Finally. After many years as a self proclaimed classic movie junkie, I finally saw what many consider the finest film ever made, Citizen Kane. When I first admitted I'd never seen the much discussed photoplay, so many who read this blog wanted to know my thoughts once I did see it. So much has been said and volumes written about this classic in the 68 years since its release that anything other than a personal opinion about it would merely be rehash, but for those who may have never seen Citizen Kane, a club of which I was a member until very recently, here goes.
Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is a man of extreme wealth and heavy influence. Living his latter years secluded in his palatial estate, Xanadu, he shares his mansion with exotic animals of all variety and priceless works of art. As he draws his final breath he utters the single word ROSEBUD. Through flashbacks and vignettes, his life story is revealed, as a reporter on assignment interviews those closest to the larger than life newspaper tycoon. The reporters ultimate task is to discover the identity of Rosebud. Friends, confidants and an ex-wife tell their stories as reflected on Kane. The basic premise sounds simple enough and it is. The same story could have been told in any formula picture at any studio in Hollywood but Citizen Kane was an exercise in technical and artistic expression by masters in their respective fields.
Cinematographer Gregg Toland was an artisan of the movie camera. His work on high quality Sam Goldwyn productions in the 1930's built his reputation and culminated in an Oscar in 1939 for Wuthering Heights. The next year when production on Citizen Kane began, he willingly jumped on board to offer his services. Toland's use of deep focus and unconventional camera angles created striking imagery and was one of the major assets Kane had going for it. Others were the highly literate script co-authored by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz and the debut film score by master conductor Bernard Herrmann. Although Herrmann's Kane score didn't win the music Oscar (although it was nominated), his other 1941 project, The Devil and Daniel Webster did.
Citizen Kane was a film of many debuts. Besides conductor Herrmann, others making their first movie appearances were Ruth Warrick, Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead. Cotten and Moorehead, along with others in the cast had followed Welles to Hollywood as part of his Mercury Players, an acting troupe which had found critical acclaim on both the stage and radio (including the infamous 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds). Both Cotten and Moorehead went on to long and prosperous careers in both Welles related and non-Welles productions. Not to be forgotten is actress Dorothy Comingore as Kane's mistress-cum-second wife. Well suited for her plum role, Comingore's career never took off and ended with the communist Red Scare of the late 40's and early 50's. Yet with all the talent both behind and in front of the camera, Orson Welles is the name synonymous with Citizen Kane and the major creative force who spearheaded the production. Given complete artistic control by RKO Studios, the "genius" who took Hollywood by storm was only 25.
With all the film had going in its favor, it also had very stiff opposition. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, on whom the story is partially based, fought the movie's release and forbade it being mentioned in any of his numerous publications. Despite Hurst's protests, Kane was finally released in May 1941 to critical praise but was commercially unsuccessful with mainstream American audiences.Many film scholars and organizations have claimed that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made but others have given that distinction to Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. To thrash about a few cliched but very true phrases, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one man's trash is another man's treasure. While some see the film as the ultimate masterpiece of cinema, others view it as overrated and overhyped. Personally, I think it is a wonderfully constructed picture, filmed with technical precision and creative flourish. All the pieces fit nicely to make an outstanding final product. Greatest film ever made? I'd have to disagree. Although the elements of the film are exquisite, the story itself is rather hum drum. Never boring, mind you, due to its intricate construction, but imagine if a more unique tale had been told with similar expertise. A fine example is the afore mentioned The Devil and Daniel Webster, where equal or at least comparable craftsmanship is applied to a much more exciting storyline. Overrated or underestimated, either way Citizen Kane is a great movie and shouldn't be missed. Finally, a word on the word. Rosebud. If you've seen the film, wink wink and if you haven't, grab a copy and discover for yourself the secret of one of Hollywood's most famous lines.