Much ma­ligned mas­ter­piece

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

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

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