Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stubs - Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead. Directed by Orson Welles. Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles. Music by Bernard Hermann. Produced by Orson Welles. Run Time: 119 minutes. U.S. B&W Drama.

In 1939, following his radio success with the Mercury Theatre’s radio version of The War of the Worlds the previous year, 24 year-old Orson Welles came to Hollywood to work for RKO Pictures. He was given complete creative freedom to develop whatever story we wanted. After taking a run at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Welles developed Citizen Kane and the rest is history.

The film is a rather thinly-veiled attack on William Randolph Hearst and that is probably why it was not as successful on its initial release (the power of the Hearst papers) and why Welles lost final cut on his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The rest of Welles’ time in Hollywood would be bumpy and he would never again reach the same heights of filmmaking as he did in this film, though he would come sort of close with Touch of Evil (1958).

After failing to come up with a good idea on his own, Welles developed Citizen Kane with Herman J. Mankiewicz who had once been a good friend of Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies and knew Hearst socially. But Mankiewicz had been banned from seeing Davies because of his drunkenness and took it out on Hearst and Davies. It is in fact the portrayal of Davies, as Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) which has tainted the public’s opinion of Davies. Rather than a thin-voiced untalented opera singer, Davies was a very successful Hollywood film comedienne before her long term affair with Hearst.

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, through flashbacks as an investigative reporter for a newsreel company, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), seeks to find out what the great man’s last words, Rosebud, meant. Through interviewing Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s friend and loyal business manager; Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), Kane’s one-time best friend; Susan Alexander, Kane’s mistress and later second wife; by reading the unpublished memoirs of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) a banker who becomes Kane’s guardian; and finally by interviewing Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane’s butler in later years, the reporter gets a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most famous and richest men in the world. It is not a pretty picture and the reporter never learns what Rosebud meant.

After his mother, Mary (Agnes Moorehead) inherits what was thought to be a worthless mine, but turns out to be the Colorado lode, she is concerned about her boy’s upbringing. Over Jim’s (Harry Shannon), Charles’s father, protests, Mary signs over legal guardianship to Thatcher. Perhaps at the time this was supposed to have taken place that might have made sense, but the film never explains why Mary remained in Colorado and gave her son over to a total stranger to raise.

Kane (Orson Welles) grows up to be a rich ne’er-do-well, being kicked out of almost as many colleges and universities as Leland. Leland comes from money, but the family fortune has all been spent. We’re never told where Mr. Bernstein came in, but the three of them show up one day to run the New York Inquirer newspaper that Kane’s trust has owned through a takeover. The Inquirer’s circulation is small, but through Kane’s yellow journalism, by attacking the trust run by former guardian Thatcher and by spending money to buy the rivals staff, the Inquirer becomes a powerful paper. Kane expands his empire into other papers and other businesses, such as food, paper and travel.

In the meantime, Kane goes to Europe buying up every art piece he can and marries Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), the niece of the President of the U.S. Kane, who fancies himself as a guardian of the people, runs for Governor of New York against Jim W. Getty (Ray Collins), a corrupt political boss. And while Kane is leading in the polls a week before election, everything comes crashing down around him when Getty reveals to Emily the affair Kane has been carrying on with Susan Alexander. Getty threatens to go to the papers about the affair if Kane doesn’t drop out of the race. But Kane is as egotistical as they come and refuses. Not only does he lose the election, he loses Emily (to divorce) and their son, Charles, Jr. (Sonny Bupp). We’re told that Emily and Charles, Jr. would later die in a car crash. Kane also loses Leland’s friendship, who takes to the bottle.

Having failed to win political office, Kane turns his attention and fortune to making something out of Susan Alexander. He goes so far as to build her the Chicago Metropolitan Opera House, which Kane thinks can overcome her lack of talent. However, despite the positive reviews of the Kane-owned paper, Susan is a flop. Only Leland, who is now the drama critic for the paper has the courage to write the truth. To Kane’s credit, when he comes upon a drunken Leland with a half-finished review, Kane completes it for him, not changing the reviewer’s opinion, though he does fire Leland on the spot.

Like most people, Kane goes through some troubled time during the great depression. Papers close or are merged. There is even a scene in the film of him having to go to Thatcher, a man he fought in print, for a bailout. It appears, if I hear it right, that he sells his holdings to Thatcher’s bank, but at some point, Kane seems to be running things again.

Kane builds Xanadu in Florida, a pleasure palace replete with a zoo, golf course, Venice Canals, pools and perhaps the largest fireplace in the world. The house, which includes parts of castles, is large, opulent and cold. Though Kane does occasionally entertain, he retreats from society. We see a beach picnic, complete with some leftover visual effects from King Kong. He and Susan live in the house in isolation, until one day Susan can’t take it any longer and leaves. After all, there are only so many puzzles a girl can do.

When the newsreel crew meets up at Xanadu, the crates of paintings and statues are being cataloged and the trash is being burned. Unbeknownst to our reporter, the sled bearing the name Rosebud is incinerated along with the other trash. Rosebud, we learn is Kane’s reminder of when he was a boy at home in Colorado. Rosebud is supposedly also Hearst’s nickname for Davies’ clitoris, which Mankiewicz would have been in a position to know, and would further explain Hearst’s efforts to squash the film.

There is so much to talk about concerning this movie, and much of it has already been written about extensively. A modern film viewer may not realize it, but Citizen Kane represents a paradigm shift in filmmaking. Prior to Kane, films were shot a certain way: establishing shots, close-ups, reverse shots, over-the-shoulder shots during conversation. What was the primary object was in focus, but not necessarily the background. Ceilings were never seen, since that’s where the lights were. In Citizen Kane, the focus is deep with usually everything in the frame, no matter where it is in focus. In order to show how big of a man Kane was, Welles wanted to be shooting up at him, so the ceiling shows. These oddly give Kane a bit of claustrophobic feel that I don’t recall sensing in other films. The ceilings, especially in the newspaper, seem to be just above the actors’ heads. A lot of the credit for the look of the film belongs to Gregg Toland, who was one of the most influential cinematographers of all time.

I have no complaints about the actors either. They all do a really top job. Welles’ Kane is not a sympathetic character nor was he supposed to be. While many of the actors came from radio, they have the face for film and television and several, including Cotton, Moorehead, Stewart, Collins and Sloane would have long and successful careers.

Props also should go out to the music by Bernard Hermann, who created some of the best remembered film scores. His for Kane was nominated for Best Music (Score of a Dramatic Picture), but didn’t win. Also nominated was the editing by Robert Wise, the Art Direction (Black-and-White) by Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, A. Roland Fields and Darrrell Silvera. Welles would receive nominations for Acting and Directing and the film for Outstanding Motion Picture. However, the only Academy Award the film would win was for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

And it is ironically with the screenplay that I have my only issue with the film. The premise on which the film hangs is Kane’s final word: Rosebud. We see through establishing shot after establishing shot that Xanadu is an isolated, empty playground. There is a lone light on in an upper window as the camera slowly gets closer and closer. Finally, the light goes off and we see the silhouette of Kane’s body as he lies dying in bed. With snow globe in hand, Kane whispers Rosebud, then drops the snow globe, which breaks on the floor. In one of the great shots, though I’m pretty sure it’s an effect, we see the door at the far end of the room open and the nurse coming in reflected in a piece of the globe. The nurse and only the nurse approaches the bedside and discovering Kane’s dead, pulls the sheet over him.

Since the film establishes that there was no one in the room as Kane dies, who was there to hear his last words? The script tries to cover up this hole when Raymond claims to Jerry that he heard him say it. However, we never see him in the room. Given how far the door was to the bed and how thick we can assume the door would be in a house like Xanadu, I find it hard to believe anyone could hear an old man’s last whisper. Okay, this is being picky, I know, but it’s an obvious problem that shouldn’t be there and could have been easily and believably filled in. And I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out.

Citizen Kane may also be remembered for the controversy it created. Hearst naturally did not find his film betrayal flattering in the least. And Hearst was a man who had great influence in Hollywood. A real attempt was made by Louis B. Mayer from rival M-G-M to buy and destroy the film before it was released. When George Schaefer, the head of RKO, turned down Mayer’s offer, Hearst made sure that there was no mention of the film in any of his papers. While Hearst was initially successful in hurting the film’s box office, in the long run Hearst is forever linked to the film as his own real life story is compared to the portrayal in Kane.

After making such a monumental debut film, Welles’ own career in Hollywood fizzled. He was a “boy genius” after all, a mantel that doesn’t age well. But Kane was not the end of Welles’ career by a long shot. It is just that he never regained his place in Hollywood. He would direct other great films, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil; he would never reach the same heights as he did with Kane. Welles also acted in a number of films; including most notably Tomorrow is Forever (1946) and The Third Man (1949). One of his last roles was as the voice of Unicron in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie. Sadly, though when Welles died in 1985, he was best known for doing wine commercials as for having been a great director and actor. Welles had a meteoric rise but he peaked creatively at the age of 26 and he lived to be 70. That’s a long time to live in the shadows of your greatest glory.

Problem with the premise aside, this is one of the great films of all time. Even if you don’t like the story, you have to admire it for its style, visuals and cinematography. This is truly a landmark film. But it is not one of my favorites of all time. Again, I go back to the claustrophobic feeling I get watching it. Seeing Kane walk around is sort of like watching an animal in a cage. The characters are not sympathetic, so you’re not rooting for anyone in particular or feel for their plight.

This is a film to watch because you should see it at least once. Repeat viewings are really up to you, but if you’ve never seen it, then you are truly missing out on one of the great films of Hollywood.

Citizen Kane is available on the WB Shop:

Free Shipping on All Orders Over $50!

No comments:

Post a Comment