused, but Citizen Kane also contributes an array of innovative cinematic devices, most notably Gregg Toland's deep focus photography. Visually this is Toland's film, a masterpiece of shadow and sharp contrast that artfully conveys murky moods and occasional moments of gaiety as camera and reporter search for the meaning of a man's life. Welles's direction is awe-inspiring: he chronicles Kane's life through a combination of highly dramatic episodes and newsreel-like footage—slices of life that form a patchwork biography. This film is so tightly made, so economically shot and written, that every scene counts, filling in a piece of the puzzle, incomplete though it may be at the finish.


Hearst as model. A number of powerful men have been suggested as the model for Charles Foster Kane. The life of William Randolph Hearst was almost certainly a significant influence. The most powerful newsman in the U.S. for 40 years, Hearst was lord of a media empire that spanned the continent, a man whose vast influence nearly matched his political ambitions. Hearst did indeed wish to become president. His wife did not die in an accident, however; he lived apart from her with his paramour, actress Marion Davies, for whom he built the palatial estate San Simeon on the California coast. Hearst also put millions into Cosmopolitan Pictures, the producing unit that made Davies's films. Welles stated flatly, "It is not based upon the life of Mr. Hearst or anyone else. On the other hand, had Mr. Hearst and similar financial barons not lived during the period we discuss, Citizen Kane could not have been made." This disclaimer notwithstanding, a lawsuit was brought against Welles by Ferdinand Lundberg, author of Imperial Hearst—A Social Biography, in 1948.

Other possible models. It was also variously claimed that Welles had used munitions magnate Basil Zaharoff, millionaire stock swindler Ivar Kreuger, and Kodak chief Jules Brulatour as the model for Kane. Brulatour, for example, supposedly forced his wife into an operatic career that failed. Another possible paradigm is the relationship between Chicago newspaper czar Harold McCormick and Ganna Walska, a preposterous Polish prima donna. McCormick was the chief sponsor of the Chicago Opera Company, and he set up Walska to perform in the opera Zaza, in 1920, after hiring Frances Alda, one of the world's most expensive singing coaches, to help develop her awful voice. Not surprisingly, Zaza was a disaster, and Walska walked out, prompting McCormick to chase her to Europe. Welles knew well of the McCormick-Walska affair from his boyhood days in the Midwest; reputedly, he even kept a notebook on the odd couple's scandalous activities. An Alda-like character is superbly played by Fortunio Bonanova in Citizen Kane.

Sneak preview for Hearst and Parsons. One person who was utterly convinced that Citizen Kane was a scabrous attack on Hearst was powerful gossip columnist and Hearst employee Louella Parsons. Her column ran in all the Hearst papers, and she was so influential that a bad word from her could undermine any film's box office success. Hearst himself supposedly received the script of Citizen Kane in advance, read it, and said nothing. Parsons, on the other hand, demanded that Welles allow her to see the film before its release. As a result she viewed Citizen Kane with its creator in a special RKO screening, accompanied by two Hearst lawyers. After it ended, she walked out without saying a word to Welles and went to Hearst to report that the film sullied his good name. Davies called the film "grotesque", after viewing a print shown at San Simeon, but the 79-year-old Hearst reportedly enjoyed it.

Attempts to suppress. Parsons, however, launched a campaign to ban the film or have it destroyed. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, was the first to respond to her pleas. RKO president George J. Schaefer received a call from Nicholas Schenck, a large studio stockholder, in which, according to Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, Schenck said: "Louis [B. Mayer] has asked me to speak to you about this picture. He is prepared to pay you what it cost, which he understands is $800,000, if you will destroy the negative and all the prints."

Schaefer went to Nelson Rockefeller, RKO's principal stockholder, who, in turn, got word to Mayer that RKO would not knuckle under; yet because of a phone call from Parsons warning Rockefeller to disassociate himself from the film, the financier refused to have Some called him a hero.... Others called him a heelCitizen Kane shown in his own theater, Radio City Music Hall. The Hearst press, with Parsons leading the charge, attacked the film on all sides, and it received few bookings outside RKO theaters. Schaefer finally confronted Warner Bros. executives, who had banned Citizen Kane from their theaters, and he reportedly threatened legal action. Warner Bros. relented as did most of the other theater chains.

Citizen Kane received critical raves and public acceptance, but it initially lost about $160,000, though it later had many successful re-releases (which enriched Welles, who owned 25 percent of its profits). Mayer continued to damn the film—but only to appease Parsons.

Welles's many talents. Welles took credit for writing most of Citizen Kane's superb script, but the bulk of its incisive, witty, and unforgettable scenes and dialog were probably scripted by screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, brother of Joseph, the noted film producer-director-writer. Welles did write much of the screenplay, however, and supervised the entire production as director-producer on a shot-by-shot basis, so the lion's share of the credit for this masterpiece unquestionably belongs to him. Citizen Kane was the first film to showcase his enormous talent, along with the great supporting players Cotten, Collins, Coulouris, Stewart, Sloane, and Moorehead, all of whom came out of Welles's distinguished Mercury Players Group in New York City. By virtue of this extraordinary film, these actors became permanent fixtures in the best of American films for the next 40 years.

The film's origins. The story behind Citizen Kane is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Welles, John Houseman, and others of the Mercury Players produced several successful plays before gaining nationwide fame for the alarming 1938 radio program "War of the Worlds". Many who tuned to this program actually thought the U.S. was being invaded by Martians and panicked, fleeing their homes with hastily grabbed possessions. It was some time before listeners could be convinced that the broadcast was a dramatic presentation, not a news bulletin. Welles became an overnight sensation, and several studios offered him contracts to make his own films. The most attractive of these offers came from struggling RKO, but the Mercury Players were interested in Hollywood only insofar as a contract for a movie would help to finance the group's next Broadway production. At first, Welles intended to shoot Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as an experimental film, employing hand-held cameras subjectively to present the movie from Marlow's point of view as he journeys into the jungle. When the proposed budget for this project exceeded $1 million, RKO scratched the production, so Welles searched for another story. To this day, the debate continues as to whether Welles or Mankiewicz came up with the idea of profiling a multimillionaire. Less problematic is the genesis of their screenplay's name. It began as "American", was later changed to "John Citizen, U.S.A.," and, of course, finally became Citizen Kane.

Welles's cinematic influences. At this point in his career, Welles was studying film night and day and was probably inspired by I Loved a Woman (1933), the story of a millionaire merchant who collects artwork, sponsors a struggling opera singer, and profits from the Spanish-American War by selling $50 million in spoiled meat to the Army. A Man to Remember (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1933) covered essentially the same ground and were no doubt also influences on Welles. He spent endless hours watching the films of King Vidor, John Ford, Rene Clair, and Frank Capra, but Welles's biggest influence was the expressionist methodology developed by Fritz Lang at UFA in Germany, which utilized dark, brooding camerawork, giant foreboding sets that dwarfed the actors, and convoluted story lines.

Toland's experimental cinematography. Toland, who had been experimenting along the UFA lines and was particularly devoted to the deep-focus lensing pioneered by James Wong Howe in Transatlantic in 1930, had come into his own with such classics as Les Miserables (1935), Wuthering Heights (1939), for which he won an Oscar, The Long Voyage Home (1940), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). It was Toland who called the 25-year-old Welles when he learned of the Citizen Kane project, and he immediately became its cinematographer. The great cameraman explained that his unique deep focus was a simple matter of adjusting lenses. As he stated in a 1941 issue of The American Cinematographer, "I discovered that a 24mm lens, stopped down to f:8 or less, becomes almost literally a universal focus objective at a certain point. If it is set to focus on a point 4 feet 6 inches in front of the camera, everything from 18 inches to infinity will be in acceptably sharp focus."

Complete artistic control. Welles not only had a say in every setup shot taken by Toland, but he was allowed complete control of the film, a rare privilege for any creative artist, especially one so untested and youthful. According to his contract, no one at RKO could interfere with him or anyone in the production. He also retained final editing approval of the film.

The budget, however, was another thing; Welles was on a tight financial rein. He managed to stay within budget by "masking" many of his bigger sets, that is, using the edges of the frame to hide the fact that sets didn't exist beyond boundaries of the camera's eye. This was the technique he used on both the long exterior shot of the newspaper office and for shots of the main hall at Xanadu, in which a gigantic fireplace and some pillars recede into a darkness where no walls existed.

Herrmann's scoring. Welles brought in the gifted Bernard Herrmann, who had been the composer for the Mercury Players radio productions, to write the film's haunting score. Herrmann composed on the spot, tailoring his music to the scenes as they were freshly completed, eschewing the usual Hollywood method in which the composer scores after the entire film has been shot. "In this way," Herrmann later said, "I had a sense of the picture being built and my own music being part of that building."

Brilliant editing. The editing by Robert Wise and the uncredited Mark Robson is as brilliant as every other technical achievement in the film. In one of the most startling scenes, for example, Toland's camera seemingly goes through a closed skylight as it descends into a nightclub in a single take. As the camera moves over the roof, a storm is breaking, and, just as the camera zooms down on to the skylight, a flash of lightning causes a few frames to go blank. It is in these "blank" frames that the dissolve to the inside of the club takes place.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Discuss your affective reactions to the film. At its conclusion, what are you feeling for the main character(s): sympathy, disgust, sorrow, pity, respect, fondness, envy?
  2. Thematically, what does the film suggest about materialism, capitalism, love, power, fidelity, family, or friendship?
  3. Kane is generally regarded as a technical masterpiece, a cornucopia of clever effects, cuts, angles, and edits.  Discuss some of the more innovative uses of cinematic technique, and their apparent effects.
  4. We've seen Lang's and Chaplin's divergent responses to sound technology in the cinema, but Boggs tells us that it is Citizen Kane that is the first truly "modern" sound film, in part due to its strong use of "three-dimensional" sounds.  What did Boggs mean, and what examples would support his case?
  5. What particular demands do the roles in Kane demand of Welles and his Mercury Players troupe as actors?
  6. Describe the narrative structure (narrator, narrative situation, plot, character, point of view, conflict, resolution, etc.) of Citizen Kane. How does its narrative structure affect, control, or enhance its meaning?