Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Citizen Kane
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
Okay, so this is a pretty big one, right? For decades now, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has been one of the ultimate go-to answers amongst film critics and aficionados when asked about what is The Greatest Film of All Time. It has, in fact, held down the top spot on multiple high profile lists, including the American Film Institute’s top 100 lists of both 1998 and 2007 and for forty years in the critics Sight and Sound poll. Just last year, the movie was again pronounced the greatest American film of all time by a poll of critics from the BBC. Roger Ebert included it in his unranked list of his top ten films. For quite some time it was just the standard answer to the question, as if it was a foregone conclusion. But time is a funny thing, and Citizen Kane has actually gone through a wide re-evaluation…or two.
One of the more stunning facts when considering Citizen Kane‘s place in the history of film criticism is that it was Orson Welles’ very first feature film. His background in storytelling up to that point had been primarily in theatre and radio. Along with John Houseman (yes, the guy who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Paper Chase), who he had met when working in the Federal Theatre Project, Welles founded the Mercury Theatre in 1937 and worked there alongside names such as Geraldine Fitzgerald, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd, and Vincent Price. The company saw instant success with a string of hits, including a modernized anti-fascist take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Heartbreak House, Danton’s Death, and The Cradle will Rock. The Mercury’s success was so dramatic and influential, in fact, that Welles appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in May of 1938. Imagine him as the Lin-Manuel Miranda of his time…but at 23 he was 13 years younger.
Later that year, an episode of the Mercury’s radio program would elevate Welles from mere fame to being notorious. The show’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was presented as a series of news alerts which detailed what looked to be a successful alien invasion of Earth. At this point there is some disagreement about the results of this approach, but for years afterward the legend was that plenty of listeners missed the official notifications that what they were hearing was a radio drama and it led to panic in some quarters. This was often offered up as an example of the power of media in my youth, but a number of serious research projects on the topic have suggested that fewer than a million people actually heard the broadcast that night, and of those, fewer still took any action that would reflect alarm. If anything, the two groups of people who overreacted were those in positions of responsibility. Law enforcement officials broke into the radio studio as the show ended and detained the people involved, asking multiple questions which led the staff to believe that there had been a mass panic. So much so, that they reported being surprised to walk out onto the streets of New York City after being released to find that the world was going on as normal.
The other group which overreacted appears to have been newspaper publishers, among them William Randolph Hearst (we’ll mention him again later in this article). The repeated criticism of the Welles broadcast that was printed in newspapers may mostly reflect the threat to circulation they felt radio to be. As it turns out, newspapers didn’t really die until the internet exploded, so they were freaking out a good sixty years too soon. Still, the anecdotal story of rubes running out in the streets was powerful enough to last in the public consciousness and to be mentioned in a speech by Adolf Hitler.
Welles’ notoriety was greater than ever, however, and he signed a production deal with RKO to make movies the following year. The contract itself was unconventional in that it offered Welles the right of final cut on his very first film, a move that irritated RKO’s rivals and may have helped contribute to Citizen Kane‘s failure to win more than a single Academy Award. Brashness is often best appreciated in retrospect. Another contract battle probably did as much to offend parts of the Hollywood community, as Welles was accused of taking too much credit for the creation of the script for the movie, with Herman J Mankiewicz initially hired as only a script doctor, despite the fact that the story of Charles Foster Kane was in part based on his personal knowledge of famous newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
After some bitter infighting which included a submitted and then retracted complaint to the Screen Writer’s Guild, RKO and Welles finally relented and gave Mankiewicz a writing credit. In fact, when the paperwork for the change came across Welles’ desk, he personally drew a circle around Mankiewicz’s name and an arrow indicating that it should be listed first. It would eventually only this script that would take home an Oscar statuette. Close examination of the pages submitted over the course of the creation of the story and script in later years would seem to suggest that both men were, in fact, very integral to the final product.
Welles brought in a cast almost entirely made up of actors who had never appeared in film before, with himself in the lead and Joseph Cotten who would later go on to star in movies like Gaslight, The Third Man, Niagara, Touch of Evil, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Soylent Green in a key supporting part. Bucking the current trend of the era, the cast spent time rehearsing scenes before shooting began on June 29th, 1940. Welles was teaching himself and his cast the art of filmmaking as he created and shot the movie, devouring films and asking questions. John Ford’s Stagecoach was of particular interest to him, and he claimed to have watched it as many as forty times. His cameraman, Gregg Toland, jumped at the chance to work with the experimental but inexperienced Welles because he knew he’d get a chance to try out new and exciting techniques. He wasn’t wrong.
That’s the kind of visual stunt that is done easily nowadays with the advent of computer animations, but required audacious vision, skill, and problem solving in 1940. There’s a reason Citizen Kane has continued to be studied in film schools for decades, and it is this kind of stylistic choice that peppers its entire length. One particular strategy Welles used which appealed to me in particular was in keeping the face of actor William Alland, who played the reporter investigating Kane’s final words, largely either in darkness or turned away from the camera. After all, this film is the story of Kane, not of the reporter trying to tell the story. It should also be noted that more than 50 years prior to Tarantino’s notorious use of non-linear storytelling, Welles plays it like a Stradivarius.
When Citizen Kane was finally given a wide release in September of 1941, following a protracted series of arguments and threats from William Randolph Hearst and his organization and the excision of three minutes from the final print, the movie received generally positive reviews from non-Hearst papers. In fact, The New York Times’ Bosley Crowthers exclaimed that it was “…the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon.” Box office performance was muted to a degree by Hearst’s threats and boycotts however, with many movie theaters refusing to show it and shrinking overseas markets due to the war there, resulting in an overall loss by the film of more than $100,000. So despite the strong reviews, Citizen Kane was eventually shelved and pretty much forgotten as just another good movie.
The film would enjoy a resurgence for a few reasons. French audiences were finally able to see Citizen Kane after the end of the Second World War and critics there, led by Andre Bezin and eventually joined by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, responded very favorably to Welles’ film. The idea of the film auteur emerged in France, elevating movies to equal footing with other art forms, and Citizen Kane was often used by these critics as an example of this idea. In the United States, the film’s revival took a little longer, but was spurred both by its early availability on the newly expanding medium of television and by the enthusiastic endorsements of several American critics, most notably Andrew Sarris who described it as “the great American film.” The fact that Hearst had passed away in August of 1951 probably didn’t hurt either. Thus began a roughly 50 year reign at the top of film “best of” lists as was detailed above.
Recent years have been mildly less kind to Citizen Kane, with Vertigo taking over the top spot in the Sight and Sound list that Kane had ruled for so long. Rotten Tomatoes rates Kane highly, but puts The Wizard of Oz in the number one spot. Readers at IMDb have decided that The Shawshank Redemption is tops. Empire Magazine’s readers put it way down at number twenty-eight, just ahead of Die Hard.
So what do I think? Is Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time? Well, at the risk of being gauche and modern, I’m going to say no. Although I definitely liked the film much more than I had previously when I watched it recently, I am still going to argue that the “Greatest Film of All Time” should be either more entertaining or actually technically perfect. On this watch I noticed that Bernard Herrmann’s score, which has received lots of praise over the years, has not really aged well and came off as rather unsophisticated, especially early on. I also noticed multiple moments in which the inexperienced film actors in the cast punctuated scenes by looking directly at the camera, an action which is entirely inappropriate to the overall tone of the movie. Is there a lot to recommend in Citizen Kane? Absolutely. The camera work, blocking, editing, and Welles’ central performance are all excellent and the film manages to entrance for much of its running time. But “Best Ever?” Not to my eyes.
But there is this exchange to treasure:
“Are you still eating?”
“I’m still hungry.”
Posted on November 5, 2016, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, reviews and tagged Building My Movie Posters Puzzle, Citizen Kane, John Houseman, Orson Welles, RKO, The War of the Worlds, William Randolph Hearst. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.