It’s Terrific!, Citizen Kane’s tagline insisted in every poster.
For many years considered the best film ever (still now by many), paradoxically, if you were in the American film industry in 1940 most possibly you would think that Citizen Kane wouldn’t stand a chance.
Not that it was a big box-office success or a very rewarded movie (got 1 Oscar, though), but somehow instead of disappearing, or staying in a discreet term, as many movies do, it grew, and kept on growing. This is the story of how Citizen Kane came to exist and became a symbol for artists’ independence. The great and very methodical book that tells its story is The Making of Citizen Kane, by Robert L. Carringer.
One of the aspects that distinguishes this book from other Kane -related works, is that Carringer did talk extensively with Orson Welles himself about the making of the movie. Not a minor detail.
Orson Welles’ Amazing Contract
At the end of the 1930s, Orson Welles was mainly known as the devilish theatre director who, unwittingly, had created unexpected mayhem with his radio broadcast of H.G.Wells‘ The War of the Worlds. Check our post The Martians are Coming! to know what really happened that Halloween night. Sooner or later the wailing of the sirens from Hollywood had to get to him, and it did.
The siren took the shape of Mr George J. Schaefer, the guy in charge of RKO, who signed Orson Welles a contract that gave him unprecedented control as a producer, director, writer and actor, despite his complete lack of experience (Welles had never made a movie before).
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Citizen Kane was not meant to be Welles’ first film. The very first one would’ve been a very fascinating one: a film version of Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. A lot of designs were made but the project, huge in size and budget, was postponed and then cancelled. But Welles had a back-up plan: to make a Hitchcock-type of film, based on the book The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake (actor Daniel Day-Lewis‘ father), but that didn’t congeal either.
Kane, Charles Foster
Then Welles and Mankiewicz came out with the idea of Citizen Kane. The film was first called American.
The contract signed by Welles plus the film itself didn’t get unnoticed. In fact, they caused a stir. Not only because of Orson Welles self-centered persona (a whizz kid for some, an egomaniac for others), plus his lack of experience in movies, his offering the acting to the members of his Mercury Theatre group, most of whom had never made a movie either, but because soon it became known that the film was (loosely) based on the life of the most powerful and richest man in America, William Randolph Hearst. Look at what The Hollywood Reporter wrote on its cover when RKO, in hard financial times, decided to lower the employees’ salaries but didn’t touch Citizen Kane’s large budget:
(…) Mr. Schaefer evidently does not think an investment of $750,000 or more with an untried producer, writer, director, with a questionable story and a rumored cast of players who, for the most part, have never seen a camera, is a necessary cut in these critical times.
In filmmaking, a collaborative media, it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to assess exactly what has been done by who. Of course, if you add Orson Welles personality to the mix, it had to be casualties. In this case, co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. His fight with Welles about authorship was a tough one.
I’m not going to go into who did what and how much (I’ve added a few articles below that try to clarify) but the truth is that the result of the writing work of (whatever their real output) Mankiewicz + Welles. + John Houseman + Amalia Kent (at least) was superb.
It seems clear that Rosebud, the key concept of the movie, was Mankiewicz’s idea. Welles conceded to this.
The Dynamic Duo of the Kane Shooting Period: Ferguson and Toland
When digging into the making of the film, two more names surface as key to its artistic success: Perry Ferguson and Gregg Toland.
PERRY FERGUSON, Art Director
Ferguson had worked in some of the biggest RKO films had ever made, like Howard Hawks‘ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and George Stevens‘ Gunga Din (1939). He was the RKO’s Art Director specialised in difficult films with stubborn directors. So he became Citizen Kane‘s Art Director.
Ferguson was known to be quick, easygoing and very resourceful. When the art direction budget was cut down, he managed to very cleverly recycle pieces of old film sets. The huge staircase at Xanadu, Kane’s palace, was recycled from another film.
GREGG TOLAND, CINEMATOGRAPHER
Toland was a very distinguished, experienced, awarded (Got the Oscar for William Wyler‘s Wuthering Heights in 1939) director of photography, well-known for trying new and experimental things. He became a perfect fit for Welles, and along with Mankiewicz, Ferguson and Welles, deserves significant recognition for the final result.
The Deep Focus Technique.
As said, Toland and Ferguson were all the way willing to try new things. The photography and the sets were designed to allow for the Deep Focus technique, a wide-angle procedure that allowed to keep in focus all actors despite being at different distances from the lens.
Their innovative use of this technique, as illustrated below, is masterful.
Please watch below a complete Deep Focus scene of the film:
The Rancho Sign Shot
The work Ferguson, Toland and Welles did together achieved memorable moments, like the shot below, in which Ferguson created a sign that was removed as Tolan’s the camera went through it (it was not a model, as it has been said).
Plus Two Extra-Talented Individuals
To the poker of key guys in charge (Welles, Mankiewicz, Ferguson and Toland), we should add two more big names that left a powerful imprint in Citizen Kane: Film composer Bernard Herrmann and film editor Robert Wise.
Kane‘s music was Oscar nominated, but Hermann lost to himself, as the Oscar went to another film he had scored that same year, The Devil and Daniel Webster or All That Money Can Buy. In 1941, 20 films were nominated to Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, with Hermann competing, as well as with himself, with the top movie musicians of the time: Max Steiner, Fran Waxman, Alfred Newman and Miklos Roska. In the future, Bernard Herrmann would become Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite composer, with film scores like Psycho (1960), North By Northwest (1959) and Vertigo (1958).
Citizen Kane’s film editor Robert Wise went on to become a legendary director himself, helming films like The Sound of Music (1965), I Want to Live! (1958) and West Side Story (1961).
Kane’s was Successful but…
When the film finally opened in New York on May 1st 1941, it got wonderful reviews but the opposition from Hearst to the movie made it difficult for the film to have a normal commercial career. The film got 9 Oscar nominations, but only got one award: Best Screenplay, for Mankiewicz and Welles. The picture was much admired but it ended up its run losing money.
France, to the Rescue, from 1946
The international eclosion of fame of Citizen Kane would have to wait and took place somewhere else. It was in France, where the film premiered 5 years later, in 1946 (no American films were shown there during Nazi occupation) where the film’s historical fate changed. Many French critics and intellectuals instantly hailed the film and placed Kane and Welles in the Olympus of Filmmaking. This newly acquired reputation bounced back to America, where books like Pauline Kael‘s Raising Kane helped cement Citizen Kane‘s legend.
FICTION MOVIES ABOUT CITIZEN KANE AND WELLES
Feature Films about Citizen Kane
RKO 281 (1999) tells the story of the troubled making of Citizen Kane. Its title is the name that the project had inside RKO. It was directed by Benjamin Ross, and the cast is first-class: Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, John Malkovich, Roy Scheider… Here below, a scene of the film:
Most recently, David Fincher’s Mank (2020) dealt with one specific aspect of the making of Kane, its writing, and the role that Mankiewicz played in it. If you are curious about the facts and fiction behind this film please check here what Esquire, Townandcountrymag, Time and USAToday have to say about it!
Welles, the Theatre and The Cradle Will Rock
In 1999, Tim Robbins directed The Cradle Will Rock, which tells the real story of the making of the musical theatre show of the same title, directed by Welles in 1937.
With music by Marc Blitzstein, it’s a play about corruption. The powers that be of the time didn’t like that, so the WPA shut down the project when it was about to have its premiere. The show opened against all odds on June 16, 1937, with Blitzstein playing the piano solo on stage and the cast singing their parts from the audience, escaping this way the legal restrictions applied to the play.
Welles, the Radio and The War of the Worlds
If anything had given fame to Welles before its Hollywood times was the radio broadcast of H.G.Wells The War of the Worlds, which created mass panic in America. If you want to know about it, check our post The Martians are Coming!
Joseph Sargent directed on 1975 a TV Movie, The Night that Panicked America, dramatising those events.
Welles and Ed Wood
Tim Burton, in Ed Wood, made Orson Welles (played by Vincent d’Onofrio) and Wood (played by Johnny Depp) meet up by chance in a bar, where the two very unique mavericks have a chat.
BONUS 1: AN ORSON WELLES INTERVIEW
What follows is a short but fantastic interview in which Welles himself discusses how he managed to have absolute control in his first movie and assures his brave filmmaking was caused by “sheer ignorance”.
BONUS 2 & 3: SPIELBERG AND SCORSESE, ON CITIZEN KANE.
Here below how two landmark filmmakers summarise Citizen Kane.
Steven Spielberg, in 1 minute:
Martin Scorsese, in 2 minutes:
More on Orson Welles? Check our posts The Martians are Coming! and Joseph Cotten, a Great Autobiography.
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