The year 1941 saw the release of Citizen Kane. Orson Welles directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film, which has been criticized for its resemblance to the life of the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The storyline is the quintessential American Dream, perfectly arching a rise and fall for its tragic hero: Charles Foster Kane. Due to its technological advances, its interpretation of the American dream and its emphasis on the gratuitous excess that comes along with power, Kane stands the test of time, even 75 years later.
The film follows the ups and downs of fictitious media mogul Charles Foster Kane (Welles) through his rise to power and subsequent loss of everything. The film is driven by the effort to find out the significance of Kane’s last word spoken before he died, “rosebud.” Through a series of interviews with Kane’s close friends and family and a flashback-and-forth driven plot, audiences learn where he went wrong, and where he went right.
Hearst’s impact on the newspaper business was profound, and many of his practices still influence the world of journalism today. But why did Welles choose Hearst as his inspiration? Perhaps it was his background, as he was born into a family who hit it big in the California Gold Rush, and spent time in boarding schools and traveling. By choosing Hearst, Welles was taking a big chance in losing an audience; Hearst, through his newspapers, controlled the opinions of many Americans and would indirectly affect how much Kane would make in theaters.
There were many parallels between Kane and Hearst. Xanadu, Kane’s home, is very similar to Hearst Castle. Hearst, like Kane, was also sent away to boarding school to make him a well-rounded and educated man.
The affair between Kane and Susan Alexander is very similar in nature to that of Hearst and Marion Davies. Even though Alexander was a flop as an opera star and Davies was actually a very talented actress, the idea of the figurehead pursuing romance outside of his marriage with a potential starlet hit close to home for Hearst. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he wrote in Esquire in 1940, “Hearst, with his whim of iron, became obsessed with winning an Oscar for Marion Davies — no matter what the cost … the quest loomed like a holy grail.” This is very similar to Kane, as he builds opera houses and directs tours for Susan Alexander, despite her misery throughout the process. Hearst responded to Citizen Kane by banning every newspaper and radio he had power over from running reviews of the film. Interestingly enough, he never saw Kane.
The cinematography of Citizen Kane was revolutionary and changed filmmaking. The most groundbreaking technique that came from Welles is the use of deep focus, the visual effect of keeping objects in the foreground just as clear as they are in the background. Welles also cut holes into the floors of the sets and studios in order to perfect the high-angle shots we see whenever we look up at Kane. This technique has been used ever since to emphasize the power of particular characters.
During the film’s production, Welles watched the 1939 film Stagecoach a rumoured 40 times. Stagecoach is a Western that tells the story of people traveling west together, learning about each other on the way. Regarding the film, critic Roger Ebert suggested, “[Director John] Ford made certain through casting and dialog that the purpose of each scene was made clear, and then he lingered exactly long enough to make the point. Nothing feels superfluous.” The same can be said about Citizen Kane; this cinematic obsession with Kane shows the method to his madness.
So, many people may ask, why is Citizen Kane still important? First, the cinematic techniques Welles employed are important. It is an extraordinary film for technological reasons, like the deep focus shots that Welles employed. Everything was also done on such a large scale, that it would be difficult to appreciate otherwise. This excess was perfect from a stylistic standpoint. However, Citizen Kane was an unusual film for its time, since the film gives a psychological explanation for everything that went on.
The story of William Randolph Hearst’s rise and fall is archetypically American, in his working from nothing into something to become a figure who dominated the first half of the twentieth century. In retrospect, Citizen Kane can be considered an autobiographical film for Welles. He was, after all, only 24 when he worked on the film. People thought he peaked too soon as a cinematic boy genius, but he still kept his feet wet in the ocean that is entertainment. Even though Welles still went on to do great things, he never made anything with such grandeur again.
This film was nominated for nine Academy Awards at the 14th Academy Awards Ceremony, but it only went home with the award for Best Original Screenplay. Welles’ artistic and visual work was not appreciated until decades later. You’re most likely to watch Kane in college; it’s regarded highly by many professors across the school and assigned in many courses. Basically, if you play your cards right and take the right classes, you can watch Citizen Kane once a semester while in college. Or if not that, The Lion King. Both are recommended.
Marina Watts is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]