Citizen Kane: behind the legend

by Meagan Dill

In any conversation about vintage films, Orson Welles’s critically acclaimed Citizen Kane is bound to come up. But what is it about Citizen Kane that’s stood the test of time? And is it just for film buffs or will others enjoy it too?

Truthfully, it’s not the most easy-to-watch film – mostly because many of the stylistic norms of filmmaking have changed over the decades. It was, after all, released in 1941. However, like most forms of classic art, what Citizen Kane may lack in palatability it makes up for in what can be gained by watching it. 

Citizen Kane is the life story of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane. The film begins with his death and final word: “Rosebud.” It is then the mission of reporter Jerry Thompson to examine Kane’s life, with the hope that finding the meaning of “rosebud” could lead to a better understanding of the enigma surrounding Kane. Ultimately, the story is a representation of Kane as a man whose hunger for power ultimately leaves him a lonely old man amongst his countless possessions.

When the film was released there was controversy surrounding the character of Kane. It is said that Kane was closely based on a well-known publisher of the time, William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst got wind of this, he was so furious that he accused Welles of being a communist, in an attempt to prevent the film being released. He was unsuccessful. Welles, however, claimed that Kane was not merely based on Hearst but was rather a fusion of various American personas from that era. 

One of the key elements of Citizen Kane that modern viewers will need to get used to is the fact that the film is black and white. However, many would argue that the film would not be the same had it been made in colour.

At one point Ted Turner (a writer, actor and producer) used Citizen Kane as an example of a film that could successfully be colourised. This was as part of his pro-colour film argument, with the intention to irk critics of the process. While it certainly did anger purists, the statement turned out to be fruitless as Welles had the rights to the film and was the only person who would have been able to make the decision colourise it. It is even rumoured that when Welles heard about Turner’s statement, he was infuriated and shouted, “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movies!”

This kind of protectiveness is not surprising, considering that Orson Welles not only directed Citizen Kane but also acted the role of Kane himself, produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay. It was his first feature film, and he was only 25 when he made it.

One of the many innovations that Citizen Kane is famous for is the grainy, aged look of the newsreel segment at the start of the film. Editor Robert Wise came up with the idea of abusing the physical reel of film to make the footage look older than it actually was. This included dragging it across a stone floor. The technique worked so well that one film distributor actually filed a complaint about poor film quality, without realising that this was intentional for that particular part of the film.

But as critically acclaimed as the film is today, it was a box office flop at the time of its release. And although it did get nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941, it was booed for each of these nominations at the ceremony. It was only when it was re-released in the mid-1950s that it enjoyed more widespread success.

If anyone was in doubt as to whether this success and influence is still prevelant today, one need not look further than popular animated sitcom The Simpsons – which has references to the film in several episodes and even has an entire episode based on the plot of the film. Strangely enough, there is even pornography based on Citizen Kane. And if the heart-wrenching storyline and exquisite cinematography doesn’t convince you to watch it, maybe this will: if even a pornographer can manage it, so can you.

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