Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is a classic American dramatic film released by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. in 1941. Created during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood, it is considered the magnum opus of co-writers Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. It was the first major motion picture for the fledgling Mercury Theater co-founded by Welles, who also had star billing as producer, director, writer and actor. The film featured Welles in the title role, as well as William Alland as Jerry Thompson and Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane.

After the controversial, yet sensational, impact of "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, RKO studio executive George J. Schaefer contracted with Welles to produce two feature films. Welles received an unprecedented movie deal to write and star in his own films. Moreover, he was granted the final cut right, a privilege that was exceedingly rare for an untested movie director. Welles was given permission to run a closed set (refusing access to studio executives during production) and to hire actors at his own discretion.

The movie is a semibiopic tale based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a major newspaper publisher and business mogul, whose competition with Joseph Pulitzer made "yellow journalism" an institution in the publishing world. The main character, Charles Foster Kane, is a fictionalized version of Hearst with some shading from Samuel Insuli, Howard Hughes and Orson Welles himself. Reports confirm that Hearst took major offense at the release of the film and banned any mention of RKO and Citizen Kane in any of his publications.

The story is set in Florida at the main character's massive and sprawling estate, Xanadu. Lying on his deathbed and alone, he utters the single word "Rosebud," and the snow globe held in his hand slips and falls to the floor, breaking as he dies. The remainder of the story focuses on the re-creation of the major events in his life as told from the perspective of news reporter Jerry Thompson. The plot unfolds in a series of interviews and flashbacks of the people who knew Kane best.

As the story unfolds, Thompson becomes determined to find out the meaning of Kane's last word. In the process, he interviews his former mistress and second wife, Susan Alexander Kane, who has since divorced and deteriorated into an alcoholic nightclub proprietor. Thompson also learns many of the painful details of Kane's youth from the memoirs of his banker and childhood guardian Walter Parks Thatcher. He also interviews his best friend from college and employee, Jedediah, as well as his butler, Raymond.

Slowly Kane's life is revealed through an artful use of cinematic flashbacks. Kane was raised in poverty until his mother unexpectedly came into possession of a large estate that was rich in gold deposits. His rags-to-riches story encompasses separation from his mother, two failed marriages, a bid for election to public office, an extramarital affair and his subsequent fall from grace. After his second marriage disintegrated, Kane spiraled into a life of solitary hermitage on his vast estate, interacting only with his staff.

At the conclusion of the tale, the reporter decides that the meaning of the name "Rosebud" will forever remain a mystery, perhaps referring to something that he once had but maybe lost. In the final scene, it is revealed that "Rosebud" actually refers to a red snow sled Kane possessed as a child, presumably the only time he had been truly happy. The final scene shows that the sled is destined to be destroyed and is ultimately thrown onto a woodpile to be burned.

The primary theme of Citizen Kane delves into the character's main flaw of hubris and self-centeredness, the intense need for love and the absolute inability to give it. It portrays the makeup of one driven by hyperambition and the need to control others at all cost, while probing the motivation for what often ends up being a self-destructive life. The source of angst for the main character can be summarized by what can happen when a boy is alienated from his mother's love. As stated by Welles in the original trailer for the motion picture, "Kane is a hero, and a scoundrel, a no account and a swell guy. A great lover, a great American citizen and a dirty dog. It depends on who's talking about him."

Citizen Kane was recognized with nine Academy Award nominations in 1941; however, it only won one for Best Writing and Original Screenplay. Many considered the Academy snub a direct result of Hearst's enraged response and his wide circle of influence in Hollywood. Orson Welles and George Coulouris did win Best Acting awards and the film won Best Picture from The National Board of Review. The New York Times honored it as one of the Ten Best Films of that year. In recent years, the film has been repeatedly ranked as the No. 1 film of all time by the American Film Institute's (AFI) 100 Years…100 Movies.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique
Marilyn Fabe.
University of California Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Expressive Realism: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane"
A History of Narrative Film
David A. Cook.
W.W. Norton, 1996 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Citizen Kane" begins on p. 393
Philosophy of the Film: Epistemology, Ontology, Aesthetics
Ian Jarvie.
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Citizen Kane and the Essence of a Person"
Politics and Politicians in American Film
Phillip L. Gianos.
Praeger Publishers, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Kane" begins on p. 170
You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film: History & Memory, 1927-1949
Andrew Sarris.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Citizen Kane" begins on p. 286
Citizen Kane
Street, Sarah.
History Today, Vol. 46, No. 3, March 1996
Encounters with Filmmakers: Eight Career Studies
Jon Tuska.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "Orson Welles" begins on p. 189
The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960
David Bordwell; Janet Staiger; Kristin Thompson.
Routledge, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 27 "Deep-Focus Cinematography"
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