If you haven’t seen it:
Many critics will have you believe that Citizen Kane (which tells the life story of Charles Foster Kane, a fictitious newspaper tycoon, based loosely on William Randolph Hearst) is the greatest film of all time. It isn’t. Not in the way you are thinking anyway.
My son thinks the greatest film of all time is The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, but he’s five. I have a friend who thinks the greatest film of all time is Crocodile Dundee, but he’s … well, he’s probably reading this, so I can’t say. Anyway, the point I am failing to make is that people have their own definitions of what makes a film great. With Citizen Kane apparently, critics loved the revolutionary use of ceilings in the movie! Before Kane, movies were filmed on sound studios with no ceilings, but Orson Welles found a way of getting round this. That’s all fine, but I think it takes more than a ceiling to impress modern audiences. I do not think that the reason Avatar did not win the best picture Oscar in 2010 was that there were not enough ceilings on Pandora.
Okay, it wasn’t just the ceilings the critics loved, but the reason I mention them is to lower your expectations. If you watch it expecting it to be the greatest movie ever, you are going to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you approach it with low expectations, you will find that this is a well-made movie with a good story, interesting characters, and yes, great ceilings.
If you have seen it:
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SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.
Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper publisher and one of the world’s wealthiest men, has died. A team of newsreel reporters are preparing his obituary, and they decide it might be interesting to discover the meaning of the last word he reportedly uttered, which was “Rosebud”. One of the reporters, Jerry, takes on the challenge, and interviews five of Kane’s old friends, getting five very different accounts of his life.
From the private memoirs of banker Mr Thatcher he learns that Kane was born into poverty, but his family became rich when a gold mine was discovered on some land owned by his mother. His mother then sent Kane away to be educated, and to be protected from his violent father. Thatcher became his guardian. When Kane reached adulthood, he decided “it would be fun to run a newspaper” and took over the New York Daily Inquirer.
From Kane’s personal business manager Mr. Bernstein, Jerry learns how Bernstein, Kane, and Kane’s college friend Jedediah Leland transformed the stuffy, unprofitable Inquirer into a top selling newspaper. Kane audaciously poached all the best journalists from a rival paper. These were happy, exciting days, with lavish parties and good times for all of them.
From Leland, Jerry learns about Kane’s first marriage to the niece of the president. He also tells of Kane’s entry into politics – Kane was running for office on an anticorruption platform, but found himself being blackmailed by his opponent, who had discovered he had a secret relationship with a young woman named Susan.
Kane refused to give in to blackmail – the story came out, and Kane lost the election, and his first wife. He then went on to marry Susan, but that marriage also turned sour as Kane pushed her into a singing career she was unsuited for. Kane and Leland then fell out when Leland wrote a damning review of Susan’s show (although in fact Kane finished the review himself when Leland passed out drunk – believing that the integrity of his newspaper should remain intact).
From Kane’s second wife, Susan, Jerry learns how she and Kane moved to Florida, and built the magnificent mansion Xanadu on 49,000 acres. Their marriage disintigrated however, and she left.
Finally, Kane’s butler Raymond at Xanadu, tells Jerry of Kane’s final years, alone and bitter, a virtual recluse.
Jerry never does find out what Rosebud is, but as the movie ends, the camera pans to a room in Xanadu full of junk that workmen are throwing into a furnace. One of the workmen picks up an old sled, and we recognise it as the one Kane used to play with when he was a boy. As the sled is thrown onto the fire, we see that it has the name Rosebud etched onto it.
Steve Sunday Says:
Do you know what the most valuable movie prop of all time is? Darth Vader’s helmet sold at auction for $115,000. The statuette of the Maltese Falcon went for $390,000.
At a 2011 Hollywood auction, the trademark bowler hat worn by Charlie Chaplin in several films, including The Little Tramp, reached $135,300 while a dress and pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the filming of The Wizard of Oz sold for $1.75m despite not having appeared in the film. This was nothing compared to the $4.6m that was bid for white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch.
So how much do you think the Rosebud sled is worth? A million dollars? Ten million? No – the answer is nothing at all, because they burnt it! I bet someone somewhere is wishing that the final scene had featured it being thrown in a skip instead of going up in flames.
What’s that you say? In 1982 Steven Spielberg bought the “Rosebud” sled for $60,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York?
No he did not. THEY BURNT IT!
Watch the movie again if you do not believe me. Pay more attention this time.
History Man says:
The character of Charles Foster Kane is primarily based on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the son of a Californian millionaire who decided to go into the newspaper business. In 1887 he took over the running of his father’s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner (where his writers included Mark Twain and Jack London) and from there he built up an empire of dozens of newspapers across America. Hearst pioneered a sensationalist style of journalism in order to boost readership, and he also exposed a lot of corruption.
Hearst succeeded in being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to become elected mayor, governor, and Lieutenant Governor of New York, being the victim of at least one dirty-tricks campaign.
In 1919 Hearst began building a huge mansion at San Simeon in California. He filled it with art and valuable antiques, and it was known as “Hearst Castle”. At about this time he separated from his wife, with whom he had five sons, and began living with the well-known film actress Marion Davies.
Hearst’s empire peaked in the late 1920s but suffered in the Great Depression of the 1930s. He did recover after World War II, and died in 1951, aged 88.
Trivia Trish Says:
- The film was originally a flop at the box office.
- It was nominated for 9 Oscars but won only one, for best original screenplay. At the Oscar ceremony, the audience booed every time the film’s name was read out as a nomination. It was beaten for best film by How Green Was My Valley.
- The main scriptwriter was Herman J. Mankiewicz (with Welles as co-writer). Mankiewicz was also the main scriptwriter for The Wizard of Oz.
- When Kane says “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio” this is an in-joke. It references a famous radio broadcast that Welles once made where he convinced many Americans that the Earth really was being invaded by aliens.
- William Randolph Hearst tried to get the film banned by accusing Orson Welles of being a communist.
Chris the Critic says:
Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’ first film as a director. He was only 25, but was already well respected for his work in radio and theatre. The deal he had made with the studio gave him complete creative control over the movie, which was unheard of for a first-time director.
One of the main reason the film is so highly regarded by critics is that it pioneered many techniques that are commonplace today. Here is a selection:
- “Deep focus” is where all items on screen are in focus, not just the items in the foreground.
- Coated lenses were used for the first time.
- Welles pioneered a way of having ceilings in the sound studios, which had not been possible before.
- For those scenes where Kane was an old man, Welles spent over six hours each day in makeup.
- The camera angles are such that we are looking up to the strong characters and down on the weak characters. Welles actually borrowed this idea from John Ford’s Stagecoach.
Top Ten Citizen Kanes:
The title “Citizen Kane” has become synonymous with the word “masterpiece”. Saying that something is the Citizen Kane of its genre (e.g. “The Godfather” is the Citizen Kane of gangster movies) means that it is the best and most respected of its type (or possibly, depending on the reviewer, the most overrated and enjoyed only by critics). Here are a few more examples we have heard, or read, or made up for your amusement:
10. “Blade Runner” is the Citizen Kane of sci-fi movies
9. “Touch of Evil” is the Citizen Kane of B movies
8. “The Swarm” is the Citizen Kane of Bee movies
7. “Hot Tub Time Machine” is the Citizen Kane of Hot Tub movies
6. “Shakes the Clown” is the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies
5. “You Got Served” is the Citizen Kane of break-dancing movies
4. “The Room” is the Citizen Kane of bad movies
3. “The Wicker Man” (original) is the Citizen Kane of horror movies
2. “The Wicker Man” (“No, not the bees, not the bees!”!) is the Citizen Kane of bad remakes
1. “Citizen Kane” is the Citizen Kane of classic old black and white movies
Main Cast and Crew:
Orson Welles – Charles Foster Kane
William Alland – Jerry Thompson, reporter.
Ray Collins – Jim W. Gettys, Kane’s political rival.
Ruth Warrick – Emily Monroe Norton Kane, Kane’s first wife.
Dorothy Comingore – Susan Alexander Kane, Kane’s second wife.
Joseph Cotten – Jedediah Leland, old friend & reporter on Kane’s paper.
George Coulouris – Walter Thatcher, banker & Kane’s legal guardian.
Everett Sloane – Mr Bernstein, Kane’s loyal friend and employee.
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