The Cold Wind of 'Citizen Kane'
More than thirty years ago the Paul Masson winery of California had a TV advertising campaign featuring a fat old jolly bearded man with a deep voice. The old fellow was shown sipping wine from a glass, looking portentously into the camera and then, at the end of the commercial, impressively delivering the winery’s slogan:
“Paul Masson. We will sell no wine [weighty pause]… before its time.”
Millions of younger people probably had no idea that the jolly, cartoonish, Santa-Claus-like man was no anonymous huckster, but a great celebrity in his own right; a man who, four decades years earlier, at the tender age of 26, had co-written, directed, and acted in what many sophisticated critics considered to be the greatest film in the history of the cinema.
His name was Orson Welles and the film was entitled Citizen Kane (1941). When I heard about who the man was and what he had done in his youth, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. The greatest movie ever? Why?
It wasn’t until college that I had a chance to see Kane on a big screen in an actual movie theater. And at the time I parroted the enthusiasm it had generated in many of the intellectual pillars of the arts crowd, the same analysts who adored the movies of Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman. “Wow! Magnificent! An unbelievable cinematic achievement! Orson Welles, the original auteur! All hail, Caesar!”
Last week, I saw the movie again. This time the youthful enthusiasm I originally had for it was mostly absent. In my maturity I tend to agree with the mature judgment of Orson Welles himself, who near the end of his life told a friend he thought a “cold wind” ran through Citizen Kane.
For those unfamiliar with the movie (and that would probably be almost every reader under the age of 40), let me summarize it: A reporter fails to find the meaning of a lonely tycoon’s dying word.
Yes, you read it correctly. Does this sound like a riveting story? Would a millennial nerd, hearing that tagline, be energized to cast away his iPod and his Twitter surfing, put on his jeans and run to the nearest art house to see a revival of it? Ahem, I DON’T THINK SO!
After all, this is a story all about what someone FAILED to do. No one achieves anything in Citizen Kane, least of all the protagonist himself, Charles Foster Kane. In the first scene he is shown dying and saying the word: “Rosebud”. Then a March of Time newsreel tells us who he was: a famous newspaper tycoon who inherited the world’s sixth largest fortune from his mother’s stake in a Colorado gold mine, and subsequently built up a newspaper empire of scandal sheets that won him the attention of people like Teddy Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.
After the newsreel ends, an editor in a smoke-filled room gives a cub reporter named Thompson his assignment. Find out the meaning of the word “Rosebud”. Thompson tracks down and interviews people who had dealings with Kane: Mr. Thatcher, the executor of his inheritance, who knew him as a boy; Susan Alexander, his second wife, a frumpishly ordinary woman who failed as an opera singer under his tutelage; Mr. Bernstein, an assistant reporter from his early days as the owner of a newspaper called the New York Inquirer; Jedediah Leland, the closest thing he had to a best friend, the former drama critic for his newspapers whom he fired for being honest about the ineptitude of his second wife’s singing; and, lastly, Raymond, the butler who heard him say “Rosebud”.
Though revealing much about Kane’s character—namely, that he was an arrogant, self-centered, manipulative jerk who consistently betrayed his friends and threw money at his problems— the various interviewees leave Thompson’s original inquiry unanswered. At Xanadu, Kane’s massive Florida pleasure palace (modeled after William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, as is much of Kane’s life and career modeled after Hearst), Thompson observes some of Kane’s bric-a-brac being thrown into an incinerator. One of the items is the snow sled from his Colorado childhood. Unbeknownst to Thompson or anyone else, the burning flames reveal “Rosebud” on the sled as the movie closes. A yearning for the lost innocence of childhood, perhaps? We can’t tell.
Now, there can be no question of the technical virtuosity of Kane. From a purely technical standpoint, the critics are on point. The camera angles, the lighting, the creatively managed shots such as the camera’s movement through the neon sign over the dive where Susan Kane is now wasting away in Atlantic City; or the rising shot when the weak-voiced Susan is attempting to sing opera and a prop man in the upper veranda is shown squeezing his nose shut; the still shot of the staff of the rival Chronicle which is set in motion after the pop of a flashbulb reveals that Kane has bought all of them and they now work for the Inquirer; all these and many other examples of Greg Toland’s cinematography and Welles’ stagecraft remain impressive.
And the actors, without exception, are superb. The icy stare of Agnes Moorhead (the actress who later played Samantha’s mother on the TV sitcom Bewitched) as she sends her boy Kane away still chills me. The pathetic weakness of Dorothy Comingore as Susan, the woman browbeaten by Kane to continue singing against her will, is painfully realistic. Welles himself perfectly portrays Kane as a manipulative, sinister and overgrown brat. And Joseph Cotten is a scene-stealer as Jed Leland, the only character in the drama to show any sense of humor when as an old man he continues to ask the reporter for cigars. In fact, the entire Mercury Theater troupe which Welles brought from radio to make his screen debut rose to legendary excellence in this production.
But, alas, there’s more to drama than mere technical excellence and brilliant acting, just as there’s more to dentistry than successfully pulling teeth. The dentist who pulls out a tooth painlessly and thoroughly—but who pulls out the wrong tooth—would have done better to leave the patient alone. And, in making a movie about a man who shows no redeeming virtues of any sort, Welles has pulled the wrong tooth out of his audience.
For all people, even all villains, have some redeeming virtue. Evil monsters, from Goliath to Captain Ahab, have always had something about them, some talent or capacity for achievement, some quirky bit of charisma to remind us that, if they ever learned to switch sides and fight for good, we might actually learn to like them. But Charles Foster Kane has no shred of any of this. We are told repeatedly, ad nauseum, by the likes of Susan Alexander Kane and Jed Leland, that Kane lived only for Kane. We do not see that he has really earned anything that he has been given in his life. In consequence, we get bored after a while. The uniformly selfish spectacle of his personality gets tiresome.
A selfish, rich and manipulative male—what is compelling or unusual about this? History, drama and literature are awash with the stereotype. Welles, and perhaps even more guiltily, Herman Mankiewicz, the co-credited screenwriter who was older than Welles and should have known better, went over the top. Didn’t they realize the monotony of egotism needed at least a little moderation?
Younger generations today, in trying to find a parallel to Hearst/Kane in their own experience, might consider Rupert Murdoch, the distant and mysterious majordomo of the Fox News empire. But Murdoch as a young man was not well-known. Perhaps a more easily decipherable young gun, a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg, might resonate with them more and suggest some type of modern day incarnation of Kane. But Jobs and Zuckerberg both illustrate the complexity of fascination: though arrogant, wealthy, domineering and opportunistic, these men had a palpable genius, a sense of innovation which lent itself to humanitarianism. Welles and Mankiewicz, despite their flair for drama, deprived their Charles Foster Kane of this.
Largely as a result, it is unlikely anyone in today’s world who is not a cinema aficionado, a cognoscente of craft, will find Citizen Kane appealing. Unlike George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life or Rick Blaine in Casablanca, torn and tortured heroes of two other classics of the 1940’s, Charles Foster Kane doesn’t seem to know the difference between good or evil, or to care. In retrospect, he resembles the aging, obese caricature Welles himself became: rich but totally irrelevant.
© 2015 James Crawford