"THE PEOPLE WILL THINK...WHAT I TELL THEM TO THINK": Orson Welles and the Trailer for Citizen Kane

By Salmon, Paul | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"THE PEOPLE WILL THINK...WHAT I TELL THEM TO THINK": Orson Welles and the Trailer for Citizen Kane


Salmon, Paul, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


Résumé: Bien qu'il soit devenu presque impossible de considérer la bande annonce de Citizen Kane hors du discours critique qui entoure le film et de son statut de chefd'oeuvre ultime du cinéma américain, il demeure important de l'examiner en détail pour comprendre ses stratégies rhétoriques manipulatrices. Une lecture attentive de la bande annonce démontre que Welles souhaitait rejoindre un large public, qu'il ne voulait pas risquer d'aliéner les foules et était ambivalent au sujet du caractère collectif de cette entreprise artistique.

In Citizen Welles. his biography of Orson Welles, Frank Brady begins his brief discussion of the trailer for Citizen Kane as follows:

A few weeks prior to the anticipated opening of Citizen Kane, RKO released a "Coming Attractions" trailer to promote it. Since the film promised to be unlike any other made in Hollywood, Orson wanted the trailer also to be unlike any other. He spent weeks on scripting, shooting and editing it and emerged with a punchy and intriguing look at the behind-the-scenes life of the film. It was a highly effective advertisement and stood out from all the other trailers coming from Hollywood, clarifying that Citizen Kane was going to be something special.

Shot as a documentary, the trailer was longer than average-it ran five minutes-and followed none of the rules that most trailers adhered to: a brief synopsis, sensational copy, a glimpse at the most dramatic and actionpacked scenes.1

Despite the suggestion here of Wellesian authorship in the creation of "something special," the trailer for Citizen Kane is not a work that has provoked sustained critical attention. It remains absent from the filmographies of all of Welles's biographers (including Brady) and is also not mentioned in Robert Carringer's otherwise indispensable The Making of "Citizen Kane" (1985; rev. ed. 1996). While the trailer is mentioned in Joseph McBride's Orson Welles (1972; rev. ed. 1996) and in the exhaustive chronology of his career in Welles's This Is Orson Vielles (1992), it does not arise as a subject of discussion in either work.

In many ways, critical neglect of the trailer is entirely understandable. Although Brady indicates that Welles shot the trailer as a documentary, a trailer is not originally intended as a work of intrinsic artistic interest. By definition, a trailer is a short prelude meant to anticipate and advertise a coming film and is initially intended to function in a subordinate role to a primary text, not as an attraction in its own right. Even today, when preview trailers for current films are not only an inevitable part of the cinema-going experience, but also widely available on the Web, they do not often generate critical commentary in and of themselves.2 Any scholarly attempt to historically recontextualize the trailer for Citizen Kane is fraught with intriguing challenges, many of which concern the apparent absence of any contemporary accounts of the trailer. How widely was the trailer distributed upon its initial release? What kinds of responses did it provoke among those who had yet to see Citizen Kane? Such questions are probably impossible to answer, and the trailer must now be looked at through an historical prism shaped not only by our knowledge of Citizen Kane, but also by the cumulative influence of almost seven decades of Welles scholarship. Indeed, it is the very fact of Citizen Kane's entrenched canonical status that tempts us to valorize a text such as this trailer as privileged rather than marginal, as something Wellesian and therefore "special."

Something of this attitude of retrospective valorization is implicit in Simon Callow's discussion of the trailer in Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu: "The trailer...has great playful charm. Welles never appears, but is omnipresent as the narrator: a joke-a rather knowing one-in itself. Shot by Toland at the same time as the film, it is a miniature documentary, almost an introduction to the cinema, in the manner of the opening section of the unfilmed Heart of Darkness. …

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