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Review: The Battle Over Citizen Kane 


Gerry Fitzpatrick

26 March 2008

This documentary was part of the American Lives series and was first broadcast on WBGH TV Boston (one of the smaller and better networks in the Eastern United States).  It is a very well crafted examination of the actor director Orson Welles and of William Randolph Hurst the newspaper magnate who was the intended target of Welles film Citizen Kane (RKO1941). 

There is a sketch that Orson Welles once did of the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1928. From it we can see the well observed detail of the façade. The handling betrays a lightness of touch and must have been done at one short sitting. It is of course a Welles’s souvenir of his first successes and the great time he had spent acting in the company of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammor. Following the death of his father, Welles had been given some time to roam by his guardian. One of the first places he went was Dublin. Welles appearances on the Dublin stage at age fifteen soon became part of the Welles’ mythology and his seeming to have arrived ‘fully formed’. 

The documentary examines both lives and the myths that surrounded both Hurst and Welles. In Welles case it all but gives up trying to deconstruct the myth of Orson Welles as most of the stories that were told about him were true. For he had indeed become famous for his production of the Black Macbeth in Harlem (1936) and he had indeed travelled around New York in a series of ambulances between radio studios doing bit parts to finance his various projects. When he finally got to direct his own radio show in 1938, he made most of America think that it had just been invaded by aliens. And it is also true, that that broadcast earned him a Hollywood contract that had never been awarded to anyone before or since. All true. But it is in the uncovering of the finer details of both men’s careers that this documentary really shines. Some of which are quite shocking. These are mostly about Hurst who damaged much more than just a few hotel rooms in his time. 

William Randolph Hurst, Amateur Demagogue 

Hurst was, as the commentary states, a typical 19th century business leader who believed that American capitalism formed a kind of progress that could only be of social benefit. He invented most of the populist and jingoist tone of what became known as the ‘yellow press’ (named after a yellow cartoon character that Hurst and his rival Pulitzer both fought over and ended up publishing simultaneously in their papers).  By the end of the 1890s America had become a place of the newly arrived immigrants. Hurst saw this as his growing constituency - both in terms of sales and later votes. Here the documentary cuts directly to Citizen Kane to show the scene when Kane is first starting out as an editor and how ‘providing a war’ was his way of improving his political market share. Welles portrayal in this scene is a subtle mixture of comedy and Kane’s destructive egoism. But it would be wrong to map this characterization over the real Hurst too directly, for the simple reason that Hurst was much worse than his famous film noir portrait. 

Invading Cuba And American Lives

After the Spanish Empire had defeated the Cuban revolt in early 1898, there was no further action against Spain by Cubans. However, following the explosion which sank the US Maine in the Spanish held Philippines – Americans followed Hurst’s (fiction based) war mongering and declared war on Spain. Animated by his own mania, Hurst demanded that he be given a war ship by the navy to invade Cuba. He was of course refused thus giving himself the green light to stage his own Cuban invasion with journalists and a movie camera. Hurst then fought in the war and was now both making and reporting the news. However, he also made the news in ways that he wished he hadn’t. By the turn of the century his papers had become so rabid, as the documentary states, that they had on two occasions called for the President to be assassinated (McKinley had opposed war with Spain which was the sole cause of Hurst’s fury against him). When President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, it effectively proved to be the end of Hurst’s political ambitions. Despite huge loss of business that followed this scandal and being burned in effigy; it did not stop Hurst running for New York Mayor, for New York Governor and for the Presidency. 

Not Sticking To The Script

Hurst never much stuck to other peoples’ scripts, because he thought that - as he was writing it – it would become true. Even when Hurst was refused the Democratic Party’s nomination for president he formed his own party and ran anyway. 

When it came to giving an account of the disasters of Hurst’s ego, Welles and his script writer – the great Herman Mankiewicz – were modest. They show the history of a life at the beginning of Citizen Kane in news reel form. What emerges is a strange, rather inconsistent man who was something of riddle that the film set out ‘solve’ - the ‘rosebud’ that must be deadheaded.

 Hurst of course was nether inconsistent or an enigma.  Citizen Kane shows Kane having a hand in starting the Spanish American War, opposing the First World War, endorsing Adolph Hitler and then later removing that endorsement.  Hurst in reality actually represented the minority anti?internationalist isolationist faction of the American ruling class. Not only opposing American involved in the WW1 but also the League of Nations. His support for and participation in the American invasion of Cuba was pure chauvinistic opportunism. For him the invasion of Cuba was a local dispute – a stance perfectly consistent with his and later the White House’s isolationism (America took Cuba as a protectorate after a peace was signed with the Spanish Empire in August 1898). 

When Kane is interviewed after returning from visiting European leaders – including Adolph Hitler, something of the truth of Hurst’s conservative isolationism is indicated. “There will be no war” the Kane character states rather smugly. Watching Kane give that denial amidst the bitter destruction of 1941 must have hit Hurst deeply when he saw it. He had supported Rosevelt’s (FDR’s) administration isolationist stance for opportunist reasons but withdrew that support when FDR’s Works Progress Administration began to give unemployment relief and tax the rich a little more effectively. The documentary cuts at this point to Hurst giving a speech against FDR’s tax law. For someone of large stature and rather imposing stare, Hurst shrivels to nothing before our eyes, as he appears like a bumbling pasha waving his finger to the rhythm of his pip-squeak voice. 

The Astonishing Mr Welles 

Watching this we can only recall Welles’s performance (included here) before assembled press men who want him to answer for his production of the War of The Worlds, a production that had panicked and shaken America. Welles appears to be meekness itself, but his control of the baying crowd is astonishing. They are almost afraid to ask him questions. He begins softly, “I’m sorry” he says to one of reporters, “was there something you wanted me to say?”   This is far cry from the documentaries’ thesis that Hurst and Welles had similar personality flaws – both showmen with an interest in destructive power of performance. 

The difference is that Welles drew his strength from working collectively with people. He knew that the roles he played were dramatic creations and the quality of those performances depended on the audience being able to appreciate the difference between performance and reality - even if that realisation did come later - that was the point of the production. By contrast Hurst thought he could run America like a Buffalo Bill show and no one would be able to tell the difference. The documentary blames Welles for his victimization by Hurst and unfortunately persists in that logic to the point of absurdity. Welles may have suffered because of the battle over Citizen Kane by he was by no means beaten. To give an account of his years after Citizen Kane without reference to his other successful roles in The Lady From Shanghai and The Third Man is a gross distortion. It is also is distortion to say at the commentary does that Welles turned into the character of Kane. The fact is that if Welles had the power and the money that Kane or Hurst enjoyed American arts would have felt his positive influence for a generation. And that would have gone some way to redress the balance of the harm and the destruction rent by R.W. Hurst. The commentary insists that Hurst even at the time of Citizen Kane was a serious yet fun loving individual so unlike Kane.  But the old ruin of a man that is Kane in his Xanadu is symbolically Hurst representing his crumbling empire built on ignorance and lies. 

Hurst Goes To War Against Welles and Citizen Kane

Having once tried being an actor, Hurst ended up in California as a powerful promoter of Hollywood movies - a media role that had dire consequences for Welles and Citizen Kane. Once he learned of its content, Hurst used the hold he had over Hollywood to impress upon its studios that Citizen Kane must be destroyed. When Louis B. Mayer acting on behalf of Hurst offered RKO $800,000 to buy the print and all the negatives, so that Hurst could watch it burn, RKO refused. After that Hurst’s papers lead by the odious Luella Parsons, declared war on Citizen Kane and on Hollywood. Inventing scandal where there was none, his papers had twenty years before already brutally destroyed the career of Roscoe Arbuckle even although Arbuckle had been acquitted of murder of a female companion (she in fact died of peritonitis). Now Hurst and his papers hoped to create 1001 Roscoe Arbuckles. 

To this end Hurst papers repeatedly suggested that Hollywood was a den of communist, homosexual, immigrant race mixers who should have no place in society. That indicated the true nature of Hurst’s operation and the depths of his papers reactionary depravity.  The documentary goes some way to acknowledging this as it draws a clear connection between the references made in the Hurst papers to the influences of ‘immigrants’ in Hollywood meaning the influence of Jews.   It also as the documentary shows meant that Edgar Hoover created an FBI file on Welles - mostly consisting of cuttings from Hurst papers…..

No Ordinary Battle No Ordinary Fighter 

This was no ordinary battle but Welles was no ordinary fighter. He had been beaten up by Communist Party thugs in 1936 after the CP had spread the vicious rumour that Welles was a racist who only wanted a black cast to stage a ‘minstrel show’. When Hurst charged Welles with Communism in 1941 he must have recalled that beating and how it did not stop him from producing one of the best productions of Macbeth ever staged. Now he went to New York to defend Citizen Kane. Most of the distributors had come to see the film and to use its content as an excuse to refuse to distribute it. But they didn’t reckon on Welles giving one of best political speeches against censorship ever heard. He said that if the rejection of fascism meant anything it meant opposing political censorship. The distributors agreed to show the film. Welles won the argument but not this first Battle. Each time a theatre was about to show Kane Hurst papers made it clear that no advertising would be accepted from that theatre ever again. Theatres would schedule a showing then drop it at the last minute. RKO had no choice but to withdraw the film. Despite Hurst’s immense hold over the film industry, Citizen Kane was recognised by the industry and its critics as one of the best film ever made. In the face of tremendous opposition it was nominated in all major categories at the academy awards, winning best sound and best screen play for Welles and Mankiewicz.

However Welles as a consequence had control of his next film The Magnificent Ambersons, taken from him and he was never allowed to make a Hollywood picture again. RKO rewrote its advertising to state that an RKO picture was, ‘Entertainment In The Place Of Genius.’  That meant as Welles himself said in 1982, “that when you bought an RKO picture you didn’t get Orson Welles.”  Hurst died ten years after the release of Citizen Kane in 1951. But Kane lived on to fight another day. After French critics of the ‘New Wave’ in the 1950s like François Truffaut started to write about how special the film was, it began to be shown again in Europe.  By the early 1960s it remained top of film critic’s lists of best films and has stayed there for over forty years. Shown many times on television released on video and DVD, it finally was allowed to make more than its money back.

The Achievement of Welles & Mankiewicz on Citizen Kane

Looking at it today it is more than a product of the radical WPA culture of the late 1930s. It is also more than the sum of the scenes that Mankiewicz witnessed in Hurst Households (he was a friend of Marian Davis, Hurst’s live in mistress).  It endures for a number of reasons first because Welles own closely observed and very personal characterisation of Kane. It succeeds by suggesting a rather dire disparity – that Hurst had for one man done so much damage and was much worse than he is depicted. It is true that Welles own history is and remains part of the film (he was raised by a Guardian called Mr Thatcher who he actually admired greatly). This gives his performance an edge that it would not have had it had been done otherwise. Here historical context and background are always relevant, as the effect of the film and its contrast with reality never should be forgotten, for it only improves when that context is known. For example Welles depicts Kane as someone who saw himself as ‘for the working man’. This can be confused with liberalism and the production clearly does want us to think that Kane as he begins his career in the press began as some kind of popinjay liberal who battles corruption when he owns shares in the trusts he is ‘battling’. However, the strength of the picture is in its political warning to labour to beware opportunists like Hurst:

Jeddahdiah [to Kane]. You talk about the people as though you own them - as though they belong to you. As long as I can remember you always talked about giving the ‘people’ their rights, as if you could make them a present of liberty as a reward for services rendered……remember the ‘working man’. You used to write an awful lot about the working man, now he has turned into something called Organised Labour! You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out that your working man expects something that is his right and not as your gift. When your precious, underprivileged really get together – Oh Boy! That’s going to add up to something that’s bigger than your privileges and I don’t know what you’ll do – sail away to a desert island probably and lord it over the monkeys! 
I’d like to think that Mank actually said something similar to Hurst. If he didn’t this is what he should have said. Added to this is the technical brilliance both of the filming and editing - the use of unusual camera angles, pools of light and strange shadows to show us the darkness at the heart of American progress (Kane turning over the management of his papers to Mr Thatcher during the great depression, his second wife drinking alone in her nightclub during a rain storm). The story lines many switch backs and diverging personal points of view (Joseph Cotton as Kane’s friend Jeddahdiah sits in futuristic nursing home saying that Kane was a swine). The time slips of Kane at the breakfast table with his first wife Emily. Which begins with them not caring what people think, then years later Emily complains to Kane, “what will people think?” which he interrupts with: “what I tell them to think!”. 

Unacknowledged Pilgrims

Then there is Xanadu, an extraordinary production team effort that portrayed Kane’s monumental mountain home as an eerie crumbling ruin. Near the end the reporter’s journey through its cavernous spaces, passing Kane’s art collection piled up in hundreds of packing cases – their voices echoing as they go. They are of course the penultimate irony of the film; as we listen to them ponder the meaning of their unacknowledged pilgrimage to the shrine of the man who is their unrecognised patron saint. They and their kind were once paid by Kane and his kind to be sharp, relevant, and sensationalist - now they have nothing to say. The camera tracks dream-like through the packing cases – the art they contain could never be part of Kane’s life as he imagined -appreciation meant possession. Then as these images fade, the dark tones of Bernard Herrmann’s score bursts into life. The flames devour the rosebud sleigh; the symbol of Kane’s boyhood innocence turns to dust. A great ending to music composed by a Jewish immigrants’ son. 


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