In 1998, the American Film Institute put Citizen Kane at the top of its list of the one hundred greatest movies of all time. Released in 1941, it was the first movie Orson Welles co-wrote, directed, and produced. Welles was only twenty-five at the time and widely considered to be a theatrical genius. Because of Hollywood's efforts to woo him from the theaters of New York, he received an almost unprecedented amount of creative control from RKO Studios in his first contract. He was free to choose the cast as well as to write, direct, produce, edit, and act in the film he created. His budget was $500,000—a significant amount for an unproven filmmaker and an amount that Welles managed to exceed. Citizen Kane wound up a commercial failure, and it ultimately derailed Welles’s career. History has vindicated Welles by recognizing his cinematic genius, but the story of his life makes for a cautionary tale every bit as compelling as the story of Charles Foster Kane, the fictitious protagonist of Citizen Kane.
George Orson Welles was born in 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and endured a difficult childhood. His parents, Richard and Beatrice, were prominent in their community, but Richard was also an alcoholic. They separated when Welles was four. Welles and his mother moved to Chicago, where he became the focus of her hopes and dreams. Welles could do no wrong in her eyes, and he developed a precocious sense of his own abilities. Beatrice died when Welles was nine, leaving him in the custody of his father and of Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a pediatrician to whom Beatrice had grown close because of their shared love of classical music and opera. When Welles was fifteen, his father died, and Welles became the sole ward of Dr. Bernstein. The instability of Welles’s childhood did not thwart his talents and ambitions, and when Dr. Bernstein sent Welles to a prestigious private school, he thrived. His interest in the theater led him to begin producing plays at school, and his talent for writing, acting, producing, and directing caught the attention of the local media.
When Welles graduated, Dr. Bernstein sent him to Ireland with the hope that he would forget the theater. Instead, Welles made his theatrical debut in Dublin, then went on to appear in roles in England and America. In 1934, he made his New York theatrical debut, married Virginia Nicholson, directed his first short film, and made his first radio appearance. Around this time, Welles also met John Houseman, who became his partner and mentor. After working together for several years staging plays for the Federal Theatre Project, Houseman and Welles formed the Mercury Theatre in 1937 to produce classic plays and radio specials. From this collaboration came Mercury Theatre on the Air. On October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theatre gave its most famous broadcast, a production of War of the Worlds. Performing the play as if it were a newscast, Welles convinced many who tuned in that aliens were invading New Jersey. The resulting panic made Welles the most talked about actor in America.
Welles’s notoriety caught the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, co-owner of RKO Studios in Hollywood. RKO was best known for its frothy comedies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but RKO’s board of directors wanted to make the type of artistically important movies that its rivals were turning out. Rockefeller felt that Welles’s theatrical genius could improve the quality of RKO’s pictures and urged RKO president George J. Schaefer to lure him west. Welles initially wasn’t interested, primarily because at that time movies and the people who acted in them lacked the credibility of live theater and its players. Schaefer eventually made Welles an offer he couldn’t refuse: a contract that gave him almost total artistic control over a project from start to finish. This kind of contract was unprecedented and is even more remarkable because major studios of this era controlled every aspect of their product. Welles couldn’t resist being the star of such a coup, and he moved to Hollywood in 1939.
Plenty of people in Hollywood hoped Welles would fail. He had made no secret of his disdain for "movie people," and many resented the fact that this inexperienced young man had been given so much creative license. Welles knew of this resentment and was determined to turn out something spectacular. He first planned to do a film based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, but due to the extraordinary budget the project would require, the idea failed. After five months in Hollywood, Welles was viewed as a failure himself. He felt a great deal of pressure when he began working on Citizen Kane, the story of a powerful man who alienates everyone who loves him. Although Welles denied it, he almost certainly based the movie on the life of press magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst was not happy with the result. Hearst was probably upset by having a fictionalized account made of his life, no matter how close to the truth that account was, but Welles’s cruel portrayal of Hearst's mistress Marion Davies was most likely what spurred Hearst’s full wrath. Hearst used his considerable influence over the media to quell any mention of Citizen Kane. In addition, several film executives from other studios, led by an old friend of Hearst named Louis Mayer, offered RKO a vast sum of money for the film in order to destroy it completely. It is not clear whether their gesture was one of loyalty to Hearst or one of fear of the possible backlash should Hearst decide that his Hollywood friends were snubbing him, but in any case, RKO refused to hand over the film.
Hearst’s friends may have failed at keeping the movie out of theaters entirely, but Hearst’s efforts did result in the movie’s delay and a limited run. Hearst's crippling tactics cost the film the commercial success that would have cemented Welles’s reputation as a great filmmaker. Critics praised Citizen Kane, but after its run ended, RKO and other studios admitted that Welles’s tendency toward controversy made them reluctant to work with him. Moreover, no studio wanted to incur the wrath of the influential Hearst papers. Welles’s arrogance toward the Hollywood establishment and his mean-spirited portrayal of Marion Davies, who was well-liked in Hollywood, didn’t help his cause. Citizen Kane went on to receive nine Academy Award nominations, but won only one, for writing. The audience booed when the award was announced. Welles never made another important film.
Citizen Kane didn’t receive the viewership or accolades it deserved until the 1950s, when the film’s considerable innovations became clearer. The cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who went on to achieve great fame, used techniques such as deep focus, low camera angles, and optical illusions to tell Kane’s story. For the first time, ceilings were visible in several scenes, created by draping black fabric over the lights and microphones that hung from the top of the sound stage. Toland’s skillful application of new or rarely used techniques proved revolutionary. Some of the film’s innovations that had contributed to its commercial failure, including the non-linear narrative and somber conclusion, eventually set Citizen Kane apart from films with more traditional structures and happy endings. Along with its remarkable cinematic achievements, what ultimately elevated Citizen Kane to such revered heights was the character of Kane himself. Despite the reporter's attempts to uncover the real Kane, Kane remains an enigma. The depth of Kane's isolation and loneliness results in a portrait that has haunted and will continue to haunt generations of audiences.
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