The Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition that I received free from Warner Bros. is the most lovingly assembled Blu-ray package I‘ve seen. The box is a fold-out digipak with the Blu-ray disc and then two DVDs that contain The Battle over Citizen Kane and RKO 281. The former is a nice 1995 two-hour Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles the struggle between Welles and William Randolph Hearst who claimed Citizen Kane was but a thinly veiled and slanderous account of his own life. RKO 281 is a 1999 HBO drama covering much of the same territory. Physical reproductions in the slipcase include the 20-page souvenir program issued at the 1941 opening; five postcards reflecting the various posters; and 10 memos between RKO and Welles related to the movie. Additionally, there’s a 48-page, mini hardback book packed with lots of behind-the-scenes info. All of this a supplement to the pristine black and white transfer that makes the picture look perfect. This is a beautifully done presentation befitting of the “greatest film ever made.”
It’s rather intriguing to learn that despite the hallowed status this magnum opus holds, this production was extremely controversial. Orson Welles’ assertion that “Citizen Kane is the story of a wholly fictitious character” is ludicrous. It’s abundantly clear that that main inspiration for Charles Foster Kane was media mogul William Randolph Hearst. This film à clef is an unmistakably vicious attack on his life. Hearst was a force to be reckoned with in the news world. So angry was the publishing tycoon with the film that he prohibited mention of it in any of his newspapers. Movie studio RKO also had problems getting exhibitors to show the film as many feared retaliation from the newspaper magnate.
The parallels are undeniable. Yet I’m willing to assert that whether inadvertently or on purpose, there’s a lot of Orson Welles own personality in the depiction as well. It’s one of the reasons why I think he’s so believable as the lead. Personally I would think the part that might have infuriated Hearst the most was the character of Susan Alexander, his mistress and second wife in the film, as played by Dorothy Comingore. Susan is portrayed as a shrill, talentless airhead. The obvious real life parallel is that of Marion Davies who was his mistress, a woman he never actually married. Already an accomplished silent film star even before she had met Hearst, many film historians ironically view his involvement in Davies’ career as more of an interference than a help. Hearst’s threats definitely hindered Citizen Kane’s box office performance and it wasn’t until its re-release in 1956 that it finally turned a profit for RKO. In the face of these setbacks, the film was an immediate critical success and earned 9 nominations at the Academy Awards. It won only for Best Original Screenplay losing to How Green Was My Valley for Best Picture. Over time however, the film’s reputation grew into what is often referred to as the greatest film ever made.
We begin the tale of Charles Foster Kane at the moment of his death as he utters his last words “Rosebud.” A newsreel reporter takes charge of finding out the meaning of the statement made on his deathbed. The narrative then proceeds as a series of flashbacks as he interviews various people that knew the man when he was alive. Each person recounts a different part of Kane’s existence as they knew him, essentially becoming a new narrator, with their stories overlapping. It’s an effective and entertaining way to tell the tale. It may seem common today, but Kane’s dependence on the technique was something of an anomaly for the time. Another favorite of mine is the breakfast montage, whereby the disintegration of Kane and his wife’s relationship over the years is distilled into a sequence of back and forth exchanges and costume changes. It’s amusing as it is clever. Much has been written about the incredible number of innovations contained in one film. It’s advances in cinematography, music, and makeup have been acknowledged on countless occasions, so no need to repeat those distinctions again, other than to acknowledge they are indeed impressive.
Citizen Kane remains a fascinating reflection on the megalomania obsessions of a man. While it is an undeniably well made film, it’s dark message doesn’t really inspire the kind of repeated viewings that other early classics of this era engender like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. I first saw Citizen Kane 25 years ago. I guess the clearest way to explain my appreciation for Welles masterpiece is that although I certainly respect the technical craft and storytelling techniques that Welles employed, I could wait another 25 years before I watch this again.