After 70 years, the greatness of ‘Citizen Kane’ remains undiminished

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

15 September 2011


From a review of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” at the time of its release in 1941:

“Before ‘Citizen Kane,’ it’s as if the motion picture was a slumbering monster, a mighty force stupidly sleeping, lying there sleek, torpid, complacent — awaiting a fierce young man to come kick it to life, to rouse it, shake it, awaken it to its potentialities, to show it what it’s got. Seeing it, it’s as if you never really saw a movie before: no movies has ever grabbed you, pummeled you, socked you on the button with the vitality, the accuracy, the impact, the professional aim, that this one does.” (Cecelia Ager, in PM, a New York daily newspaper)

Writing about “Citizen Kane” on the 30th anniversary of its release, in 1971, film critic Pauline Kael referred to it as being “as fresh now as the day it opened.” In 1997, an American Film Institute poll of film artists, critics and historians named “Citizen Kane” the greatest movie of all time, a position the film retained in another AFI poll in 2007. The most recent once-a-decade poll of both international critics and directors conducted by the British film magazine “Sight and Sound” also ranked “Citizen Kane” No. 1.

This week, Warner Home Video is releasing a 70th anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of “Citizen Kane,” a high-definition restoration from the film’s original nitrate elements and its Blu-ray debut ($49.92/$64.99 Blu-ray, not rated). From the perspective of 2011, “Citizen Kane” doesn’t seem quite as fresh, but that’s only because its fame over the years and the advent of home video have made it more readily accessible. Yet the passage of time has in some ways added to the movie’s dramatic legacy. We now understand that the debut film of a rule-breaking, innovative young genius — Welles, the producer, director, co-writer (with Herman Mankiewicz) and star, was only 24 when RKO signed him to a contract granting him almost unprecedented creative control of his movie — was almost instantly followed by its creator’s long, fitful and tortuous decline.

One needs to remember, despite some disingenuous statements by Welles when he was trying to “save” his movie, that the film’s Charles Foster Kane was a barely veiled stand-in for William Randolph Hearst. The Rupert Murdoch of his day, Hearst was one of America’s most powerful, and conservative, media moguls and a dangerous target for Welles. The movie’s critical examination of Hearst/Kane’s private life as well as his rise and fall was considered scandalous and sensational at the time. The fact that the film was made by a Hollywood outsider — a left-leaning provocateur from New York! — only made its take-down of the right-wing Hearst even more controversial.

The DVD’s inclusion of two audio commentaries by esteemed observers — director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich (a friend and confidante of Welles’ for the last 18 years of the Welles life) and critic Roger Ebert — provides complementary and knowledgeable voices about the construction and shooting of “Citizen Kane.” They explain how different “Citizen Kane” looked from other Hollywood films, including its novel display of credits, its casting of stage and radio actors who had never appeared in movies before and Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland’s creative use of long takes, unusual lighting, tracking shots, montages, unorthodox camera angles and “deep focus” photography.

The packaging of two additional feature-length films with this collection adds even more about the environment and times in which “Citizen Kane” was made.

“The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” a 1996 PBS “American Experience” documentary, offers a fascinating account of the behind-the-scenes drama. Although it spends too much time for my taste in comparing Hearst’s and Welles’ powerful egos, faults and talents, the documentary succeeds in explaining both Welles’ drive and Hearst’s reasons for being so hostile to the film. Much of the latter seemed to stem from Welles and Mankiewicz’s creation of a central character, Susan Alexander (played by Dorothy Comingore), who becomes Kane’s mistress and, later, his pitiful and shrewish second wife and whose career as an opera singer is promoted lavishly and obsessively by Kane despite her lack of talent.

In real life, Hearst had a long relationship — concealed from the public in the days when the media was far more discrete than today — with Marion Davies, a much-younger actress who by most accounts was vivacious, funny and talented. That the equation of the fictional Alexander with the real Davies was unfair to Davies was even acknowledged later by Welles, shown here in a 1982 interview admitting that “I thought we were very unfair to Marion Davies. We had somebody very different in the place of Marion Davies. And it seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick … what we did to her.”

Along with the 1999 HBO movie “RKO 281” (also included here), featuring Liev Schreiber as Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst and Melanie Griffith as Davies, “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” reveals how Hearst and Louella Parsons, his newspaper chain’s powerful Hollywood gossip columnist, used threats to try to get the owners of the major studios to intervene and either destroy or prevent the release of the movie. Although those efforts failed, Hearst and his minions successfully prevented the film from being shown in most of America’s movie theaters. Hearst’s efforts certainly contributed to “Citizen Kane’s” relative lack of success at the box office, its subsequent suppression for many years and Welles’ future problems raising funds for his film projects.

The DVD package also includes a photo-filled, 48-page collector’s book, reproductions of lobby cards, production memos and the original 1941 program, storyboards and deleted scenes shown in storyboard format, and more. In addition, Amazon.com is bringing out a version of this Ultimate Collector’s Edition which adds a DVD of Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” a movie some critics believe is even superior to “Kane” ($79.89 list price).

As for this critic, it is the sheer audacity of Welles that stands out when watching “Citizen Kane” again, accompanied by all of these bonus features. Welles had keen political instincts in addition to his artistic vision, and he must have known enough about Hearst to understand the perils of going after such a powerful person. Even so, the courage Welles showed in choosing to make his debut film on this subject is as remarkable as the movie’s technical ingenuity, unorthodox structure and virtuoso performances. Together, they resulted in the immortal masterpiece of “Citizen Kane.”



4 stars

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris and Agnes Moorehead

Producer-director: Welles

Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Not rated

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