Tuesday, November 30, 2010

‘Rosebud’ and the Enigma of Citizen Kane


On a warm July day in 1939, a young man sat in the Hollywood office of George J. Schaefer, president of RKO Radio Pictures. His name was Orson Welles. Barely 24 years old, he had been summoned to discuss a contract. Only eight years before he had been in the graduating class of 1931 at the Todd School for Boys, a toney prep school in Woodstock, Illinois.

Welles’s Early Life
Orphaned at 15 and forgoing college, he made his way to New York. In three years, he was acting with Katherine Cornell in a lavish Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. This was followed by formation of his Mercury acting company, which took its name from a small theatre on West 41st Street in New York. Radio work followed for the Mercury players, culminating in the sensational War of the Worlds broadcast that convinced the entire country that a Martian invasion was taking place.

Schaefer had lured Welles, by then widely described as a “boy wonder,” to Hollywood with a proposal guaranteeing a degree of artistic control unusual in the highly compartmented movie industry. Welles's first film is to be an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness. But Conrad's books do not easily adapt to the screen, and the film’s budget of more than a million dollars made it difficult to find financing. The project was eventually abandoned, leaving Welles at loose ends.

Another project, The Smiler with the Knife, an adaptation of Cecil Day Lewis’s novel of that title, was considered and allowed to die largely because RKO lacked faith in Lucille Ball’s ability to carry the feminine lead. At this point, the idea for RKO Production #281, the movie that would eventually be known as Citizen Kane, came into being. Welles planned to cast it largely with his Mercury Theater players.

Welles immediately sought the services of a screenwriting professional to create a script. He chose Joseph Mankiewicz, who had been writing screenplays since 1926. Mankiewicz came up with the idea of a biographical film loosely based on the life of newspaper and magazine publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, told in a series of flashbacks after his death by those who knew him best.

With Mankiewicz’s story line, Welles at last had found a subject that offered timeliness, vast wealth and fodder for tabloid gossip. The subject was also tailor-made to suit Welles’s own reputation for daring brashness and love of publicity.

Mankiewicz, aware of the cumbersome nature of multiple, repetitive flashbacks, also came up with the idea for an ingeniously simple plot gimmick. A mysterious deathbed utterance would be the key to Charles Foster Kane. The film opens with a tight close-up of an aged Kane voicing the single word, “Rosebud.” Not until the final scene is the significance of “Rosebud” revealed, when a child’s sled with that trade name is consigned to the flames of a bonfire during the disposal of items hoarded by now-deceased publishing magnate Kane.

Years later, in a 1989 article in The New York Review of Books, however, novelist Gore Vidal revealed that Mankiewicz had slyly chosen the word “Rosebud” because Hearst’s alcoholic mistress, Marion Davies, had told friends that it was Hearst’s pet name for an intimate part of her anatomy.

Mankiewicz, who had a serious drinking problem, was sent to a desert ranch at Victorville, California, miles away from the temptations of Hollywood. Welles’s Mercury Theatre associate John Houseman was delegated to watch over him. A secretary accompanied them to transcribe his dictation. Six weeks later Mankiewicz produced an overlong 250-page script with the working title of American--later changed to John Citizen, USA), embodying many of the elements that went into the final film.

Welles and Mankiewicz next set to work reducing its length. During this process, Welles supplied many details from his own life and experience, and his fingerprints are all over the script. Who made most of the changes in the revision of the script is still in dispute. There are proponents for each side, and the question may never be settled.

Three months later, the seventh draft, labeled “Third Revised Final Draft,” was accepted and became the shooting script. A total of $1,082,798 was budgeted. Ever since the fourth preliminary draft, the film had been titled Citizen Kane. More than a million dollars was not considered excessive for an A-type production, but a budget crisis at RKO reduced this number to $737,740.

The final film actually came in at $823,240 (over budget by $85,500). Set construction costs for Citizen Kane totaled only $59,207. Compare that figure to The Hunchback of Notre Dame for which the set cost was $243,838.

Art Direction and Cinematography
No small part of the critical success of Citizen Kane can be attributed to the work of two comparatively youthful professionals: art director Perry Ferguson, 39, and cinematographer Gregg Toland, 36. Director and lead actor Welles was 25.

Ferguson made Kane’s Xanadu even larger and more baronial than Hearst’s own castle at San Simeon in California. Welles later said proudly that Citizen Kane looked like it had cost more than it actually did. Toland broke many of Hollywood’s filming rules to give Citizen Kane a new and startlingly dramatic look.

A diminutive man (he stood a little over five feet tall), Toland was innovative and a veritable human dynamo as a cinematographer. Welles later called him “the greatest cameraman I ever worked with—and also the fastest.” Toland would die in 1948 of a coronary thrombosis at the comparatively young age of 44.

His cinematographer also introduced Welles to deep-focus photography. A series of new developments made this possible. In 1932, the Mitchell Camera Corporation introduced a new motion picture camera, the BNC, which incorporated a built-in noise-damping device. In 1938, Eastman Kodak introduced its new Super XX film stock, which was four times faster than its Super X. In 1939, light transmission in lenses was improved by coating lens surfaces with an ultra-thin layer of magnesium fluoride.

Toland had used BNC cameras on the film Wuthering Heights, for which he won the 1939 Academy award for black-and-white cinematography, and on John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, nominated for the 1941 Academy award in the same category. These advances opened a new world of striking new visual effects for Welles in Citizen Kane, including long takes, daring camera angles, and the absence of conventional back-and-forth intercutting between players in a scene.

Release and ReceptionBy operating a closed set, limiting access to rushes (the first, unedited prints of a scene) and managing publicity, Welles had sagaciously downplayed William Randolph Hearst’s connection to the film, which was actually an amalgam of several well known wealthy tycoons. Having grown up in the Midwest, Welles had added details from the life of Samuel Insull, Chicago utility magnate, who had built that city’s huge Civic Opera House for his wife, an aspiring opera singer.

With a planned release date in February of 1941, it became necessary to make arrangements for advance screenings to meet magazine deadlines. A rough cut was prepared and previewed by a number of carefully selected writers. Hedda Hopper, one of the two bitter rivals among Hollywood gossip columnists (Hearst writer Louella Parsons was the other) had not been invited, and so a showing was hastily arranged for her. This made Parsons furious and so another showing was arranged for her. She stormed out while the film was still running when she realized how unhappy its thinly disguised portrayal of Charles Foster Kane would make her boss.

Citizen Kane quickly became too hot to handle. Newspapers in the Hearst chain retaliated by banning reviews of all RKO films. Realizing that a broad ban would make readers unhappy, Hearst editors soon limited it to a single film, Citizen Kane. Exhibitors declined to book the film after Hearst papers refused to accept advertising for it. Word next spread that Hearst’s papers were about to print editorials attacking Hollywood’s use of refugee directors and actors in jobs that could have been filled by Americans.

To placate Hearst, alarmed movie moguls got together and offered to reimburse RKO for the total cost of Citizen Kane if the studio would burn the negative and destroy all prints of the film. RKO President Schaefer later revealed that he had not disclosed this offer to his board of directors out of fear that they would have agreed to it.

When New York’s Radio City Music Hall succumbed to pressure and canceled its premiere of Citizen Kane, RKO opened the film at the studio’s own Palace Theater in Times Square, followed by openings in other major cities. Reviews were universally positive, with encomiums like “one of the most interesting and technically superior films that has ever come out of a Hollywood studio,” or “staggering and belongs at once among the great screen achievements,” and “one of the outstanding films of all times.”

Despite nine nominations for Academy awards, the film only earned one Oscar--for best original screenplay, shared by Mankiewicz and Welles. After its initial release, Citizen Kane was neglected and forgotten until RKO became one of the first studios to sell its film library to television. Over the years, this trail-breaking film has been recognized as one of the greatest films ever made. In an annual poll by the British magazine Sight & Sound, Citizen Kane has been named the top film in its Top Ten list since 1962. In 1997, the American Film Institute named Citizen Kane as #1 in its list of 100 best films in 100 years of filmmaking. In the AFI’s list of the top 100 movie quotes, “Rosebud” is #17.

Memorable Quotes

Charles Foster Kane: [last words] Rosebud.

Reporter: If you could've found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would've explained everything.Thompson: No, I don't think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything . . . I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a . . . piece in a jigsaw puzzle . . . a missing piece.
Bernstein: A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.
Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.Thatcher: Don't you think you are?
Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.
Charles Foster Kane: You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in . . . 60 years.

Bernstein: There's a lot of statues in Europe you haven't bought yet.
Charles Foster Kane: You can't blame me. They've been making statues for some two thousand years, and I've only been collecting for five.

Charles Foster Kane: As Charles Foster Kane who owns eighty-two thousand, six hundred and thirty-four shares of public transit--you see, I do have a general idea of my holdings--I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel. His paper should be run out of town. A committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of one thousand dollars.
Charles Foster Kane: Read the cable.Bernstein: "Girls delightful in Cuba. Stop. Could send you prose poems about scenery, but don't feel right spending your money. Stop. There is no war in Cuba, signed Wheeler." Any answer?Charles Foster Kane: Yes. "Dear Wheeler: You provide the prose poems. I'll provide the war."
Charles Foster Kane: Are we going to declare war on Spain, or are we not?Jedediah Leland: The Inquirer already has.Charles Foster Kane: [jokingly] You long-faced, overdressed anarchist!Jedediah Leland: I am NOT overdressed!Charles Foster Kane: You are too! Mr. Bernstein, look at his necktie!
Leland: You don't care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love 'em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.
Charles Foster Kane: Hello Jedediah.
Jedediah Leland: Hello, Charlie. I didn't know we were speaking . . .Charles Foster Kane: Sure, we're speaking, Jedediah. You're fired.

[On Kane finishing Leland's bad review of Susan's opera singing]
Thompson: Everybody knows that story, Mr. Leland. But why did he do it? How could a man write a notice like that?Leland: You just don't know Charlie. He thought that by finishing that notice he could show me he was an honest man. He was always trying to prove something. The whole thing about Susie being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the day before the election, "Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, singer, unquote." He was gonna take the quotes off the singer.
Susan Kane: Forty-nine thousand acres of nothing but scenery and statues. I'm lonesome.

Susan: I don't know many people.Charles Foster Kane: I know too many people. I guess we're both lonely.

Susan Kane: Love! You don't love anybody! Me or anybody else! You want to be loved - that's all you want! I'm Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want - just name it and it's yours! Only love me! Don't expect me to love you.
[Susan is leaving Kane]
Kane: [pleading] Don't go, Susan. You mustn't go. You can't do this to me.
Susan: I see. So it's YOU who this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.[laughs]
Susan: I can't do this to you?
[odd smile]
Susan: Oh, yes I can.

Leland: I can remember everything. That's my curse, young man. It's the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.
Bernstein: Old age. It's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of.
Reporter 1: What's that?Reporter 2: Another Venus.
Reporter 1: Twenty-five thousand bucks. That's a lot of money to pay for a dame without a head.
Thompson: Sentimental fellow, aren't you?Raymond: Hmmm . . . yes and no.

Raymond: Throw that junk in the fire.


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