Since CITIZEN KANE mysteriously showed up at our local multiplex -- even
the manager had no idea why they booked it, I decided to attempt to
forget everything I knew about it and to try to look at it as the first
viewers might have back in May of 1941.
Even the greatest films, and CITIZEN KANE is universally considered to
be the best or at least one of the best, were once just the latest
picture playing at the local Bijou. The audience may have known
something of the story ahead of time, but they likely did not expect its
As everyone now knows, the movie tells the story of one Charles Foster
Kane, a boy who inherited an enormous fortune and went on to become a
powerful newspaper magnate. Oscar Wells, then a beaming, fairly trim
young man, directed CITIZEN KANE, played the starring role and cowrote
the script with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Wells was a genius who would go on
to other films, but none would ever come close to his masterpiece,
The film's opening has the look of a creepy old gothic horror movie. The
sounds are kept quiet, as if they might awaken some angry god, while we
start to learn about Kane's background.
This eerie tranquility is shattered by the blare of a newsreel. Theaters
then featured newsreels along with the double feature and the latest
installment of some serial. The newsreel in CITIZEN KANE, although
slightly comical, gave a documentary feel to the production, what we
would call a docudrama today. Since the movie was a slam at the life and
times of William Randolph Hearst, a fact the audiences then were likely
to have heard, the newsreel approach gave the film an immediate intimacy
Having just weathered the great depression, the viewers were likely to
have identified with the film's ridicule of ostentatious wealth. Much is
made of John Foster Kane's unfinished palace, Xanadu, a reference to
Heart's San Simeon castle. "Cost?" the newsreel reporter asks himself
rhetorically. "No man can say," he sonorously answers. Just as the
audiences were probably enraged at this waste of money, having recently
worked their way back from poverty, they were also quite likely jealous.
A story within the story has a group making a movie about Kane's life.
Since it doesn't have a proper ending, they send one guy off to discover
the meaning of Kane's last word ("Rosebud"), figuring that it might be
the clue to solving the enigma that was his life.
"Rosebud -- dead or alive," is the producer's charge to his assistant.
"It'll probably turn out to be a very simple thing." This hinted to the
viewers that the film wasn't just some elaborate mystery and that they
should not feel cheated if Rosebud turns out not to be very dramatic
Audiences now know the answer to the mystery, but then it must have been
intriguing. The story uses Rosebud as a silver thread to weave the story
together. The result is a handsome gown indeed. Viewers must have had
numerous theories since the movie doesn't give any substantial clues
until almost the very end. Once the secret is revealed, it seems at
first to be unimportant, almost trivial. Upon closer reflection, the
importance that Kane attaches to it is a key to understanding his
character or what we today would call the inner child.
The radical cinematography by Gregg Toland must have shocked the
audiences then as it mesmerized them with its offbeat angles, dramatic
lighting and stark use of shadows and silhouettes.
The seamless editing by Mark Robson and Robert Wise, who would go on to
become a great director, moves forward and backward in time without ever
Filled with intriguing layers, the story of Kane's life becomes an onion
that the movie keeps peeling.
Kane inherits a fortune that makes him one of the richest men in the
world before he is even 21. Once he reaches the age of maturity and
gains control of his money, he decides to have some fun with it.
Declaring, "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper", he launches
into his first career in life.
"If the headline is big enough, it makes the news bigger," Kane says,
knowing then the power of the press to make news when before there was
just a tiny, inconsequential story. With today's tabloids being so
prevalent this would be a line seemingly more tailored to today's
Kane begins as a loveable rogue but deteriorates into a harsh old
scoundrel. The movie shows this transformation with great finesse. The
best-staged sequence in the movie may be the breakfast table
conversations with his first wife. Within just a few minutes we watch
Kane's marriage going from puppy love to bitterness to death as the
couple refuses to talk. The sketches form a perfect encapsulation of a
marriage on the rocks and an omen for Kane's life.
Kane's second career, politics, will end before it begins when a scandal
hits. As a politician, he is an old-fashioned, moneyed liberal who rails
about giving the little people a voice. Attractive and articulate, he
skyrockets in the polls. But, once the newspapers print that he had an
affair, which he honestly admits, he immediately loses the vast majority
of his supporters. That is certainly something easier for audiences to
understand then as opposed to now.
CITIZEN KANE has so much to recommend it that it is hard to guess how
the first audiences must have felt. Maybe they felt as we do today, in
awe of having witnessed a masterpiece while realizing how incredibly
entertaining it was.
CITIZEN KANE runs 1:59. It is not rated but would be PG for mature
themes and would be fine for any kid old enough to care to see it.
Copyright © 1998 Steve Rhodes