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Review: 'Citizen Kane'

There's beginning to take shape a recurring theme in these reviews. Unintentional, perhaps--or maybe not. We all need to be reminded of things sometimes, to remember that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or however the saying goes. To be reminded that, even in 2010, censorship is still un-American--as un-American as it's always been--but still as alive and as threatening as it's always been.

These reviews so far have dealt with elements of censorship: by the Hayes Office (Anatomy of a Murder), by the Catholic Legion of Decency (Baby Doll). And for this review of 1941's Citizen Kane, by the most powerful businessman in the world--perhaps the most powerful man in the world, period--newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

After astounding success on radio as "The Shadow," and with his Halloween 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds which terrified the nation and the world, twenty-three year old wunderkind Orson Welles was given a rare Hollywood opportunity by RKO: complete artistic control and final cut, the latter of which was unheard of at the time. He was permitted to bring his own acting troupe, The Mercury Theatre, to star in his pictures--largely unknown, and certainly not A-list Hollywood elite.

Citizen Kane. Now semi-officially regarded as the greatest film ever made, it's a wonder it ever saw the light of day at all. RKO had gambled on Welles' contract. What no one bargained for was the controversy that Welles' first picture would generate.

The story examines the life and legacy of one Charles Foster Kane--newspaper magnate, billionaire, and power-hungry jerk. Kane has lost everything he once valued, except his money: friends, loved ones, and the power he once enjoyed. Before dying alone (save his nurse) at his monstrosity of an estate "Xanadu," he utters a final, mysterious word: Rosebud.

The rest of the film is told in flashbacks, as an intrepid reporter tries to uncover the private life of Charles Foster Kane, as well as what his cryptic "Rosebud" really meant. As he interviews former employees, old friends and wives, and reads the journals of Kane's guardian and mentor, he concludes that the dying words of a doddering, lonely old man were simply that. The story is put to rest, the mystery unsolved.

The plot of Citizen Kane isn't what's important about Citizen Kane. The plot is a mere device in this film à clef, in this facade of fiction which might have protected Welles and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, had William Randolph Hearst not been one of the most powerful men in the world.

Word got to Hearst even before Kane finished principal photography that there was a picture being made, loosely based on his life. How loosely is up for interpretation: Welles claimed throughout his life that the resemblance was slight, but many of Kane's speeches were lifted verbatim from Hearst's own. Interestingly, other film historians believe that Charles Foster Kane is really more Orson Welles, or what Welles wanted to be, than William Randolph Hearst.

Even so, Hearst lobbied all of Hollywood hard to have Citizen Kane repressed. MGM head (and close Hearst friend) Louis B. Mayer offered RKO $805,000 to destroy all prints of the film and to burn the negative. When RKO declined, Hearst ordered every station and newspaper in his conglomerate to refuse all ads, reviews, and even passing mention of Citizen Kane. Because movie theaters couldn't advertise in Hearst papers, and feared future reprisals from Hearst papers if they exhibited the picture, many of them refused to show Kane.

Citizen Kane made its budget back--barely. And while it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, it only won one (ironically, for original screenplay). It was booed every time it was mentioned during the awards ceremony by a Hollywood that knew their bread was buttered by men like William Randolph Hearst.

So why does this film continue to top lists every year, nearly seventy years after its release?

Because Orson Welles was the first independent filmmaker, and fifty years ahead of his time. He breezed into a stodgy, rules-driven Hollywood with his troupe of unknown players and his flair for unconventional storytelling, nabbed an unheard-of deal from a major studio, and told a story that was compelling, inflammatory...and as old as time itself. Because he invented and encouraged invention: plot devices, shots and angles, lighting techniques, set design, makeup. He took risks, and while he wasn't always successful, Welles was wildly successful with Citizen Kane. It is pure artistic filmmaking magic.

And he had the mettle to take on a newspaper magnate. One can still watch, or buy, or rent Citizen Kane. But can one buy a Hearst newspaper? To the victor belongs the spoils. (A)

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