Monday, April 1, 2013

Classic Cinema Series #2 - Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

 (RKO, 1941)

Part One - Credits

  Director:  Orson Welles - also known for:  The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), MacBeth (1948), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), F for Fake (1973)

  Principle Cast: 
     Orson Welles - also known for:  The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), MacBeth (1948), The Third Man (1949), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), A Man For All Seasons (1966), Catch-22 (1970), The Muppet Movie (1978), History of the World: Part 1 (1981)
     Joseph Cotton - also known for: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gaslight (1944), The Third Man (1949), Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Soylent Green (1973)
     Dorothy Comingore - also known for:  The Hairy Ape (1944)
     Agnes Moorehead - also known for:  The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Johnny Belinda (1949), Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964),
     Ruth Warrick - also known for:  All My Children (television)
     Ray Collins - also known for:  The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Touch of Evil (1958)
     William Alland - also known for: producing and writing mostly.
     George Coulouris - also known for: Papillon (1973), Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
     Harry Shannon - also known for: High Noon (1952), Touch of Evil (1958)
     Everett Sloane - also known for:  The Lady From Shanghai (1947)
     Paul Stewart - also known for:  Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)

     Herman J. Mankiewicz - also known for: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
     Orson Welles - also known for: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), F for Fake (1973)

  Cinematography: Gregg Toland - also known for: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

  Editing: Robert Wise - also known (as an editor, although better known as a director) for: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  Original Music: Bernard Herrmann - also known for: Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), Taxi Driver (1976)

Part Two - Awards

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars)
  Won: Writing, Original Screenplay
  Nominated:  Actor in a Leading Role (Welles)
                       Art Direction - Interior Decoration, Black-and-White
                       Cinematography, Black and White
                       Film Editing
                       Music: Scoring of a Dramatic Picture
                       Sound Recording

National Board of Review
  Top Ten films of 1941

National Film Registry
  Inducted 1989

New York Film Critics Circle Awards
  Won: Best Film
  2nd Place: Director
                    Actor (Welles)

Part Three - Notable Quotes

     I'm changing the title of this section because practically no other film carries as many famous lines as Casablanca.  However, Citizen Kane has many less famous lines that are just as memorable (as well as a couple that are pretty freakin' famous too)...

 - "Rosebud"
 - "You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been rich, I might have been a really great man."
 - "He married for love. Love. That's why he did everything.  That's why he went into politics. It
     seems we weren't enough; he wanted all the voters to love him too. Guess all he really wanted
     out of life was love. That's Charlie's story,  how he lost it. You see, he just didn't have any to
     give. Well, he loved Charlie Kane, of course, very dearly, and his mother.  I guess he always
     loved her."
 - "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."
 - "I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher."
 - "It's also my pleasure to see to it that decent, hard working people in this community aren't
     robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates, just because they haven't had anybody to look
     after their interests.
 - "There's only one person who's gonna decide what I'm gonna do, and that's me."
 - "I always gagged on that silver spoon."
 - "It's the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race...memory."
 - "People will think what I tell them to."
 - "Harvard. Yale. Princeton. Cornell. Switzerland...he was thrown out of a lot of colleges."
 - "Old age. It's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of."
 - "If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough."
 - "It's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money."
 - "Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was  
     something he couldn't get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything...I
     don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a...piece in a jigsaw
     puzzle...a missing piece."

Part Four - A Brief Synopsis

  Genre: Drama
  Rating: PG

      The film opens with death of its central character, Charles (or Charlie) Foster Kane.  As he dies, he utters a single word: Rosebud!  A reporter named Jerry Thompson is charged with discovering the meaning behind this enigmatic final offering and sets out to do just that interviewing all those close to Kane who will grant him an audience.  Through the eyes of Kane's second wife Susan, his childhood guardian Mr. Thatcher, Kane's business manager Bernstein, Kane's best friend Jedediah Leland, and Kane's long time butler, the man behind the legend gradually begins to come into focus.
       We learn that when young Charley's mother discovered that she had been given the deed to an enormous gold mine she used the lion's share of the profits to send her son away to be raised like a gentleman with her financial adviser appointed as guardian.  He bounced from boarding school to boarding school, college to college, growing up as something of an ingenious scoundrel and enthusiastic gadfly.  Looking for something to sink his teeth into and bored by his fortunes, he decides to take over the reigns of a small newspaper that happens to be a part of his financial portfolio.  He brings along Jedediah and Bernstein and the seed that grows a mighty media empire is securely planted.
    For his first wife, Charley chose a woman whose family has strong political ties.  Unsurprisingly, he soon runs for public office.  The relationship becomes chilly quickly, however, and he is caught with a mistress just on the eve of an election, destroying his career in politics.
     The sort of man who grows proudly defiant in the face of public ridicule, he married his mistress immediately and set about building her an opera house to launch her career as a singer.  When the untalented girl can humiliate herself no more, he builds her an opulent palace of a home, named Xanadu. She grows bored of her gilded cage and leaves him to grow old and die alone.
     Jerry never discovers the meaning of Rosebud but you will if you watch the movie.  I know someone is reading this who has never seen it, so I'll leave it at that.

Part 5 - Interesting Tid-Bits

  - The primary cast of the film came exclusively from Welles's Mercury Theater troupe, a group he had founded at the age of twenty-one. "Kane" marked the film debut of several Mercury players, including: William Alland, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick and Welles himself.  The picture can certainly be seen as something of an extension of that group's earlier works.  It has even been theorized that Kane's line "Don't believe everything you hear on the radio" may be a bit of a poke at those who fell for Mercury's "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast.
  - Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, his first feature film.  RKO gave the young director a contract with clauses that were almost unheard of for a novice.  Welles had the freedom to develop his own script, hire his own actors and technicians, and receive final cut rights.  He quickly proved adept at getting around any other obstacles or restrictions that came his way.  He  fooled studio execs into believing that the cast was still rehearsing long after filming had begun to maintain privacy.  He leaked publicity that stated the movie was based on Faust to maintain secrecy.  He even threw red herrings like a brothel scene into the script to keep the censors busy with details in order to maintain the picture's ideas.  Fastidious as he was about every element of Citizen Kane, he was apparently terribly frustrated by his inability to create "frost" in the actors' breath during the "outdoor" winter scenes of Kane's childhood.
  - As famously dedicated a director as Welles was, there is evidence that his dedication as an actor was just as crazed.  The famous "bedroom trashing scene", in which Kane throws a destructive tantrum after Susan has left him, was reportedly shot in one take during which the actor made his hands bleed.  He also injured his ankle at one point during shooting.  Although he took to directing from a wheelchair for two weeks, he trudged on through the acting scenes with the help of a metal brace.  Welles would sit through six hours of make-up to do the old-age sequences, but claimed that he had to wear just as much make-up as the younger Kane in order to appear handsomer than he actually was.
  - Welles credited Victor Moore's performance in the film Make Way For Tomorrow as an inspiration for his portrayal of Kane in his later years.
  - The actual title "Citizen Kane" was the idea of RKO studio head George Schaefer.  Welles had previously considered "American" and "John Q".
  - Citizen Kane was met with almost unanimous critical praise and earned nine Academy Award nominations.  However, it was a huge box office flop (losing $160,000 during its initial run) and public sentiment against the movie rose to a pitch that caused it to be booed at the Oscar ceremony each time one of its nominations was called out.  It wasn't until critics in Europe rallied behind it and it was rereleased domestically in the 1950's that it began to occupy the hallowed place that it holds in American cinema.
  - The film's initial failure can largely be attributed to a smear campaign run against the film by newspaper magnate William Randolf Hearst.  A gossip columnist at one of Hearst's papers saw an early preview of the picture and immediately informed her boss that the movie was nothing more than an unflattering version of his own life.  It is undeniable that elements of Charles Foster Kane's life mirrored Hearst's own (Xanadu was based largely upon Hearst's estate in California, for example), but the feud between the two men over the picture has become as famous an American story as the film itself.  Hearst tried to buy the negative (to burn it) before the film was released but was denied.  He denied the film any publicity in his newspapers and managed to get several theatrical chains to refuse to show it.  He had Welles investigated by the FBI as a possible Communist.  Rumors even reached Welles's ears one night that Hearst had planted a naked, under age girl in his hotel room with a photographer waiting nearby to "catch him in the act".  Mr. Welles never found out if the rumor was true as he chose to stay elsewhere that night.  As luck would have it, the two men wound up in an elevator together the night of "Kane"'s San Francisco opening.  Welles invited Hearst to attend; Hearst ignored him.  Ironically, Hearst was once asked why he had gone into journalism instead of film and he responded that "You can crush a man with journalism, and you can't with motion pictures."
  - Although it is undeniable that Kane was based largely on Hearst, there is evidence that several other notable men of the time served as partial inspiration for the character.  These include: Pulitzer, Northcliffe, Basil Jaharoff, Samuel Insull (who built an opera house for his young wife), and Harold Fowler McCormick (who was divorced by his first wife before pushing the opera career of his second).  Many people close to the production opined that Kane's personality contained many elements that came from the persona of Welles himself.
  - Several of the other characters in the movie are said to be based largely on real life models as well. Jim Gettys is believed to be inspired by corrupt New York politician Charles F. Murray, a one time ally turned foe of Hearst's.  Susan Alexander Kane is largely believed to be based somewhat unfairly on Hearst's longtime mistress Marion Davies, but McCormick's second wife (Ganna Walska) and film tycoon Jules Brulatour's second and third wives have also been cited.  Jedediah Leland is believed to be patterned partially upon film critic Ashton Stevens and partially upon co-author Mankiewicz himself.
  - The OTHER great controversy over Citizen Kane has to do with its authorship.  Welles shared writing credits and the film's lone Oscar win with Herman J. Mankiewicz, a notorious drunk who did most of his work on the film from a hospital sickbed.  Journalist Pauline Kael published a piece at one time challenging Welles's contribution and crediting Mankiewicz with practically the whole thing (also accusing Charles Lederer, a mutual friend of Mankiewicz and Hearst of leaking the script to the latter). Welles has gone on record as saying that he and his co-writer wrote two different versions of the script which were then married together pretty evenly, but the debate has raged on.
  - HOWEVER the writing credit actually split, it is clear that "Kane" was rather innovative in its storytelling techniques.  The non-linear chronology of the film was highly unusual at the time, as were the multiple narrators and points of view that the script employed.  Also innovative was the use of montage to collapse time and space.
  - Citizen Kane also employed several unusual techniques in its use of sound.  The overlapping of characters' lines was highly unusual.  The sound mixers also used overlayed dialogue to create a false "crowd noise" in appropriate scenes.  Perhaps most innovative was the choice to have scene transitions occur first on the soundtrack with the picture fade lagging behind.
  - The MOST innovative elements of the movie were undeniably those involved in how it was put together visually.  Camera angles look up at stronger characters and down at weaker ones (a technique borrowed from John Ford's film Stagecoach).  "Kane" also utilized a filming technique called "deep focus" that utilized short lenses and heightened lighting to emphasize different points in the frame at once.  Citizen Kane was the first film to utilize coated lenses and at least two takes in the film utilized set pieces that split in two to allow the camera to move "through" them.  Even the audience for Kane's political speech is actually a still photo with holes pricked in it.  Lights were moved around behind the photo to create the illusion of movement.  Reportedly, editor Robert Wise even dragged actual footage over rock and cheesecloth to create the "grainy" effect of the newsreel footage.
  - The third (and final) great controversy over Citizen Kane has to do with the source of the word "Rosebud".  Mankiewicz claimed that it was the name of a childhood bike that he had owned, but other allegations were as wild as Gore Vidal claiming that it has been Hearst's pet name for Marion Davies' clitoris.  Others claimed that it had been a nickname for Hearst's mother or that it was a reference to possible Kane template Basil Zaharoff's dying wish to be wheeled out by his rosebush.
  - Rumors that Ted Turner planned to colorize Citizen Kane at one point were probably unfounded as Welles always retained the rights to the picture.  However, it is great to imagine Welles uttering (as legend has it that he did) "You tell Ted Turner to keep his crayons away from my movie!"
  - Citizen Kane has had a tremendous influence on American pop culture.  Evidence of this ranges from a 1974 "Peanuts" strip in which Lucy gives away the ending to two wildly popular documentaries on the war between Welles and Hearst: The Battle of Citizen Kane (PBS) and RKO 281 (HBO).
  - Welles' "Kane" Oscar recently sold for $861, 542.  Mankiewicz's sold for $588, 455.  Welles' working copy of the script sold for $97,000.
  - Citizen Kane is now easily one of the most critically acclaimed pictures ever made.  It topped the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time every year from 1962 -2011.  It also topped the AFI's lists in both 1998 and 2007.  Roger Ebert has gone on record as saying it is both "the greatest film of all time" and "his personal favorite".

Part 6 - My Review
     Starting a review for Citizen Kane feels a lot like starting a review for Casablanca did.  What am I going to say about the film Roger Ebert has dubbed "the greatest of all time" that hasn't been said before?  EVERYONE knows that this is one of the most innovative and masterfully constructed movies ever told.  It was drastically ahead of its time in terms of cinematography, editing, sound design, you name it.  But we all knew these things long before I started this article.
     I could certainly write a whole review about the acting, so naturalistic and understated for a picture of the time period.  Welles is a revelation as Kane, with this marvelously smug yet confidential line delivery like he's talking down to you and honoring you with a secret wisdom at the same time.  Agnes Moorehead is positively creepy as the loving mother who has completely turned her emotions off in order to do what's best for her son.  Dorothy Comingore absolutely blows me away as Susan Alexander Kane, probably the most fully realized character not featured in the title.  Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher, the movie is full of great performances.  Again...we knew this going in.
     I could speak at great length about the film's groundbreaking narrative structure.  We begin with the end of the story, then we get a brief overview that lays the ground work for the sub plot that creates the structure for the rest of the movie.  Then we see different, shifting periods in Kane's life through the eyes of several different characters who all have their own take on who the man was.  This may not seem so significant in an age where film makers like Nolan and Tarantino regularly turn chronology on its head, but these men owe a huge debt to Welles for showing them how it is done long before they were born.  But...we knew this.
     I could write a piece in which the central point is that Citizen Kane is one of the most quietly busy films ever made, rife with symbolism.  In the opening scene alone, we are treated to images of snow super-imposed over Kane's face symbolic of both an ending, and the story's beginning (which we don't know yet).  We see the snow globe shatter, as Kane lets go of his one true dream at the same moment he expires.  Then we see the nurse discover his body, but only in the reflection of the curved, shattered snow globe, presenting a skewed, fun house reflection of reality...but that's not really what I want to talk about either.
     There are a dozen other topics I could spend more time on.  I could go on about how Kane is the template for the modern anti-hero.  I could expound upon how never seeing Alland's face clearly in the role of Thompson keeps the reporter an everyman: we see the story through his eyes and he sees it through ours.  I could even churn out a few paragraphs about how Mr. Bernstein is never given a first name because no matter how close he was to Kane and Leland, he was still a Jew, kept at arms distance from the society they were easily a part of.  I could...but I want to write about Rosebud.
     On the rare occasions that I've been told by someone that they didn't like this film, their justification usually goes like this:  "The whole movie is a mystery about what Rosebud means and in the end it's just the name of a stupid sled."  Yet Rosebud is so much more.  Thompson concludes that it is just a "missing piece" to a "jigsaw puzzle", but it is more like the keystone that holds all the other pieces of Kane the man in place.  It is also one of the most well realized and multi-leveled metaphors in all of cinematic history.
     The most obvious meaning of Rosebud is as a symbol for the childhood that Kane left behind in Colorado.  It is also a symbol for his mother who, according to Leland, was the only person Charlie ever loved besides himself.  Colorado was the last place in which Charlie ever felt loved and his whole life has been a quest to regain the love that left his life when he left his mother behind.  Rosebud was his innocence; Rosebud was security.
     Rosebud IS also the sled though, and the sled wasn't just a sled.  It was the first weapon that he employed against the bankers.  His whole life he fought the money men, the powers that be, the soulless machine that took away everything he ever loved.  This first weapon was taken from him, and a weak replacement was provided.  This would prove to be a pattern as all of Kane's weapons and defenses would be taken from him in time.
     It is significant that Kane is on his way to view the things from his childhood (including, presumably, the sled) when he first meets Susan.  She becomes a substitute for Rosebud.  Her youth and innocence serve as a stand in for the qualities Charlie struggles in vain to reclaim for himself.  Yet she is just a flesh and blood woman and trying to live up to being the embodiment of such ideals nearly kills her.  When she leaves him, Charlie's thoughts return immediately to what he is really missing: Rosebud, and all that the word entails.
     Kane loves to shout that he is "an American", and the truth is he is ALL Americans, representative of a people who felt that they were missing something but couldn't really tell you exactly what it was.  Rosebud is symbolic of all of our missing pieces in life, whatever you "couldn't get" or "lost" in your life that determined the course of the rest of it.  The saddest truth in Citizen Kane is that MANY people loved Charlie, or wanted to, but he had to have everything "on his terms".  The tragedy of the man is that his own need to feel in control kept him from ever being able to receive the thing he wanted the most...5 of 5 stars.

     ...And...that's two down and soooooo many left to go, but I can't feel too bad about taking my time when discussing a masterpiece.  Next up in the Classic Cinema Series (it's coming, but I'm learning that this is a difficult series to set and meet deadlines for) we move a lot closer to the present day, with our first entry from a decade that many consider to be the greatest ever in cinema.  There are three directors with two films each in the top ten and this will be the first offering from one of those gentlemen.  It is inarguably the yardstick by which all other crime thrillers are measured.  That's all you get.  We'll see you in the swamp!!!


  Related articles: Classic Cinema Series - Preview, Classic Cinema Series #1 - Casablanca

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