“We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” – Garth and Wayne knee-bowing while meeting their idol, Alice Cooper, in “Wayne’s World” (1992)
Warning: This review contains spoilers
Likewise, I am not worthy! Or at least I didn’t think I was worthy of reviewing “Citizen Kane.” (1941). After all, what could I add to the 70+ years of thoughtful, critical reviews of arguably one of the most brilliantly made movies in the history of cinema?
But then again, in watching the movie for a third time, I realize I do have something to say from my own perspective that may not be replicated in any of those other reviews.
Citizen Kane is a black-and-white movie mystery filled with suspense – not in same vein as those “who dunnit” types, but a mystery to figure out who the enigmatic Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles) was as a man by following the history of his life in flashbacks. The intriguing opening of the movie begins at the end, where the elderly Kane takes his last breath, and in that moment utters the word “rosebud” as he drops a snow globe, encasing a snow-covered Colorado-like cabin, which then rolls down the stairs and shatters to signify his passing.
In a news-reel obituary which follows the opening sequence, the media reveals Kane’s life (“America’s Kubla Khan”) in retrospect, through: the extravagance of his home, Xanadu, with its art artifacts and private zoo filled with elephants and donkeys; his many material possessions, including newspapers, grocery stores, paper mills, apartment buildings, factories, forests, ocean liners, mines, etc…..; his two failed marriages and death of his only child; his near political greatness; his ability through his newspaper ownership to express his political proclivities and perhaps even affect that outcome of history (the Spanish American War and World War I).
He’s even called a “yellow journalist,” somewhere in the movie, perhaps meant as an insult in alignment with the National Inquirer or The Star. Kane turns his “Inquirer” from a hard-hitting newspaper to one that exploits scandal and popular opinion. But Kane also publishes “My Declaration of Principles” which promises to ‘tell all the news honestly” and provide his readership with a “fighting and tireless champion of their rights.” That’s a pretty big vow!
Today, with that advent and power of the internet, and its ability to produce near-instantaneous news and viral video, his newspaper dynasty would almost surely be obsolete. But in 1941, it was still very much alive, even though Kane was not.
After his passing, we follow the news media of the time, his former career comrades, in its quest to discover the meaning of “rosebud.” While pursuing the meaning of “rosebud,” reporters interview many of those closest to Kane throughout his life. They interview his closest, former friend, Jebediah Leland (played by Joseph Cotton), his ex-wife, Susan Alexander, and his former manager, Mr. Berstein.
It’s an elderly Leland who gives us a close-up glimpse into Kane’s psyche. This scene is reminiscent of the interview with the aged Salieri regarding the Mozart in the movie “Amadeus” (1984). Leland speaks of Kane in the same way that Salieri speaks of Mozart – they recognize the God-like, unearthly talents of both Kane and Mozart while chagrining at their overriding, prevalent and unmistakable human flaws. He says of Kane:
As far as I was concerned, he behaved like a swine. Not that he was ever brutal, he just did brutal things . . . I suppose he had some private sort of greatness, but he kept it to himself. He never gave himself away. He had a generous mind . . . but he never believed in anything except Charlie Kane. . . .
What makes Citizen Kane so brilliant, so praise worthy, so filled with critical accolades and written dissections? There’s much to rave about it. Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he directed, co-wrote and starred in this movie. Throughout the movie, Welles transforms from the 25-year-old Kane, to a man in his fifties and beaten down politically, socially and emotionally, to the elderly Kane who finally lets go. It’s a miraculous transformation – one that is completely and utterly attributable to the acting prowess of Orson Welles. It’s not just the actual physical, but also the emotional transformation of Kane, which is conveyed adeptly and keenly by Welles.
There’s a touching scene when Kane first meets Susan Alexander, and their relationship is purely innocent. They meet when Kane is already married, in mid life and well known, and Alexander is an aspiring ingénue. It must have been enticing to Kane that Alexander doesn’t appear to care about his notoriety. She’s no sycophant. When they go to her boarding house and are talking – as new acquaintances do – a close up of Welle’s face reveals wonderment and immediate growing feelings in his eyes and his facial expression for her. Genius!
Another example of Welle’s brilliance, this time directorial, is the scene in which we see the entire relationship between Kane and his first wife, Emily (played by Ruth Warrick). It all occurs at their dining room table in a time-lapsed sequence, and we become privy to the progression of their relationship through the years, from warm and loving while they are both young and early in the marriage, to suspect and cold as they age. The camera pans from Welles to Warrick continually throughout the scene as they grow older and exceedingly more distant emotionally from each other, and the table gets longer to symbolize this extending distance. Although this sequence takes place over a mere matter of minutes in the movie, we are given the entire extent of their relationship in that short time.
I love the way the actual film appears aged and haggard, with film age spots and vertical wrinkles, when purporting to show elderly news reels and segments in flashback.
Much has been made of the camera angles and cinematic advances, and certainly Welles deserves kudos for his direction, but for me, along with the acting, the writing is a chief perfection. The fact that the movie starts where Kane ends is in itself novel and intriguing, but then his life is revealed and unraveled like a parchment document being unrolled after disentangling the ribbon. Throughout the whole movie, through the writing, we are given essential insight into Kane’s character and drive. In one such crucial scene, an elderly Kane gives us his thoughts about himself:
I always gagged on that silver spoon. You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might’ve been a really great man.
Sheer brilliance! If Citizen Kane had been a novel instead of an original screenplay, my guess is that it would have still been a best seller. And it would probably still make a great Broadway play!
Much has also been made of the fact that this movie is a thinly-veiled portrait of real-life news magnet William Randolph Hearst, right down to comparisons between Hearst’s compound at San Simeon, California (“Xanadu” in Florida) and Hearst’s relationship with film siren Marion Davies ( Kane’s songstress/actress “Susan Alexander”) and Heart’s own political ambitions (like “Kane,” Hearst had his own political ambitions). However, taking that biographical element out of the mix, the movie stands on its own as a profound portrait of a man who is materially benefitted by personally adrift.
That brings me back to the word “rosebud.” The beginning of the movie actually gives a hint into what the word means. It’s not a children’s toy, nor is it an essence of what he missed out on, as many reviewers would have you believe. Roger Ebert describes “rosebud” as:
the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in “2001.” It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress.*
And reviewer James Brundage says of “rosebud”:
All I will say is this: that when you finally are greeted with Rosebud, you understand Kane. In the process of understanding Kane, you understand the thought of unhappy successful men: that they would give all of their fortune up for the one thing that makes them happy.**
These analyses are not so much wrong, or even inaccurate, as much as they are surface level and not in depth.
If you look very carefully at the pertinent scene in the beginning of the movie, “rosebud” is a failed weapon – as a small boy, Kane uses the sled in an attempt to hold at bay Mr. Thatcher from “The Bank” and the financially prosperous twist-o-fate trust fund so that he can stay with his parents and in the bucolic Colorado. In another scene dominated by financial men in their dark suits topped silver hair, an elderly Thatcher is reminded by a colleague about the time long ago, some fifty-seven-years before, when he first encountered the young Kane:
Is it not a fact that on this occasion that boy Charles Foster Kane personally attacked you after striking you in the stomach with a sled?
But the young Kane fails to stop Mr. Thatcher and the “trust,” and it is in that failure that he succumbs to his destiny. Kane then uses his newspaper empire to extract revenge, as identified by this introduction of Thatcher in the movie:
Walter P. Thatcher, grand old man of Wall Street, for years chief target of Kane paper’s attacks on trusts . . . .
Trust is an interesting word. It can refer to a “property interest held by one for the benefit of another,” but it can also mean “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”*** Clearly, Kane’s trust (as exemplified by the latter meaning) was breached, and he blamed Thatcher.
The movie, through the allusion to “rosebud,” begs the question: what if “rosebud” had succeeded in protecting the boy, not as a child’s sled, but as shield or a barrier or an obstacle? What then would Kane have become? Would Kane have needed the “No Trespassing” sign, which stood ominously in front of Xanadu in the very first scene of the movie, and was meant to keep anyone from ever getting close to him?
Mandatory viewing for those interested in cinematic history. Highly recommended for those who enjoy movies of substance with excellent acting and superb direction.
**James Brundage, http://www.filmcritic.com/reviews/1941/citizen-kane/
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