As the anniversary of the premiere approaches, a look at how the movie changed the industry—and what happened to Orson Welles in the years that followed
"There's only one person in the world who's going to decide what I'm going to do and that's me."
–Charles Foster Kane
On the film's debut in 1941, the New York Times acknowledged that Citizen Kane was "one of the great (if not the greatest) motion pictures of all time." The paper hedged its bets, however, adding that "it was riding the crest of perhaps the most provocative publicity wave ever to float a motion picture," and that this "pre-ordered a mental attitude." The whirlwind surrounding the making of Citizen Kane is well known. Orson Welles, the brash prodigy of stage and radio, earned the envy and scorn of Hollywood veterans by striding onto the RKO lot with an unprecedented contract awarding him a three-picture deal, a massive budget, and the final cut of his first film—the Holy Grail of filmmaking. The controversial subject of his cinematic debut riled one of the most powerful men in the world, and upset the delicate balance of the studio system. Orson Welles earned every drop of ink written about his impending career in film.
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Seventy years later, however, it's clear that the New York Times need not have qualified its glowing review. As Times film critic A.O. Scott recently remarked, "Citizen Kane shows Welles to be a master of genre. It's a newspaper comedy, a domestic melodrama, a gothic romance, and a historical epic." And it is still considered the best film ever made. In 1998, the American Film Institute polled 1,500 film professionals. The result was "100 Years... 100 Movies," and Orson Welles's masterpiece lorded over the list. Ten years later, the AFI commissioned another poll. Citizen Kane retained the top spot. As noted by the late, influential critic Kenneth Tynan, "Nobody who saw Citizen Kane at an impressionable age will ever forget the experience; overnight, the American cinema had acquired an adult vocabulary, a dictionary instead of a phrase book for illiterates."
The contract that gave birth to Citizen Kane was an unthinkable gamble by RKO, but the studio had good reason to bet on Orson Welles. At 20, he lorded over Broadway, first with Voodoo Macbeth, a reworking of the "Scottish play" set in the Caribbean and starring an all-African American cast. He followed triumphant reviews by establishing the Mercury Theatre and rewriting Julius Caesar, setting it in Mussolini's Italy. The curtain rose to universal acclaim. In a 1938 cover story, Time magazine wrote of Welles, "If the career of the Mercury Theatre, which next week will be six months old, seems amazing, the career of Orson Welles, who this week is 23, is no less so. Were Welles's 23 years set forth in fiction form, any self-respecting critic would damn the story as too implausible for serious consideration."
Already a radio star, Welles brought the Mercury cast and crew to CBS and founded Mercury Theater on the Air. The radio show pushed the boundaries of the format, but would explode into the national conversation after its infamous production of The War of the Worlds. Presented without commercial interruption and carefully plotted to catch radio listeners tuning the dial, it was performed as a straight news broadcast. Each "news" segment ladled tension and gravity over the airwaves, reporting peculiar lights in space that culminated in a full-scale Martian invasion.
Welles expected fallout, and he got it. And with it, the keys to Hollywood, or as he described it, "the biggest electric train set a boy ever had." Audacity and genius his trademark, and with a third medium to conquer and transform, Welles didn't think small. With the Mercury players in tow, he enlisted veteran satirist and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Together they crafted a story that began with the death of an enigmatic protagonist, and explored his life through flashbacks told from multiple points of view. As questions are answered, questions are raised. The script ultimately compares a man's life to a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces, and thus impossible to solve. The writers very loosely based the title character of Charles Foster Kane on William Randolph Hearst, thus incurring the newspaper titan's wrath. Welles, Mercury, RKO, and the studio heads endured journalistic scandalmongering, and the film eventually earned a blacklist. Welles would later remark, "If Hearst isn't rightfully careful, I'm going to make a film that's really based on his life."
By coincidence, as related by Welles in his autobiography, he once found himself alone in an elevator with Hearst. It was the night of Citizen Kane's San Francisco premiere, and Welles invited him to the opening. "He didn't answer. And as he was getting off at his floor, I said, 'Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.'"
If the unconventional narrative style of the film transformed screenwriting, it is the technical detail of Citizen Kane that has overwhelmed the senses of audiences for seven decades. Gregg Toland was considered to be the best cinematographer in the world at the time, and showed up at Mercury's office one day. "My name's Toland," he is reported to have said, "and I want you to use me on your picture." By way of explanation, Toland added, "I want to work with somebody who never made a movie."
Welles called Toland "the greatest gift any director—young or old—could ever, ever have," and said, "I was calling for things only a beginner would have been ignorant enough to to think anybody could ever do, and there he was, doing them."
Citizen Kane is perhaps most studied for its use of deep-focus photography, wherein the entire frame remains in focus at all time. This technique challenges audiences to search the screen for crucial pieces of the puzzle, and allows for cinematic sleight of hand. An otherwise ordinary fireplace, for example, is a background piece in Kane's mansion. It's not until Kane steps next to it that its massive size is revealed, and Kane's captivity to his outsized riches fully expressed. In another scene, when Kane loses control of his media empire, he dominates the frame, signing away his holdings while claiming a moral superiority to his new corporate masters. He then turns and walks to a window at the far end of the room, and is visually diminished. Through deep focus, the camera captures the magnitude of Kane's defeat without a single word spoken.
Yet for all its renown, for all its acclaim, for all its influence, Welles would never again "ride the crest" of greatness in Hollywood. His follow-up project, The Magnificent Ambersons, was butchered by the studio, the result of unfavorable test screenings and a loophole in Welles's contract. (Though Welles would disown the film and its altered "happy" ending, it is still considered one of the great works of American cinema.) Though sheer force of personality, Welles likely would have prevailed over the studio hands carving away at his baby. But immediately after submitting his final cut, Welles departed to Brazil to film It's All True, a documentary commissioned by the U.S. government's Good Neighbor Policy as part of the war effort.
According to Orson Welles scholar Lawrence French, It's All True was the "biggest mistake of [Welles's] life." He returned from Brazil and was fired by RKO for allegedly going over budget, and the same journalists who elevated Welles to the stratosphere pounced on his oversized personality. Though Welles would go on to helm twelve more features and contribute to dozens more (to say nothing of the literally hundreds of roles he performed as an actor) he never truly regained his cinematic luster. Critic David Thompson went so far as to call Welles a failed artist, which in Mr. French's view is absurd. "Look at the work he's done all these years. Even if he only made twelve films, they're twelve of the greatest films ever made."