Much maligned masterpiece
According to legend, Orson Welles was reading at the age of two and talking politics at three. “The word ‘genius’ was whispered into my ear at an early age, the first thing I ever heard while I was still mewling in my crib,” Welles recalled later. “So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t until middle age.”
Welles was 25, still a few years short of middle age, when George J. Schaefer, president of RKO Pictures, lured him to Hollywood with a contract that author Harlan Lebo describes as offering “the most liberal creative terms ever granted to a director working within the confines of the traditional studio system”.
Welles the actor-director had made a name for himself on Broadway with his repertory company the Mercury Theatre, and had shocked much of America rigid with his radio production of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which convinced thousands of listeners that aliens had landed in New Jersey. Lacking the financial muscle and star power of rivals such as MGM and Warners, Schaefer put his faith in the “marvellous boy” to create movies that would bring artistic prestige while transforming the studio’s shaky financial fortunes. The partnership between Welles and RKO ended in disappointment and acrimony, but not before Welles had delivered Citizen Kane, a movie still revered by many cinema enthusiasts as the greatest ever made.
Published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey combines a trainspotter’s guide to film trivia (actor Everett Sloane, who played Mr Bernstein, was paid $US2400 to have his head shaved) with a riveting account of the dastardly campaign by the Hearst organisation to have the movie suppressed.
Just how much the fictional character of Charles Foster Kane was based on that of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst remains ambiguous. Under RKO’s strict legal advice, Welles strenuously denied any suggestion that Hearst was the model for Kane. Yet the parallels were irrefutable: both had newspapers, baronial castles and mistresses who did jigsaw puzzles (although Hearst’s lover, the accomplished actress Marion Davies, was a far cry from the inept opera singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane). After the controversy had faded, Welles became less guarded in his comments. His denials, in any case, rang hollow. Close analysis of the script proves that some of the lines spoken by Kane were modelled directly on statements by Hearst.
Whether the press mogul saw the movie is still disputed. What is clear is that Hearst was alerted by his lackeys that he was the subject of a monstrous parody, and the might of the Hearst organisation was turned against Citizen Kane in an effort to destroy both the movie and Welles’s career. Hearst newspapers and magazines at first ignored and then editorialised against the film; distributors and theatre owners were bullied into refusing bookings and RKO’s board was pressured to disown the film.
Hearst reporters set about digging dirt on Welles, accusing him of being a communist and a draft dodger. While on a lecture tour before the movie’s release, Welles was warned by a local detective not to return to his hotel because “they’ve got a 14-year-old girl in the closet and two photographers waiting for you to come in”. Welles took the detective’s advice and left on the first train. Magnanimously, he did not ac- cuse Hearst personally but blamed the attempted frame-up on the mogul’s ambitious minions. Yet, as Lebo remarks, “the idea that an employee of the Hearst organisation might achieve career advancement through staged entrapment and fraud spoke volumes about the character of the corporation”.
After seemingly interminable prevarication, and with Welles himself threatening to sue for breach of contract, RKO eventually agreed to release Citizen Kane, but by then the commercial damage had been done. The early hype had been forgotten and the boycott by Hearstaligned theatre chains ensured that the film could not reach the audience it needed. Reviewers and movie people were almost unanimous in hailing Kane as a masterpiece, but audiences stayed away. Welles’s artistic vision and technical innovations brought RKO the prestige the studio yearned for, but the picture lost money.
While much of the Kane story is familiar, Lebo has researched far and wide in search of new material. As well as interviewing surviving members of the cast and crew, he has unearthed previously unpublished documents from studio files and university archives, including a rare — perhaps unique — copy of Welles’s supposedly lost final script (the original screenplay was by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz).
If this new information does not significantly alter our understanding of the movie, it nevertheless offers sharp insights into Welles’s artistic methods and his collaboration with technicians such as master cinematographer Gregg Toland. Lebo’s analysis of script changes, especially the last-minute cuts done by Welles (sometimes as the camera was about to roll), is especially valuable.
While the general reader may be content to close the book at page 258, movie buffs will not want to miss the 80-odd pages that follow. Among the Kane esoterica included here are credits for every extra and bit player; a sceneby-scene guide with running times; and a detailed breakdown of costs ($US5000 was budgeted for songs but only $US362 was spent), as well as a generous bibliography and notes. Those still longing for a definitive answer to the riddle of Rosebud will, however, have to keep searching. is an author and critic.
Orson Welles in a scene from his 1941 film Citizen Kane