Thatcher: “You always used money to buy things.”
Kane: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.”
“Citizen Kane” (1941) never gets old. When I first started teaching at Santa Barbara City College seventeen years ago, I would make my students sit and watch it. Semester after semester I joined them immersing myself in it, and I always find something new. I remember one particular student who told me he was intimidated about the idea of seeing it. “I heard it’s old and dense,” he commented. It was rewarding to hear from him afterword that it was surprisingly entertaining, “and so good.”
You will get a chance to soon watch David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020) when it premieres on Netflix – and although your appreciation of it is not dependent on you having seen “Citizen Kane,” I would strongly recommend it. Fincher’s work focuses on Herman Mankiewicz’ writing of the script for what’s considered by many critics to be the greatest movie of all time. Orson Welles’ masterpiece was a perfect coalition of talent. Besides Mankiewicz’ groundbreaking narrative, Welles found himself working with one of the greatest cinematographers — Gregg Toland — whose work in deep focus photography is essential – so rich. Robert Wise – who will go on to have a celebrated career of his own as a director (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) was the editor – and alone his editing of the dinner sequence where we watch the deterioration of Kane’s marriage throughout the years in condensed time is still awe-inspiring. And Welles gave his first scoring job to one of the best music composers of all time, maestro Bernard Hermann (“Vertigo”). Hollywood had been trying to lure Welles after his innovative theatrical productions (a legendary modern dress “Julius Caesar” on Broadway that became an anti-fascist statement) and acclaimed radio work (“The War of the Worlds”). RKO Pictures offered him the greatest contract ever given to a filmmaker – made even more spectacular by the fact that he was an untried film commodity. He was given full creative control.
The script plays out like a detective story. Who was Charles Foster Kane? A newsreel at the top of the film gives us the highlights of his very public life, but although everybody knew of the famous publishing tycoon – nobody really knew his private side. A reporter – Jerry Thompson – who becomes the audience’s stand in – is assigned to find out what Kane’s last dying word means. This is where the narrative is spellbinding. Each person that he interviews tells a varying opinion concerning his character. We see the points of view from Thatcher – who was the guardian of the young millionaire Kane — and from his business manager, Bernstein. Jedediah Leland who is now in a retirement home and was Kane’s closest friend gives the most personal account, but it’s still his subjective side of the tale. We also hear from Susan Alexander – one of his former wives, a tragic amateur singer. And finally from a butler who took care of the Hearst Castle-like Xanadu where he lived. It all becomes circular – and you start getting a complex – a cubist (think Marcel Duchamp “Nude Descending a Staircase”) cinematic approach to what this man was like. The question — What is Rosebud? — is a MacGuffin. We do find out its literal meaning – but it is much bigger than that. It’s like the green light that Gatsby was looking at from across the water. Unlike other movies where we see the rags to riches arc of someone’s career – Kane is unbearably rich from the get go. This is a riches to personal dissatisfaction sweep. We watch what somebody does with absolute power from the start.
The composition and lighting are tremendous. In every frame there’s a foreground, a midground and a background – and everything is in focus. Now – things are all carefully arranged to bring out the theme of the movie. For example, watch the scene where young Kane’s destiny is decided – where the mother signs the papers handing stewardship to Thatcher. In the center of the frame – in the background – you can see through the window young Charles playing in the snow – the windowpane keeping us from him. That’s what Rosebud is all about. In every scene you can find what Rosebud means – if you look close enough at the symbolic arrangement of things. Toland uses black and white, and deep shadows for expressiveness. It’s all very interpretative – suggesting dark motives, mood shifts and the loneliness of the soul. I could go on and on. Don’t even get me started on the editing by Wise
Welles’s genius wasn’t that he created anything new, it is that he synthesized all of these great innovations in cinema and found a story to visually encapsulate them.
Leland: “All he wanted out of life was love, but he lost it.”
Available to HBO Max and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Redbox, Apple TV and DIRECTV.
Original Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford and William Alland
Bringing “Citizen Kane” to the Screen
In 1939, Herman J. Mankiewicz was a forty-two-year-old screenwriter, acclaimed in Hollywood not only for the lines of dialogue he wrote for movies but for the ones he delivered in life. In nearly a decade and a half in the business, he’d found success at Paramount working with Josef von Sternberg and with his friends the Marx Brothers, and at M-G-M writing on “Dinner at Eight” and, briefly, “The Wizard of Oz,” where he had the idea of filming Kansas in bleak black-and-white and Oz in Technicolor. But he was best known as one of the great personalities in the film business. He’d migrated to Hollywood from New York City, where he’d been The New Yorker’s first theatre critic and a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, and he carried that group’s spirit of cynical candor and acerbic bravado to the movie community. In commissaries and at cocktail parties, he was known for his learned insights and his unpredictable politics (he wrote, at great risk, an anti-Hitler script in 1933, yet he was opposed to American involvement in the Second World War, and even called himself an “ultra-Lindbergh”) as well as for the style with which he delivered them. He was also habitually drunk and wildly impolitic, known for the scenes that he made and the insults that he flung. His work habits were notoriously dubious: a compulsive gambler, he spent ample studio time placing bets and listening to horse races; a social whirlwind, he talked the day away in person and by phone. He lampooned and defied his bosses, and got fired from every job he didn’t quit. By the summer of 1939, he was unemployed, which is how he found himself desperately available when a twenty-four-year-old newcomer to Hollywood by the name of Orson Welles offered him a job.
Welles, prolific and precocious, had become a stage star at sixteen, a major theatre director at twenty, and, in 1937, the co-founder (with John Houseman) of the Mercury Theatre company; he’d become a radio star at twenty-three, and become infamous, in 1938, for the radio broadcast “War of the Worlds,” the tale of an invasion from outer space, told in the form of faux news bulletins, which many listeners mistook as real. He’d also made two independent films on the side. The week of his twenty-third birthday, he had been featured on the cover of Time magazine. But whereas Mankiewicz was a Hollywood insider, Welles was despised by the movie industry in advance, resented and derided for his youth, his fame, his intellectualism—and his contractually guaranteed freedom. He had signed a contract with R.K.O. studio to produce, write, direct, and act in two movies, for which he, alone among Hollywood studio filmmakers, would be allowed final cut. He initially brought Mankiewicz on to ghostwrite radio programs, but their collaboration soon shifted, and Welles recruited him as a co-writer of the first film. Their collaboration, and the film that resulted from it—“Citizen Kane”—was hailed, even before its release, as one of the greatest movies ever made. A drama about a young heir who turns himself into a newspaper mogul and national figure, building and destroying an empire of his own, it became a marker of an aesthetic and generational shift in the history of cinema, and it made Welles—and what Welles represented—the cynosure of world cinema. Welles and Mankiewicz won an Oscar for the screenplay (the only one that the movie earned, though it was nominated in nine categories), but that award itself was the culmination of a bitter dispute, only one of the many that the movie sparked: Mankiewicz’s contract with Welles had explicitly denied him writing credit, yet Mankiewicz, whose career badly needed the jolt, wanted it—and, after a struggle both in the press and behind the scenes, ultimately succeeded in securing it. Yet today, Welles remains legendary, while Mankiewicz, who died in 1953, is unknown to all but the most attentive movie buffs. (newyorker.com)
About Co-Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz
Mankiewicz was the son of German immigrants. He grew up in Pennsylvania, where his father edited a German-language newspaper, and moved with his family to New York City in 1913. He graduated from Columbia University in 1917. Serving briefly in the Marine Corps, Mankiewicz held a variety of jobs, including work for the Red Cross press service in Paris. He returned for a short time to the United States, married, and then worked intermittently in Germany as a correspondent for a number of newspapers. He returned once again to New York City in 1922 and, among other activities, collaborated on two unsuccessful plays. He also became a member of the celebrated group of American critics, writers, and miscellaneous wits who met at the Algonquin Hotel and were known as the Algonquin Round Table. One of them, Alexander Woollcott, said that Mankiewicz was the funniest man in New York. Mankiewicz worked at The New Yorker magazine until he was hired by Paramount Publix Studios in Hollywood, Calif. He began by writing titles for silent movies, and he was responsible for a distinct change in their tone. He is credited with the authorship or co-authorship of a number of sound motion pictures—including “The Royal Family of Broadway” (1931), “Dinner at Eight” (1933), “It’s a Wonderful World” (1939, with Ben Hecht), “Pride of the Yankees” (1942), and “Citizen Kane” (1941, with Orson Welles). He took much of the story for “Citizen Kane” from his personal experience with William Randolph Hearst, whose guest he had been on many weekends during the 1930s. The screenplay won an Academy Award. Mankiewicz also produced, wrote, or doctored a number of scripts, some of them uncredited. He was involved, for example, in the Marx brothers’ “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Horse Feathers” (1932). Plagued by alcoholism, he wrote his last film, “The Pride of St. Louis,” in 1952. His brother Joseph was also a screenwriter and director. (britannica.com)
About Director and Co-Screenwriter Orson Welles
Welles was born to a mother, Beatrice Ives, who was a concert pianist and a crack rifle shot, and a father, Richard Welles, who was an inventor and a businessman. Welles was a child prodigy, adept at the piano and violin, acting, drawing, painting, and writing verse; he also entertained his friends by performing magic tricks and staging mini productions of William Shakespeare’s plays. Welles’s parents separated when he was four years old, and his mother died when he was nine. In 1926 Welles entered the exclusive Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois. There his gifts found fertile ground, and he dazzled the teachers and students with stagings of both modern and classical plays. His father died in 1930, and Welles became the ward of a family friend, Chicago doctor Maurice Bernstein. In 1931 he graduated from Todd, but, instead of attending college, he studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to Dublin, where he successfully auditioned at the Gate Theatre for the part of the Duke of Württemberg in a stage adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel “Jew Süss.” Welles remained in Ireland for a year, acting with the company at the Abbey Theatre as well as at the Gate; he also designed sets, wrote a newspaper column, and began directing plays. In 1932 Welles left Dublin and tried to get work on the stages of London and New York; unsuccessful, he instead traveled for a year in Morocco and Spain. In 1933 in the United States, he was introduced to actress Katharine Cornell by author Thornton Wilder and was hired to act in Cornell’s road company, playing Mercutio in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” and Octavius Barrett in Rudolf Besier’s “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” In 1934 Welles organized a summer drama festival at the Todd School, where he played Svengali in an adaptation of George du Maurier’s “Trilby” and Claudius in “Hamlet.” At the end of the festival, he made his first film, the short “The Hearts of Age.” With Todd School headmaster Roger Hill, he prepared “Everybody’s Shakespeare” (1934), editions for performance of “Twelfth Night,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Julius Caesar,” with introductions by Hill and Welles and illustrations by Welles. He made his New York debut as Tybalt in Cornell’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” in December 1934. When Welles was performing in “Romeo and Juliet,” he met producer John Houseman, who immediately cast him as the lead in Archibald MacLeish’s verse play “Panic,” which premiered in 1935 for Houseman’s Phoenix Theatre Group. They then moved on in 1936 to mounting productions for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA’s) Federal Theatre Project. Their first effort, for the Federal Theatre’s Negro Division, was “Macbeth,” with an all African American cast and the setting changed from Scotland to Haiti.
They began 1937 with Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragicall” History of Doctor Faustus (starring Welles). Their most (in)famous effort was Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian musical play “The Cradle Will Rock.” WPA guards shut down the theatre the night before its opening. (The shutdown was ostensibly for budgetary reasons; however, the political nature of the play was considered too radical.)…That same year they formed the Mercury Theatre, which presented a renowned modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” In 1938 the Mercury Theatre presented William Gillette’s comedy “Too Much Johnson.” Welles shot three short silent films to precede each act of the play; however, the films were never finished. (“The Too Much Johnson” footage was believed to have been destroyed by fire in 1970; however, it was rediscovered, restored, and premiered in 2013.) At the same time, Welles was making inroads in radio. His radio career began early in 1934 with an excerpt from “Panic.” In 1935 he began appearing regularly on “The March of Time” news series, and subsequent radio roles included the part of Lamont Cranston in the mystery series “The Shadow.” In 1938 the Mercury players undertook a series of radio dramas adapted from famous novels. They attained national notoriety with a program based on H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds;” the performance on October 30, using the format of a simulated news broadcast narrated by Welles, announced an attack on New Jersey by invaders from Mars. (However, contemporary reports that the program caused a nationwide panic were exaggerated.) The national coverage that resulted from his theatre and radio work brought Welles’s name before Hollywood. In 1939 he signed an extraordinary contract with RKO that guaranteed him near-total autonomy and final cut on any film he made. For his first film, Welles chose Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which was to be filmed entirely from the point of view of the narrator Marlow. However, despite months of preparation, the film never got off the ground. Welles narrated “Swiss Family Robinson” (1940) while waiting for another project to evolve. “Citizen Kane” (1941) is arguably the greatest movie ever to come out of Hollywood, and it is surely one of the most-impressive debuts by any director. Welles also produced and co-scripted the film with Herman J. Mankiewicz…Shot with an array of classic and experimental techniques by Gregg Toland, evocatively scored by Bernard Herrmann, and edited brilliantly by Robert Wise, “Citizen Kane” was a masterpiece of moviemaking. It was also the last time Welles made a Hollywood movie that reached the screen intact. Although it initially received rave reviews, “Citizen Kane” was not a financial success. RKO found the film—with its complex flashback structure and lack of an appealing protagonist—difficult to market, and its box office was also hindered by the Hearst newspapers’ using their power to hamstring its commercial prospects. Nevertheless, “Citizen Kane” received nine Academy Award nominations, of which Welles received three (best actor, director, and original screenplay), but only the screenplay won an Oscar.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) was produced, written, and directed by Welles, and to some critics it represents the peak of his artistry—even though it was taken out of his hands by RKO after poor test screenings. It was heavily reedited by Wise (44 minutes were cut), and a new ending was tacked on…The Magnificent Ambersons was nominated for a best picture Oscar. Even while Wise was cutting “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Welles was in South America filming his quasi-documentary “It’s All True,” an anthology of three short films: “The Story of Samba (Carnaval),” about Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival; “My Friend Bonito,” about bullfighting; and “Four Men on a Raft,” about four humble fishermen who become national heroes after a daring voyage. RKO canceled the project midway, leaving Welles stranded in Rio. (The legendary project, never released, resurfaced when the mostly extant footage from “Four Men on a Raft” was assembled by Richard Wilson, Bill Krohn, and Myron Meisel as part of the documentary “It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles” .) Welles had started work on “Journey into Fear” (1943) before leaving for Brazil, and he returned to find that RKO had begun meddling with it, as it had with “The Magnificent Ambersons.” This time, though, Welles was able to intercede and restore at least some of the brutal editing, but it was released at 69 minutes, having been cut down from 91. “Journey into Fear” was officially credited to Norman Foster, a director who also assisted Welles on “It’s All True,” but it was produced, co-scripted, and acted in by Welles, who played the supporting part of Colonel Haki of Turkish intelligence. The hand of Welles is clearly evident, although Welles later said that he “designed the film but can’t properly be called its director.”… “Journey into Fear” starred Welles’s then paramour, Dolores Del Rio, as the mysterious Josette, and “Citizen Kane” veterans Cotten (who co-wrote the screenplay), Warrick, Moorehead, and Sloane enhanced the production. However, RKO was unimpressed, and its new executives kicked Welles and his Mercury Productions off the lot. Welles spent the rest of 1943 making two radio series, entertaining American troops fighting in World War II with a touring magic show with the assistance of Rita Hayworth (whom he married), Marlene Dietrich, Cotten, and Moorehead, giving speeches on behalf of the war effort, and even substituting for Jack Benny on his radio show. He also played the mysterious Rochester in Robert Stevenson’s “Jane Eyre” (1943) opposite Joan Fontaine. But none of the studios was rushing to sign him as a director. He starred opposite Claudette Colbert in Irving Pichel’s melodrama “Tomorrow Is Forever” (1946) before finally being given a chance by producer Sam Spiegel.
“The Stranger” (1946) was a thriller about a Nazi, Franz Kindler (Welles), who is hiding out as a schoolteacher in a small New England town. His impending nuptials with a fellow teacher (Loretta Young) are interrupted when a war-crimes investigator (Edward G. Robinson) tracks him down and then waits for Kindler to give himself away. Welles was not happy with his work—he was trying to adhere to a strict schedule and budget to repair his reputation and so could ill afford any of his trademark flourishes—and “The Stranger” was thus his most-conventional film. Heavily in debt from the failure of a colossal stage version of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days,” Welles began shooting the film noir “The Lady from Shanghai” in 1946 for Columbia Pictures…Today “The Lady from Shanghai” is regarded as one of Welles’s masterpieces, a triumph of style especially in its climactic shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, even though Welles was unable to oversee its final, heavily truncated cut. In 1947 Welles then made a loose but strikingly original film adaptation, “Macbeth” (1948), which he shot in 23 days at genre factory Republic Pictures. He had prepared for the low-budget shoot by directing a stage production in Salt Lake City, Utah, with most of the cast…After finishing shooting “Macbeth,” Welles went to Italy, where he acted as the 18th-century charlatan and magician Cagliostro (and directed a few scenes) in Gregory Ratoff’s “Black Magic” (1949). He starred in other films, including Henry King’s “Prince of Foxes” (1949), as a colourful Cesare Borgia, and most famously Carol Reed’s classic thriller “The Third Man” (1949), as the amoral Harry Lime. Welles would spend much of the next 25 years in Europe. Welles next played a 13th-century warlord in Henry Hathaway’s “The Black Rose” (1950). He had begun shooting “Othello” in 1948 in Venice. Over the next three years, Welles fitfully continued filming it on location in Italy and Morocco and in a Rome studio, stopping whenever funds ran low to take on another acting assignment. Since the actors were not always all available, some scenes of conversations were edited together out of close-ups shot years apart. The result was finally shown at Cannes in 1952, winning the top prize… “Mr. Arkadin” (1955; also called “Confidential Report”) was based on an original story by Welles and was financed by European investors, who removed him from the film during editing…During Welles’s lifetime the film circulated in at least three versions, each with slightly different material, and it was not until 2006 that a “comprehensive version” was assembled. As with so many of Welles’s later works, the picture’s merits wrestle fiercely with its production deficiencies. In 1955 Welles also began shooting “Don Quixote,” a contemporary reworking of the Miguel de Cervantes tale that he also produced, narrated, and co-scripted. He worked on and off on “Don Quixote” until his death. At one point he even said the film would be called “When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote.” The film was never completed. A fragmentary form of “Don Quixote” was assembled by Spanish filmmakers Patxi Irigoyen and Jesús Franco in 1992…
Welles accepted many film acting assignments in England, France, and Italy. He made two series of short documentaries for British television, Orson Welles’ “Sketch Book” and “Around the World with Orson Welles” (both 1955), and that same year he also produced “Moby Dick” …American audiences saw him as Father Mapple in John Huston’s “Moby Dick” (1956) and as the imposing Varner in Martin Ritt’s “The Long, Hot Summer” (1958). He then returned to Hollywood for the first time in 10 years to make… “Touch of Evil”…Welles delivered a rough cut to Universal and then went to Mexico to shoot some scenes for Don Quixote. When he returned, Universal had added some footage and cut it down to 93 minutes. Welles wrote an extensive memo detailing his preferred changes. He was ignored, but in 1998 Universal released a 111-minute cut following Welles’s memo. “Touch of Evil” was Welles’s last Hollywood film. Welles acted in such films as Huston’s “The Roots of Heaven” (1958) and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion” (1959). He also used his famous mellifluous baritone in narrating films, such as Fleischer’s “The Vikings” (1958) and Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961). He made “The Trial” (1962) in Europe…Casting himself as Shakespeare’s buffoon Sir John Falstaff…Welles assembled an impressionistic and often moving tribute to the grandeur of “Shakespeare in Chimes at Midnight” (1965; also called “Falstaff”)…After roles in René Clément’s “Is Paris Burning?” (1966), Fred Zinnemann’s “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), and the James Bond spoof “Casino Royale” (1967), Welles made “Histoire immortelle” (1968; “The Immortal Story”), an hour-long film for French television based on an Isak Dinesen novella. He also shot the thriller “The Deep” between 1967 and 1969; however, the film was never completed. Many more acting appearances followed, including roles in Huston’s “The Kremlin Letter” (1970), Mike Nichols’s “Catch-22” (1970, as “General Dreedle”), and Brian De Palma’s “Get to Know Your Rabbit” (1972). From 1970 to 1976 Welles also shot and partially edited “The Other Side of the Wind,” a satire about the movie business set on the last night of the life of director Jake Hannaford (played by Huston), a renowned filmmaker struggling to find his place in the New Hollywood of the 1970s…However, money ran out before post-production was completed, and the film was caught in a legal battle that lasted long after Welles’s death. A version of the movie was released in 2018 using Welles’s edited footage and notes. “F for Fake” (1973) was an “essay film” (as Welles called it) about the nature of truth in art… “F for Fake” was probably his most-intricate film and required one year of editing to complete. Welles returned to the United States in 1975. His final completed film was Filming “Othello” (1979), made for West German television about the making of his “Othello.” In addition to acting in and providing voice-over narration for many films and television programs, in his final years Welles shot footage for several projects, including Filming “The Trial,” about the making of that film; “The Dreamers,” based on two short stories by Dinesen; Orson Welles Solo, an autobiographical film; and “The Magic Show,” with Welles performing magic tricks. (britannica.com)