It’s a little difficult to know what to say about Citizen Kane (1941, RKO) that hasn’t been said before. The film must surely be the most analyzed and written about of any film produced during the past century — not that one would expect any less for what is widely considered to be the best film made to date, regularly heading the various top-ten film lists whether they be of popular or academic origin. And yet, there are people that don’t get it. “The plot is too convoluted.” “Yes, it’s technically interesting, but otherwise boring to sit through.” “It’s an Orson Welles ego trip.” And so on. Of course, one’s enjoyment of any film is a subjective affair, but at risk of alienating part of my audience, I can only say that if you don’t like Citizen Kane, then I would have to question your real appreciation of or love for film.
This is a film that can be savoured on multiple levels. Is it acting that’s your primary interest? Then sit back and enjoy a whole raft of actors making their impressive film debuts: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warwick, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart. Maybe you appreciate the work of a top-flight cinematographer? Then let Greg Toland give you a course on the sort of deep focus work previously only hinted at in films. Perhaps you enjoy watching how the director frames the various scenes and positions the actors to get certain desired effects? Then Orson Welles will give you endless examples to analyze and argue about. Does skillful editing do it for you? Then Robert Wise and Orson Welles virtually provide a text book on when and how to go about it. Or maybe an intriguingly structured script full of good turns of phrase excites you? Then Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles have the answer for you.
Yet a collection of individual parts, no matter how good each part is, doesn’t always add up to an effective whole. To make that happen, there has to be an overall vision and an ability to ensure it’s realized. Fortunately, one man had both the vision and the clout — Orson Welles, a 25-year old with virtually no previous film experience to speak of. How did that come about in Hollywood in 1941 — a place and time where the studio system was dominant and the ultimate power was in the hands of the studio heads like Jack Warner at WB and Louis B. Mayer at MGM?
By 1939, Welles had already conquered radio with the infamous broadcast of H.G.Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” and had just made his mark on Broadway with several productions. Films seemed like the obvious next step and in August of that year, Welles signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. At the time, RKO was undergoing extensive reorganization and was led by George J. Schaefer, the most progressive of any studio head of the time. As a result, of the major studios, it was only RKO that would have given Welles a contract with the sort of control that he wanted and to which he felt entitled. The agreement called for Welles to make one picture a year, for which he would have final cut, and in which he could be producer, director, writer, or actor as he wished. Welles immediately jumped into pre-production on a film of Joseph Conrad’s “Hearts of Darkness,” but eventually RKO got cold feet over Welles’s unorthodox approach to the material. A second, more conventional project was proposed — a film based on an English thriller by Nicholas Blake, “The Smiler with a Knife.” Only when this too was shelved after the lead role was turned down by several top actresses of the day (Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell) did Welles turn to Citizen Kane. The initial script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and with Welles contributing, subsequently went through three more drafts before it was considered ready. So, after almost a year of screening films, working on scripts, and learning the practicalities of lighting, sound, and camerawork, shooting finally began on a Welles film on June 29, 1940. Principal photography on Citizen Kane was completed on October 23. After post-production, RKO was ready to release the film on February 14, 1941.
Citizen Kane, however, did not actually premiere until May 1, 1941. The delay was entirely due to the objections raised by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, upon whose life the film was supposedly based. The saga began when Louella Parsons (the Hollywood representative for the Hearst papers) and two Hearst lawyers saw an early print of the film. When Parsons reported to Hearst that Citizen Kane was an unauthorized biography of him, Hearst demanded that RKO not release the film. Thus began three months of wrangling that included a ban on any mention of RKO product in Hearst newspapers, a split in the RKO Board of Directors over whether “Kane” should be released, a cash offer to RKO from other Hollywood studios for the film’s negative (which they would supposedly then destroy), a threat that Welles would file a breach-of-contract suit over RKO’s failure to release the film, and so on. The whole tempest really ended with a whimper, however, as the news gradually trickled out from advance press screenings that Citizen Kane was the real thing. Eventually, RKO’s Board came on side and an official release was approved despite Hearst’s continued protestations.
If not unanimous, the acclaim for Citizen Kane was widespread. The film did well at the box office initially and particularly in major centres; however, it was only with its re-release in 1956 that it finally turned a profit for RKO. It was cited as the best picture of 1941 by the New York critics and the National Board of Review. Nine Academy Award nominations were announced including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Welles), but Hollywood itself was not won over and Citizen Kane triumphed in only one category — Best Original Screenplay. It was only with the 1956 re-release that the real acclaim for the film began to build. Sight and Sound polls of international film critics and scholars to select the best films in motion picture history placed Citizen Kane at the top of the list in 1962, 1972, 1982, and 1992. In 1998, the AFI’s Top 100 American Films list (whatever one may think of it) also placed Citizen Kane at number one.
Which brings us back full circle to why it’s so acclaimed. I’ve already mentioned the acting and the direction and the camerawork and the editing and the script and so on. All had innovative elements. The real brilliance was that so much innovation should appear in one film and that all components should work so well both individually and collectively. No matter how many repeated viewings, you never manage to exhaust all the film’s pleasures. I think it’s a matter that you notice one particular framing or cut or optical effect or line of dialogue and you’re so struck by it that by the time you get your mind back on the film, you’ve missed some other extraordinary piece.
Consider the sequence during which the young Charlie Kane is taken from his home in Colorado and the following years of Thatcher’s guardianship. Look for: the brief but wonderfully lyrical music that introduces us to Charlie playing in the snow — the only music of that sort in the film; the deep focus effects, particularly where Charlie playing outside in the snow remains completely in focus in the background through the window while his future is finalized inside, in the foreground; the overlapping dialogue between Charlie’s mother and Thatcher which in turn overlaps Charlie’s father’s concerns, as well as the fainter sounds of Charlie playing outside; the camera positioned at table-top level where Charlie’s mother signs the papers, clearly showing the roof of the set, and creating a triangular effect between Charlie’s father on the left and his mother and Thatcher on the right and the distant Charlie at the apex; the power of Agnes Moorehead’s performance as Charlie’s mother — despair, resolve and resignation all simply conveyed through blank facial expression and flatness of voice; the entire interaction between Thatcher and Kane’s parents both inside and outside the house filmed with but a single cut (when Charlie’s mother goes to the window to call him after the signing of the papers); Charlie’s departure with Thatcher, simply signified by a shot of the abandoned sled accumulating a layer of snow as a train whistle sounds in the distance; the first temporal cut handled so adroitly around Thatcher’s words “Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year” taking us from a young Charlie to one 25-years old, and the second more jarring temporal cut that accents Thatcher’s displeasure over Charlie’s avowed lack of interest in any part of his fortune other than a newspaper. All this in little more than five minutes of screen time.
Much has been made of Citizen Kane‘s deep focus photography. And rightly so, for it provides a striking look to the entire picture that distinguishes it from any film that had come before. But this was not the first usage of the technique. Some examples exist in silent films including D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). When film stocks improved in the 1930s, the possibilities became greater. Jean Renoir experimented with several deep-focus shots in his films including La Règle du Jeu (1939). By that time, cinematographer Gregg Toland had been experimenting with deep focus or what he referred to as “pan-focus,” a technique that allowed the camera to photograph objects as close as a foot or so and others up to several hundred feet with equal clarity together, much as the human eye is capable of doing. Some examples of his efforts prior to Citizen Kane can be seen in John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940). In Welles, Toland found a like-minded film-maker and the two worked hand-in-hand in developing the camera angles, lighting, and photographic technique. There was extensive pre-production planning and testing of such aspects, a novelty in itself in Hollywood where cinematographers often found themselves assigned to a film only a day or so before shooting began. It is no accident that Toland’s credit for cinematography on Citizen Kane is as large as that of Welles for its production and direction.
One can dwell exhaustively on other technical aspects of the film’s production, but in the end, it is the entertainment value of the story that Citizen Kane tells that is key to the film’s success, as it must be with any good film. Welles’s original notion had been to tell the same story several different times, each from a different point of view. With that as a premise, he and Herman Mankiewicz searched for a person for the story to be about and eventually settled on the American press barons as the source of a composite character that came to be known as Charles Foster Kane. It was an excellent opportunity to depict the spirit of the early part of 20th century America by focusing on one individual’s foray into mass media, popular entertainment, and politics. Seeing how the mighty rise to power and how their success often leads to personal downfall always has appeal to a broad audience. Structuring the telling of the story of that life in the manner that Welles did and cloaking it in a treasure chest of film technique make the story come alive in such a way that it seems ever fresh no matter how often you see the film. Above all, this is a film that’s great fun to watch. Orson Welles’s enjoyment and exhilaration in putting the film together come through in every frame
WB’s long-awaited DVD release of Citizen Kane is a two-disc set. Disc one contains the film along with an impressive array of supplements including two commentaries. Disc two contains the full length documentary “The Battle over Citizen Kane.” For this release, Warner has abandoned its normal snapper case in favour of a double disc plastic holder which fits inside a cardboard box, a set-up much like the earlier Magnolia case. If memory serves me correctly, this is the first release of any title from the RKO component of WB’s holdings. (Little Women, coming in November, will be the second.)
The original negative for Citizen Kane was lost years ago in a fire, so that video incarnations to date have had to depend on second-generation sources. As it came to prepare its DVD version, WB was fortunate to obtain new elements in Europe. This, combined with the application of the same digital clean-up that the marvelous-looking North By Northwest was subjected to, has resulted in extremely impressive results. This transfer is probably the best-looking of any black and white film of either recent or ancient vintage. The image (presented full-frame in accord with the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and utilizing 31 scene selections) is crisp and clear with essentially no age-related characteristics such as scratches, speckles, dirt, or distortion. Blacks are deep, whites pure and shadow detail is superb. Even variability in image intensity, a common trait of older films, has been almost completely eliminated. The only place this film looks worn is where it was purposely aged in 1941 — during the newsreel sequences. A few very minor instances of edge enhancement do exist. For those who own the Criterion CAV laserdisc 50th anniversary version of the film and may be wondering, the DVD transfer is a substantial improvement. More on that later.
The film’s image quality is equaled by that of the sound. WB gives us a wonderful sounding, cleaned-up version of the original monophonic track, thankfully not wasting its time on some misguided attempt to create a souped-up mix. The results are amazing with any age-related imperfections such as pops and crackles, hiss, or distortion all completely absent. Again, unless you sat in the opening night audience (and maybe not even then), you’ve never heard Citizen Kane sound this good before. The results are probably about as rich-sounding as is possible from monophonic sound. Closed captioning is offered as are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The supplement set that WB has assembled for Citizen Kane is one of the most fully rounded that one could ask for. On the first disc, we begin with two audio commentaries by film critic Roger Ebert and director/Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich. While there is some overlap in the comments that each make, both commentaries are well worth hearing. Ebert is particularly animated in his evaluation of the film and his love and respect for it come through very clearly. Sometimes you wonder if Ebert is going to have time to say everything he wants to about a particular sequence of the film before it’s over. He provides some marvelous analysis of both the film’s content and technique. Bogdanovich’s commentary is a little drier, but he is able to add a lot of insight into Welles’s thoughts on various stages of the film by virtue of his close contact with Welles throughout the last 15 years of Welles’s life.
Then there is the original footage of the New York premiere. Although this is quite short, only about a minute long and half of that the introduction, it’s great to get the feel and anticipation of opening night as recorded in this RKO-Pathe newsreel segment. The original theatrical trailer follows and characteristically, it’s not your normal trailer. Welles narrates the trailer devoting most of his time to introducing the Mercury players who are mainly new to film work and then selects clips from the film which show its various characters voicing their thoughts on the sort of person Kane is. The trailer’s in pretty good condition, but a comparison of it with the newly minted Citizen Kane DVD transfer will give you a fair idea of the amount of effort that’s been put into the latter.
The film’s production activities are then thoroughly documented through three components: “The Production,” “Post Production,” and “Production Notes.” “The Production” is divided into Story Boards, Call Sheets, and Still Gallery. The former two provide several examples of each, both in full views and then in zoomed-in versions. The Still Gallery is quite entertaining and, automated with narration by Roger Ebert, lasts about 11 minutes. “Post Production” is divided into Deleted Scenes, Ad Campaign, Press Book, and Opening Night. Deleted Scenes features some story boards and filmed scenes for a brothel sequence that was cut from the final film due to objections from the Hays Office. Ad Campaign shows some examples of the poster and lobby card advertising used in the 1941 original release and the 1956 re-release campaigns. Press Book gives a flavour of the souvenir book given to opening night audiences at the New York and Los Angeles premieres. Opening Night presents the guest lists and associated RKO correspondence related to the premieres. “Production Notes” details activities under the titles of In the Beginning, On the Set, Postscripts, and Awards and Honors.
Rounding out the first disc are two Easter eggs (easily found if you know the meaning of Rosebud) which reveal interviews with Ruth Warwick and Robert Wise conducted in the 1990s, and a brief cast and crew listing.
The second disc of the set has been devoted to the 1996 documentary first seen on PBS’s “The American Experience” series called The Battle Over Citizen Kane. This appears to be exactly as originally broadcast, right down to the commercial acknowledgements of the companies whose support sponsored the show’s appearance. It runs some 113 minutes and is presented full frame as originally shown utilizing 11 scene selections. The sound is in 2.0 stereo. This is one of the best documentaries of its kind, delving deeply into the background leading up to the controversy that erupted over Citizen Kane when William Randolph Hearst realized that the film was a thinly disguised account of his life. It uses a well-chosen blend of archival footage and modern comment to provide a detailed and very interesting account of the stages of the controversy and how it eventually played out. The producers have taken their time to clearly show both sides of the issue and it becomes obvious how near a thing it was to our not having Citizen Kane survive at all. In the course of the program we get a good sense of related issues such as Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and how great a reaction that caused. The piece also briefly covers Welles’s career afterwards and Hearst’s final years. The list of those interviewed for the documentary is lengthy, including, for example, director and “Kane” editor Robert Wise; director and Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich; actors Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ruth Warwick; screenwriter Frank Mankiewicz; and Hearst biographer David Nasaw. Welles himself comments in some interviews filmed in the last few years of his life. (He died in 1985.)
Rounding out the second disc is an Orson Welles filmography.
DVD Versus Laserdisc
Many veteran video collectors will have Criterion’s CAV laserdisc (3 discs) set of Citizen Kane. The title was actually Criterion’s first offering in 1984. It was derived from a fine grain master positive provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archives. In 1991, the set was reissued with a fresh transfer on the film’s 50th anniversary with some additional supplements. Is the laserdisc set now redundant, given WB’s DVD efforts?
Certainly, the DVD’s image and sound are substantial improvements over the laserdisc which itself was quite a remarkable achievement. The DVD, however, is quite noticeably brighter, cleaner, and possesses better shadow detail. The sound is richer and free of the very occasional crackle and hiss that existed on the laserdisc. So, strictly from the standpoint of the film itself, you need to have this new DVD version.
But definitely don’t get rid of that CAV laserdisc, for it has the freeze frame capability that allows you to step through scenes frame by frame that DVD doesn’t and that can be very useful with a technique-rich film like “Kane.” In terms of supplements, the laserdisc is also very much worth retaining. It contains a visual essay called “The Making of a Film Classic” that deals with the production process in detail. Although it covers some of the same material contained in the “Production,” “Post Production,” and “Production Notes” sections of the DVD, it does so in a somewhat more pleasing fashion (less flipping back and forth between menus and clips with the repetitious menu music that results). Most importantly, the laserdisc contains a 70-minute, interactive documentary featuring interviews with 35 directors, cinematographers, “Kane” collaborators, and Welles associates. The interviews span critical insights into Citizen Kane to entertaining anecdotes about Orson Welles to personal recollections on the making of the film. I’ve always considered it to be one of the best supplements that Criterion ever included on any laserdisc.
Pauline Kael had it about right when she wrote of Citizen Kane, “Exuberant. It may be more fun than any other great movie.” For my money, you can take out the “may.” If you want to be able to see and hear Citizen Kane as well as it’s ever been possible, avail yourself of WB’s new DVD release. You’ll also be rewarded with an extremely impressive array of supplements that will allow you to learn just about everything there is to know about the production and its pre- and post-history.