Monday, March 9, 2015

Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles

Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

The film was precluded with perhaps the greatest hype since Gone With the Wind, was buried by the media, won only a singular Academy Award, and destroyed a creative prodigy whose filmmaking career had yet to officially begin, yet it is most commonly considered the best American feature film ever produced. This is Citizen Kane, the cinematic debut and masterpiece of Orson Welles. This major studio picture would be unconventional by utilizing unknown actors throughout its main cast and experiment with avant-garde camerawork allowing the picture to stand out in 1941, later proving to be well ahead of its time.

Citizen Kane is a drama examining the life story of a newspaper magnate from humble beginnings, rise to wealth and power, his striving and failure to achieve a state of happiness, through his death and mysterious last words. A reporter (William Alland) attempts to learn the meaning of media tycoon’s, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), last word of “Rosebud” sending him on a series of interviews with individuals who share their stories with the man during his life. We learn of Kane’s boyhood as a happy boy from a simple, impoverished family to being sent away and raised by a wealthy banker. As a young man Kane gravitates towards running a struggling New York newspaper and turning into a media empire that would span the entire country, making him the richest and most powerful person in the country.

Even though Kane’s money permits him to acquisition everything he wants, he grows to realize that money does not buy everything. He loses his first marriage and a power with politics to an affair that becomes public. He turns his affair into his second marriage and attempts to brand second wife into a successful opera singer by building her a lavish theater and forcing his journalists to write only good reviews about her. It becomes painfully obvious that though Kane’s wealth cannot buy love or happiness, leaving him a shell of a man who dies emotionally broken and alone in his cavernous estate on a lavish piece of land, pinning for a simpler time in his life. In the end the reporter never understands what “rosebud” is, but learns that he is a far more complicated man than most know.

What makes Citizen Kane so unique, especially for its time, is it unconventional and creative way the life of Charles Foster Kane is told. The story is shared in a non-linear style. To further accentuate the artistic storytelling, the camera is placed from angles a conservative major motion picture would not have considered. Even more so, the complete cast was compiled of actors that were only known to have worked on stage or in radio, new to the medium of movies. All of these creative choices were made by the film’s fresh-faced newcomer, Orson Welles.

Welles and a cast of Hollywood unknowns.
Orson Welles at such a young age had already made his mark on both stage and radio before being enticed to come to Hollywood. He founded the Mercury Theatre Company who he recruited from his experiences  on stage and produced brash and creative versions of Shakespeare with contemporary twists. To help fund his plays Welles took to working in radio during days, using his distinctive baritone voice in the audio centric medium, while still working rehearsals on Broadway at night, usually working on very limited sleep.

A benchmark day for Welles would be the eve of Halloween 1938 as his Mercury Theatre company produced the infamous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” Due to the nature of the production being played as a faux newscast it is said, according to some questionable legends, listening audiences were confused of the broadcasts story as a tale of fiction and believed that the earth was in fact being invaded by beings from Mars sending multitudes into a state of extreme panic. This publicity gained the young, creative genius a great amount of exposure that would lead to Hollywood calls for him to consider taking a chance at motion pictures.

Orson Welles. His first film would be his masterpiece.
RKO signed a 24 year-old Orson Welles to a directorial contract that would give him absolute control of his movies, including script, casting, direction, and final edit. These contract terms would be an unprecedented for any filmmaker, let alone a first time director. Welles mulled over a couple of ideas with the studio before being deciding to go with the idea that would eventually be Citizen Kane.

The plot of the picture is loosely based off the life story of the very powerful media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the man that controlled most of the nation’s most read newspapers, among other mediums. Like Kane, Hearst too was a very powerful figure who utilized his vast news empire to control the public consciousness of his reading audience. With major publication from coast to coast he was one of the richest and influence men in the world. Even more worrisome for Hearst, he, like Kane, had a very public mistress who was a performer he attempted to make into a star in Marion Davies.

When people in Hearst’s publications caught wind of Citizen Kane it was clear that the film was inspired by Hearst’s life which angered the mogul. With the knowledge of this production it became a mission of Hearst to have the motion picture stopped from ever being released. Hearst tried to buy the film in order to destroy it, had his writers barred from mentioning the film and threatened RKO with a ban of all there films from being advertised in his papers. Hearst even manipulated his many Hollywood elite friends to talk, even begged, to Welles and have him stop the film from being made. Welles saw all this and was more determined to finish the picture.

The movie’s story structure would be very distinctive for its time. The film’s non-linear format opens with a faux newsreel to introduce the audience to the titular character, giving a quick glance at the individual’s life, as detailed as any public figure’s biography would in a quick, glorifying highlight reel would. We dive deeper into Kane’s story as a reporter interviews Kane’s old employee and agent in Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), best friend Jedidiah (Joseph Cotton), and second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore), as well as reading the memoirs of his former guardian, Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris). With each character we are introduced into new, meaningful moments of his life, discovering more about his issues and insecurities. In a time where movies were usually very linier this kind of storytelling was very unique for movie goers.

Joseph Cotten would later become a Hollywood leading man.
Welles casted actors he knew and brought over from the Mercury Theatre. They would be unknown at the time of the picture’s release, but some would go onto decent careers in Hollywood. Joseph Cotten would become a leading man and work in the movies for 40 years. Dorothy Comingore caught the attention of many studios with her dramatic performance, but RKO would refuse to loan her out and later in her career she would begin to refuse “uninteresting” roles which ultimately would bring her time on screen to an end ten years after Citizen Kane. Actors like Everett Sloane and George Coulouris would go on to service long careers as characters for decades.

With Welles’s background on the stage it appears he enjoyed the use of deep focus. Every inch of the film’s frame was utilized for a purpose, either to help tells the story of evoke further emotion of the moments. His dramatic use of shadows and lighting, extreme high of low angles, and keeping action in the foreground and background relevant to the story all are used to the peak of artistic merit as Orson Welles was an experimenting with the use of telling a story within the confines of the motion picture frame. This camera work would prove to be ahead of its time as future generations of filmmakers would begin to utilize more often camera angles that appear to be inspired by more European style of filmmaking as seen by the young Welles here.

An example of Welles' deep focus.
Despite all the unconventional techniques, the ill-will towards the picture by Hollywood and what press there was to report on the picture, and the hardships of production Citizen Kane premiered at the RKO Palace Theatre on Broadway on May 1, 1941 after being refused to open at Radio City Music Hall. Responses would be mixed due to Hearst’s papers. Some critics saw it as wonderful filmmaking, others as first-time filmmaking hogwash. The picture would garner amazingly nine Academy Award nominations including Welles for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, but the production came away with only one win, being Best Writing for Welles and fellow screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewcz. Outside of Hearst’s controlling media arms however Citizen Kane would garner the greatest praise with Best Picture honors from prestigious circles such as the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics, but these awards would not shine as bright as the film’s lose at the Academy Awards

The picture was a financial hardship for RKO and Orson Welles. RKO came away with poor box office numbers, leading to Citizen Kane being put away for years without a thought of a re-release. Citizen Kane was on the road to being a forgotten film. Welles’ reputation was tarnished before his filmmakingcareer official started. Despite his great creativeness he was buried by press and a poor reputation. His follow-up picture, 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, would be hijacked by RKO in the editing process, jading Welles over the industry and essentially destroying a possible promising directorial career.

With the rise of film schools and art houses in the 1950s Citizen Kane found a new entrance into the forefront of the cinematic consciousness. As students began to learn in a classroom setting the skills of filmmaking, the production quality and creativity of Citizen Kane was beginning to be played again and observed for how unique and genius it was. Breaking down the writing, acting, cinematography, editing, music, and effects, scholars of film began to see the feature as masterpiece once removed from the time and place of Hearst and his influence. At this time Citizen Kane would be re-released and audiences saw the film with new and enthralled eyes.

Contemporary film critics digested the material realizing that Welles techniques were ahead of their time and influences later generations of filmmakers with how to direct and use their camera and edit a motion picture. Decades would pass and film critics began to use Citizen Kane as the ultimate measuring stick to which all movies would be measured against.

Citizen Kane was one of the very first films added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1989 as one of the most historic and significant American motion picture ever producsed. When the American Film Institute voted on a list of the greatest American made films of all time in 1998 Citizen Kane came out on top, and repeated the feat again on their 2007 list, voted on by filmmakers, historians, and critics.

Orson Welles would be outlived by his masterpiece, but his impact has been felt for generations as his work influenced throughout the medium of filmmaking. Through the decades of being proclaimed the “best film of all time,” Citizen Kane has suffered a bit of inevitable backlash as critics have become tired of its high praise, yet it remains one of the single most praised motion pictures in American cinema. It will be hard to believe there will be a serious best of all-time list without Citizen Kane not being placed near the top.

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