On Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane: Mankiewicz, Schaefer, Hearst and Rockefeller

Orson Welles’ genius clearly outdid himself early in life in film-directing with “Citizen Kane.” His entire directing career could be crudely summarized as chasing the dragon in following and attempting to recreate the mastery and magnitude of this one early success. However, to say this would sell his vast collective accomplishments short over the near mythic figure of a man’s lifetime achievements. He would go on to finish directing only thirteen feature-length films in all, acting in a number of films far exceeding this modest figure and leaving unfinished even more films.

The depth of mystery of message is unknowable in Citizen Kane. I submit there are innuendos and implications portrayed that have personal meaning to Welles possibly no one will ever know the depth of. Superficially, the film traces the darker underbelly of the lavish spoils and excess of unfathomable success, the hidden self-serving agendas and over-arching recompenses of public servitude, the inextricable links between industry and politics with all the pork-belly backscratching and leveraging of the plight of the masses, for better and for worse. In every way, Welles illuminated the extravagance and position of William Randolph Hearst and drew correlation across the board to many politicians. More clearly, Citizen Kane is a politically motivated film that was undeniably fueled by partisan interests.

Nelson Rockefeller, our nation’s 41st Vice President and a backbone of the Republican Party throughout his extensive political pursuits, arguably paved the way for the 1938 United Artists executive and producer George Schaefer to Preside over the newly established RKO Pictures. Many of Hollywood’s productions of the period were inundated with conservative Republican values such as with the Andy Hardy 16 film series. The Hearst media empire was vast indeed and presented itself as a formidable political opponent and source of contribution to all things Democrat in the late 1930’s. With Democrat FDR’s success of getting the nation back on its feet after the Great Depression, and the clouds of war forming over a divided Europe, Hollywood stood as a cutting-edge state of the art mechanism for leveraging political poise influencing the winds of change.

Be that as it may, Citizen Kane is too complex to be just the masterpiece of cinematographic work it has inspired countless numbers of producers, directors and actors as. It devolves and dispels the convoluted political, social and private life of the enigma that was William Randolph Hearst, highlighting some of his most vulnerable and less attractive attributes, gaining an otherwise unknowable perspective window into the more personal side of his life. Keeping in mind it is fiction and only a parallel at best, it aggrandizes Hearst’s accomplishments in a cynical parody Pauline Kael refers to it as “closer to comedy than tragedy” in which it portends to be. Hearst himself made numerous direct and indirect attempts to prevent its production and release to even less success, yet successfully hindering its initial circulation in Warner theaters upon its release. Its promotion was met with an initial box office deficit and an overall lackluster distrust of its content by the general public.

In terms of its value as a model of written, directed and produced construct, it exceeds and replaces preceding textbook form. Citizen Kane almost overnight becomes an industry standard commensurate to its Welles radio-famed colossal achievement “War of the Worlds,” which led to his free-reign with Schaefer at RKO. An understanding and implementation of double and triple entendre, innuendo and other significant literary devices are exhibited throughout the film. What makes Citizen Kane an academic model, appealing to the intellect more rather than leaning on special effect and implied scene correlation, is its collection of blackout gag scenes, a device left over from the recent vaudeville days of live stage performance, arranged as sort of a commentary or newsreel footage, a common film purpose to pre-live news broadcasts, as well as its employ of multiple overlapping narrators, not heard of in any preceding Hollywood productions. The use of flashbacks and montage was extensive and pronounced greater in Citizen Kane than previously and the deployment of the innovative cinematographic technique of “deep focus,” or “Pan-focus,” allowed everything in each scene, long or short, foreground or distance to be in sharp detail. Another new feature first found in Citizen Kane is the use of what Welles called “lightning-mix,” an aural technique he used in radio, in which Welles would connect abbreviated short montages to long expanses of time flashing from childhood to adulthood coupled with imagery representational of each period. Other complex radio techniques using multiple voices were used exceeding the original approx. $7300.00 budget for sound of the film by more than double.

Welles is given nearly complete credit for the collaborated effort that went into Citizen Kane. However, his co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz nearly wrote the entire screenplay that won Welles his only Oscar. The real work and effort Welles put into it was outside the scope of writing and into his elements of direction and production. Welles went out of his way to actively reduce the credit Mankiewicz received, and coupled with the efforts of Hearst to prevent its creation and birth onto the silver screen, a great deal of Welles effort went into preserving his own place in its legacy.

Despite its failure to reap the initial box office windfall its lasting legacy would imply, and recoup a return on its cost and investment, time has granted Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane a place of founding permanence and prominence in the history of film. It is an immortal work that will remain a priceless treasure. It is arguably the most influential film of all time. Sharper definition, lighting, flashback and wider depth of field are the cinematographic reasons, but the complexity of the story plot structure, the use of multiple overlap narration and reverse biographical account give its literary importance and sway in many countless films to follow substantive academic and professional influence as well.

Personally, my favorite scene is the unfolding drama of when Kane is a little boy and his mother is faced with making the tough decision  of sending him away and providing for a future for her son or letting him be raised around her neglectful and harmful husband. The soul of the film resides here and is immortalized in the meaning of the name of Kane’s sled, “Rosebud.” This ties the entire purpose of the film together, and gives Kane the kernel of human compassion he seems to lack throughout his exploits as a political media mogul. The opening scene of Kane on his deathbed, hearkening back to his fond memory of the moments before his sled is burnt as an emblematic effigy of his childhood innocence being stripped away is embodied in this scene. Told from the narration of his guardian in an elderly flashback, a sweeping implication of the travesty of a life filled with corrupt extravagance and infidelity sets an excellent precedence for the story to expand from. I see the film as a political tragi-comedy satire and agree completely with Kael’s definition of it being a shallow masterpiece. It was long. The sequences worked together in a way that required deeper attention to detail than I expected to give and resolution of the social problems that existed for Kane seemed one-sided and removed in a cynical expose of over self-gratification. The moral of the story was tainted by its need to divulge the cringe-worthiness of excess. Looking at it through the filter of pseudo-authentic reality-like driven programming of today, it has this Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appeal to it, but without the happy ending. The latter Jimmy Stewart film probably being an improvisation on the former, but a biographical overlapping narrative derived from its preceding style. I enjoyed the film in the context it was created in.

In summary, Citizen Kane laid the groundwork for many more innovations in film to follow. It demonstrated how an independent outsider to the often closed circles of mega studios can break convention and create something of substance and importance. It also demonstrates the power of film to influence politics, spheres and realms of the world’s most important individuals and have a voice in seemingly untouchable social enclaves, and how after it’s all said and done, if anything, we may still have only that common small childlike innocence at our core. That is worth more than all the wealth in the world.

Sources

Kael, Pauline. “I-RAISING KANE – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker Magazine, 20 Feb. 1971. Web. 27 July 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1971/02/20/i-raising-kane&gt;

Ebert, Roger. “Citizen Kane Movie Review & Film Summary (1941) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. http://www.rogerebert.com, 24 May 1998. Web. 27 July 2015. < http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-citizen-kane-1941 >

Ogle, Patrick L.; Nichols, Bill (1985). “Technological and Aesthetic Influences bUpon the Development of Deep Focus Cinematography in the United States”. University of California Press.

Carringer, Robert L. (1985). The Making of Citizen Kane. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Schatz, Thomas; Harpole, Charles (editor) (1997). History of the American Cinema, volume 6: Boom and bust, the American cinema in the 1940s. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

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