Before making his first film, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was already considered something of a boy-wonder, having made a great success on Broadway and on the radio in his early twenties. Welles became a national sensation with his Mercury Theater radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds on Halloween night in 1938. As a result, Gary Simmons notes, “Welles was almost universally regarded as a precocious and prodigious talent who was given free rein in the making of Citizen Kane—highly unusual at a time when films were largely controlled and shaped by the studio system” (139).
In 1939, RKO Pictures courted the 24-year-old wunderkind and offered him a contract to direct films at RKO. Welles’s first project was to be Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but this was abandoned when he went over pre-production budget.
He was given final cut for Citizen Kane if he didn’t go over budget. This time he didn’t. The film was released according to Welles’s vision.
Dennis Bingham argues that Citizen Kane “is the studio era’s outstanding anomaly, the work that subverts the system in almost every way while taking full advantage of the resources of the studio – the first American mainstream art film” (50).
The Ballad of Hearst and Welles
Even before it was finished, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had heard the rumors swirling around Hollywood that Welles’s forthcoming Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled attack upon Hearst. Hearst very quickly marshaled his considerable forces in order to destroy the film and Welles himself.Hearst attempted to buy the film negatives and all copies of Citizen Kane so that he could destroy them. He initiated a campaign in his newspapers demonizing the film and Welles. Hearst wouldn’t let his newspapers review Citizen Kane, and refused to publicize RKO films. It might not have been just a personal vendetta: Hearst’s film production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, produced the kind of “Great Man” biopics that Welles was parodying with Citizen Kane.
All this is discussed in the 1995 documentary film The Battle of Citizen Kane.
Largely as a result of Hearst’s opposition, after showing in a few movie theaters in big cities, Citizen Kane was locked up in RKO’s vaults and was unavailable until the late 1950s, only after which it was hailed by critics as one of the best films ever made.
Since the 1960s, critics have been on the look-out for “Hollywood directors who managed to create interesting and innovative works of film art within the artistic constraints imposed by the studio system. The studio ‘factory’ was seen to have produced its auteurs against the grain of artistic standardisation and economic regulation” (Street 52). Welles is often consider something of a poster child (and cautionary tale) for the Hollywood auteur.
The Martyrdom of Orson Welles
It wasn’t just Hearst that had it in for Welles. In the history of Hollywood film, Welles is considered by some a tragic figure, an artist brought low by his own hubris and the envy of others.
For instance, Welles did not have final cut for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the film he made after Citizen Kane. After it tested poorly in previews, largely because the ending was thought to be depressing, Welles’s producers at RKO cut an hour out of the film and tacked on a happy ending. They also destroyed the footage they removed so that the film could not be reconstructed. This was done while Welles was in Brazil shooting a documentary.
Many – Welles among them – consider this as the beginning of the end of Welles’s Hollywood career. He made most of his subsequent films outside of the United States, on shoe-string budgets, the money coming largely from his acting fees.
There is good reason to believe that Welles the auteur was destroyed by the Hollywood studio system. This was because, according to David Thomson, he was “a young man who intended to defy Hollywood, and who could have spelled out why its factory was as bad for critical thinking and progress as the New York Inquirer [Kane’s newspaper in Citizen Kane). Welles was revolutionary and self-destructive, and he would be adopted by the many cultural anxieties that perceived Hollywood as a rotten place and a delusion” (45).
Best Ever? Not Even the Best of 1941
For many film viewers and critics, it is a terrible scandal that Citizen Kane, supposedly the Greatest Film Ever Made, did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or many Academy Awards at all) in 1941.
Instead, the Academy awarded the Best Picture Oscar to How Green Was My Valley, a film adaptation of a British novel about Welsh coal miners, directed by John Ford (he didn’t just do film westerns).
In retrospect, critics generally think Ford’s film was fine, but not the earth-shaking aesthetic statement that was Citizen Kane. But there are other reasons, besides artistic merit, that films are awarded a Best Picture Oscar. Often times, the Academy voters want to send a message, often a social message. The message in this case was a vote of confidence and solidarity with Great Britain, which was at that time barely fighting off Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Europe.
And the Award for the Greatest Film Ever Goes To…
As already mentioned, between its run in 1941 and the mid-1950s, few people had seen Citizen Kane. Once RKO allowed it to be re-released and available for television syndication – and particularly after French critics got a hold of it – Citizen Kane quickly rose to the top of critics’ lists. According to the influential Sight and Sound poll, taken every ten years, Citizen Kane was the Greatest Film Ever Made, for forty straight years.
But last year (2012) Citizen Kane fell to the second spot in the poll. It was bested by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
This is what the British Film Institute (BFI), publishers of Sight and Sound magazine and the Sight and Sound poll, says about Citizen Kane:
The use of deep-focus photography (keeping both foreground and background in focus) and abstracted camera angles, the non-chronological narrative structure and overlapping dialogue, were just some of the myriad formal innovations that Welles brought together for his groundbreaking debut. Such novelty and controversy proved a curse for Welles, whose career never enjoyed such indulgence again.
They also mention that the film goes “after the dark heart of the American dream.”
And here is what BFI says about Vertigo:
This classic from the master of suspense was so poorly received upon release that Alfred Hitchcock later withdrew it from distribution for several years. Its reputation has since grown and it is now widely regarded as Hitchcock’s finest film, a haunting examination of male desire memorably filmed in real San Francisco locations. . . . Vertigo succeeds as a hallucinatory fable about the traps of desire. A thriller of dreamlike allure, it’s whipped to dizzying heights by Bernard Herrmann’s Wagner-influenced score.
The displacement of Citizen Kane by Vertigo has been controversial. Some critics see dark forces at work. For instance, Richard Rushfield at The Daily Beast blames the the current popularity of social networking:
The last Sight and Sound poll was conducted in 2002, when the blogosphere was still in diapers. Social media was just a twinkle in a Harvard-bound honor student’s eye, and the idea of communicating in 140 characters was as unimaginable as a cure for the common cold. Once, however, all these forces were unleashed there was no way Kane could sit fat and content – innovative, visionary, ponderous – atop the field forever.
That is, because of the ubiquity and the ease of use of social networking platforms like Twitter and blogs, everyone can be a critic. According to Rushfield, this democratizing trend has led to backlash against intellectual film critics, who have been frightened into abandoning aesthetic standards and forced to speak for the unwashed masses. Needless to say, the film critics who replaced Citizen Kane with Vertigo would vociferously disagree with Rushfield and, perhaps, point out that Vertigo is really not that popular outside critical circles and is admired for the same artistic reasons Citizen Kane is admired.
University of Maryland
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British Film Institute, “The Greatest Films Poll at Sight and Sound,” 2012.
Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
Richard Rushfield, “‘Citizen Kane’ v. ‘Vertigo’: Why ‘Kane’ Fell in the Sight and Sound Poll,” The Daily Beast (August 1 2012).
Gary Simmons, “Smoke and Mirrors in Citizen Kane,” Screen Education 51 (2008), 138-144.
Sarah Street, “Film in Context: Citizen Kane,” History Today 46.3 (March 1996), 48-52.
Thomson, David. “The Mark of Kane,” Sight & Sound 21.1 (2011), 44-48.