A Fledgling's Masterpeice
Citizen Kane is widely hailed as the "great American film" and with good reason. From its complex narrative structure to pioneering photography to its incredibly rich use of sound, Welles' 1941 picture remains one of the most innovative movies ever to come out of a Hollywood studio. Even Today Citizen Kane stands out as one of the great films of all time.
Unfolding almost entirely in flashback, Welles's masterpiece presents various perspectives on the oversized life of the recently deceased Charles Foster Kane. Through the reminiscences of friends, family, and coworkers, the film moves from Kane's childhood to his rambunctious adolescence, from the heights of his success to the depths of his isolation. All the while there is a search for clues to Kane's mysterious last word: "Rosebud." The puzzling phrase drives the tale, but ultimately it is only a means of exploring the film's real theme: the impossibility of truly understanding any human being.
In the film Kane (Orson Welles, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay) is separated from his parents as a child and made heir to an enormous fortune. Coming of age, he decides to run a newspaper, sensationalizing the news and considering himself to be the voice of the people. With ambitions beyond publishing, he runs for New York Governor, and later promotes the singing career of his second wife Susan. He also builds Xanadu, an extravagant palace that is never finished. These various ambitions fail, and Kane dies a wealthy but spiritually broken man.
When William Randolph Hearst (multimillionaire and media tycoon) got wind of what 25-year-old Orson Welles was creating at RKO's film studio, he feared his life was the inspiration for the main character. In response Hearst and his newspapers employed all their influence to try and stop Citizen Kane's 1941 release.
John O'Hara of Newsweek addresses just this controversy in his review of Citizen Kane. He begins by stating that Citizen Kane is the finest film that he has ever seen and that Orson Welles is the greatest actor ever. This is a bold statement to make at the time because it was printed before the film was released and before any kind of public consensus could be made. O'Hara's observation would turn out to be somewhat true. His reasons for promoting Citizen Kane are no more than pure enthusiasm and support for a film that impressed him greatly. He states that his intension is to make you want to see the picture that he believes to be "as good a picture as was ever made". (O'Hara 60)
O'Hara seems to be more of an excited fan than a film critic. His unbridled enthusiasm is evident in every sentence of his review. He appears to be an admirer of Orson Welles' just as much as the movie itself. He states that Citizen Kane lacks nothing. Later in the article, as if to be reassuring, he says that "aside from what it does lack Citizen Kane has Orson Welles". He compares Welles to artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald who had gone unrecognized until after his death. He ends his article with the statement that there has never been a better actor than Orson Welles and then repeats that very statement. (O'Hara 60)
The controversy surrounding Citizen Kane and W. R. Hearst is also addressed by Bosely Crowther of the New York Times. He says that "suppression of this film would be a crime". But unlike O'Hara, Crowther seems a little more critical of the film. He says that Welles' abundance of imagery is so great that it sometimes gets in the way of his logic. He also claims that the film "fails to provide a clear picture of the character and motive behind the man whom the whole film revolves".(Crowther 5)
Aside from the few critical points, Crowther was very complimentary towards Citizen Kane. He comments on the excellent direction of Mr. Welles and the sure and penetrating performances of the entire cast.Crother feels that Citizen Kane is one of the most realistic takes on the cinema to date. He describes it as cynical, ironic, oppressive, and realistic. "Citizen Kane has more vitality than fifteen other films we could name". (Crowther5)
The New Yorker's John Marsh also is very complimentary of Citizen Kane, but for much more technical reasons. He addresses the many aspects of the film that set it apart from all others.
"Since movies hitherto have commenced with a cast list and a vast directory of credits, we are promptly jolted out of our seats when Citizen Kane ignores this convention and slides at once into the film." He believes that this formal difference is revolutionary enough to establish Welles' independence from convention. "This independence, like fresh air, sweeps on and on through the movie."(Marsh 79)
Marsh also comments on Welles' method of storytelling with the use of repetition and flashing scenes. "With a few breakfast scenes, the progress of a marriage is shown as specifically as if we had read the wife's diary. To Marsh something new has come to the movie world at last. He believes that the film's triumphant quality is that although Kane is presented as a villainous miser, the human touch is not lost. Sympathy for the preposterous Mr. Kane survives.
All three of these writers share a similar opinion about Citizen Kane. Individually they each appreciate different aspects of the film. John O'Hara is intoxicated with the performance of Orson Welles, both in front and behind the camera. Bosely Crowther discusses the reality of the film itself. John Marsh believes that it's unconventional approach is what will set Citizen Kane apart from other movies in the future. Although each writer praises different aspects of the movie they all agree that Citizen Kane is a film that will drastically alter the film making processfrom now on.