AT 80, CITIZEN KANE’S APPEAL IS UNIVERSAL
Whether or not it deserves the acclaim “Greatest Film ever made” Citizen Kane, one of the most famous films in Hollywood history remains an enduring masterpiece even after 80 years.
It was on May 1, 1941 that Citizen Kane, directed, produced and co-written by Orson Welles was released. Welles, who was just 25 (a big inspiration for many) then, also essayed the lead role in the movie.
The fact that it is still the most critically acclaimed motion picture in history speaks volumes about its importance and influence on filmmakers.
Citizen Kane revolves around the rise and fall of a publishing magnate, Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on the life of American media mogul William Randolph Hearst, known for his wealth, power and yellow journalism. The film is also said to have drawn inspiration from the lives of Welles and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.
Some critics of the time maintain that Welles also drew upon the lives of Robert McCormick, a wealthy Chicago businessman who had tried to promote an untalented opera singer, and Samuel Infull, who had built an opera house in Chicago.
More specifically, the film’s plot centers around a reporter’s efforts to determine the meaning of a dying Kane’s final word, “Rosebud.” Rosebud is the trade name of a sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away to boarding school from his home and his mother. In his subconscious, it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home and his love for his mother. The plot unfolds by jumping in and out of non-linear flashbacks.
Apart from a compelling story, what made the film appealing and popular was its innovative use of lighting, camera and sound. Welles considered black and white essential for setting the proper mood for the film. The unusual cinematic techniques, particularly, deep-focus photography, which simultaneously keeps objects at various distances from the camera in clear focus, was hailed, back then, as a magnificent work of art and technology.
The film had a tremendous impact on film makers across the world, many of whom said that Citizen Kane was the main reason for their choosing a film career. “Everything that matters in cinema since 1940 has been influenced by Citizen Kane,” François Truffaut, the renowned French director said once.
Curiously enough, the film ran into controversy even before its release, simply because it hit too close to home for the powerful publishing magnate Hearst.
Unable to face the resemblances between the main fictional character, Kane, in the film and the real-life Hearst, the Hearst organization mounted an aggressive campaign to suppress the film which led to a delay of nearly three months in the film’s release.
In fact, the Hollywood community was so afraid of any retribution on the industry itself by Hearst’s publications that the chief of MGM production, acting for the industry, offered to reimburse RKO Radio Pictures for the production costs of Citizen Kane if the studio would destroy the film. All that failed to work and the film had a theatrical release on May 1, 1941. Hearst wasted no time in banning any mention of the film in any of his many newspapers.
The film was hardly a box office success; it did fairly well in the big cities of the U.S but poorly in the smaller cities.
The controversy notwithstanding, Citizen Kane, as one film critic described at the time ‘the biggest newspaper picture of them all’ gained significance and relevance with the passage of time for its brilliance on many counts. Some critics continue to draw parallels of Kane with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Donald Trump and a few others who use the media not only to tell the news but to control and influence events.
In the last eight decades since its release, the film has been proclaimed as “timeless”, “a masterpiece”, “sensational” “avant-garde” and as the release posters said “terrific” for not only the themes it dealt with — human, political, personal — but also for its technical brilliance.
The Hollywood Reporter review dated March 12, 1941 gave it a “great” tag on several criteria. “Great in that it was produced by a man who had never had any motion picture experience; great because he cast it with people who had never faced a camera in a motion picture production before; great in the manner of its story-telling, in both the writing of that story and its unfolding before a camera; great in that its photographic accomplishments are the highlights of motion picture photography to date, and finally great, because technically, it is a few steps ahead of anything that has been made in pictures before.”
The film received adulatory reviews from many other critics in America and Europe.
Indeed, Citizen Kane was far ahead of its time. Unrestrained by Hollywood’s traditions, it broke all rules to produce something admirably different compared to the films of that era such as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca or How Green Was My Valley.
The film’s multi-layered story told so many things as one peeled layer after layer — the use and abuse of wealth and power, love and break-up, life and death, loneliness, defeat and how the passion, greed and ambition brought ruin upon a man; a man who had everything and yet having nothing in the end, and that money can’t buy you happiness and peace of mind. These themes are relevant even now and hence the film is universal and timeless. Any wonder why it is among the few path-breaking films students are made to watch in film schools?
For someone as young as 25, Welles was quite a genius to come up with this bold, innovative and experimental idea that ended up as a masterpiece of film. Of course, he was given a free reign that he made best use of to co-write, direct and act in his debut film.
Citizen Kane marked the pinnacle of Welles’ film-making career but in the years after that he didn’t succeed in creating anything like his first movie.
Never mind. Some people give everything of themselves in their first venture to produce a masterpiece that lives forever. Like Harper Lee or Vincent Van Gogh, to cite just two examples.
Never mind that it was nominated for nine Oscars but emerged with only one for best screenplay.
Orson Welles is no more, many of those who worked with him on the film are no more but Citizen Kane lives on.
That it continues to be spoken about even after 80 years is eloquent testimony to Orson Welles’ extraordinary talent and pioneering work, regardless of whether it is the greatest film made or not.