- I. Introduction
“Our film tonight is about two colossal Americans on a collision course. It’s about the sparks given off by oversized egos holding forth in center stage in American life. It’s also about the often blurred, confusing boundary between reality and illusion in American life.” – David McCullough, opening sequence
“This is the story of the battle over Citizen Kane –a fight so fierce that the movie was almost destroyed before the public ever got a chance to see it. The most powerful men in Hollywood tried to buy this film and burn every print.”
I love history. In high school, I took a two-year course in the American Civil War taught by my keen high school teacher, Hack Ramseyer. I hold both a history and art history minor from my undergraduate career. Perhaps that is why I am forever drawn to documentaries. And this documentary, made in 1988, does not fail to hold my interest.
The Battle Over Citizen Kane begins with a brief initial snippet into the importance of two American super-egos -William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles – then delves into the details of their lives through news clips, interviews and film reels. Although the documentary swings liberally back-and-forth between the backgrounds of Hearst and Welles, I will review it in a much more linear fashion.
II. Background – William Randolph Hearst
We are told in the beginning that Hearst “adored sensation” and “lurid detail;” he was a media mogul owning an empire of newspapers, and as a result, was one of the richest men in America at the time. He was described as both a god and a tyrant.
Hearst’s father, George Hearst, built “one of the greatest mining fortunes in the West,” hence the correlation to Charles Foster Kane’s wealth as the result of a mining deed left to his mother. Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, was devoted to her only son, according to the film. As a ten-year-old, Hearst toured Europe, and as a result gained a desire for the finer things in life.
While failing out of Harvard (as Kane was also kicked out of many ivy league schools), Hearst took over a San Francisco newspaper that his father owned – The San Francisco “Examiner.” He used the “Examiner” to go after his enemies, including the Southern Pacific Railroad and its executives, as Kane used his to go after Mr. Thatcher and those trusts. Hearst’s newspaper was geared toward the poor and the working class, as was the “Inquirer” in Citizen Kane (remember Kane’s Declarations to his readers? See my review of Citizen Kane). Hearst would report on the news, and sometimes, in a more manipulative vein, make the news by staging incidents. His staff at the “Inquirer” called themselves the “wrecking crew, ” perhaps appropriate for a football team, but scary when thought of as employees of the news media.
“His power in Hollywood came from all of the media outlets he controlled.” His home in the California hills, named San Simeon, was “the gathering place” for Hollywood acting elite and studio brass alike.” If a star did not attend a lunch with Hearst representatives, Hearst would stop reporting on them in his newspaper, effectively attempting to cut off their stream of popularity and mass appeal.
Now that’s power, or at least, perceived power. Sometimes perceived power is more potent, if you can make people believe that you can crush them with a single line of ink.
In 1895, Hearst moved his operation to New York to compete with the likes of Joseph Pulizer and his “New York World.” Like Kane, he bought the best editors and writers from his competition. It’s little wonder, then, that Hearst had enemies. Like Kane, Hearst ran for office, but Hearst actually won, and served two terms in Congress, but rarely showed up for roll call. However, the rest of his political aspirations and ambitions ended in failure.
Hearst’s great love was not his wife, to whom he remained married until his death – it was Marion Davies, a self proclaimed “gold digger” who was 35 years Hearst’s junior and the basis for the character Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Davies was by all accounts popular and fun, and Hearst made her famous by featuring her in his many newspapers.
Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane, had been a guest at San Simeon, and tagged the infamous sled “Rosebud” after a known inside joke:
Rosebud (was) the secret word which they (Mankiewicz and Welles) claimed was Hearst’s pet name for Marion’s private parts.”
Being an ego maniac can have its disadvantages. Purportedly, Hearst overspent, as he had eight houses and warehouses filled with valuable and expensive art and other treasures. At San Simeon, he had “the largest private zoo in the world,” just as Kane had the same type of zoo. Hearst “became a symbol of all that was hateful about the rich.” After the stock market crash and during the Depression, his empire went through its own chaos, and, coupled with FDR’s new tax on the rich, Hearst filed bankruptcy at some point. His antiques and newspapers were auctioned off. But he still had money, friends, power and a narcissistic drive to enforce his power in 1941
III. Background – Orson Welles
Orson Welles was raised as a “genius in his own home;” however his early life was extremely tough. His parents separated when he was 6; his mother died when he was 9; and his father died when he was 15. What the documentary fails to explain is that Welles, like Hearst, was born into affluence. Despite his rocky childhood, his father was an inventor and his mother was a concert pianist.* This helps explain Welles’ proclivity for the arts and his inventive, creative mind.
He went to boarding school and was raised as a “prodigy.” He was even offered a scholarship to Harvard, which he turned down. I wonder what it would feel like if everyone around you told you how marvelous you were all the time, as was Welle’s childhood experience. The documentary provides a clip of an elderly Welles in 1982 discussing his (ego) “spoiled” childhood filled with narcissistic-boosting praise.
He arrived in New York as a teen and was like the Madonna of the 1930s – “he meant to shock.” “His career was built on controversy.” This explains why he felt he could take on Hearst with Citizen Kane. He directed plays in Harlem, such as staging an innovative “voodoo MacBeth” set in Haiti, as a part of the Federal Theater Project for the W.P.A. . Welles was described later by elderly actors as demanding and tyrant-like, but the “voodoo MacBeth” was a success. He was also a success on radio and did a myriad of voices, such as the “Shadow.” He formed his own company, the Mercury Theater, which staged plays and also did radio shows.
At 23 years old, Welles was celebrated for his outrageously innovative “Julius Ceasar” on stage. My review of “Me and Orson Welles” (2008) provides analysis of a fictional account of that Shakespearan success.
Welles was 24-year-old prodigy in 1939 when RKO Pictures gave him a contract and the keys to kingdom (“Complete script control, director control, producer control, cast control . . . everything. . . no questions asked,” stated an elderly William Alland, actor, Citizen Kane ) even though he had never made a movie. He had, however, his first successes in radio, with such notable programs as 1938’s “War of the Worlds” which flipped out some Americans who thought a real alien invasion was occurring. Now that’s a powerful imagination and radio presence.
It was this 24 year old who set out to take on a very powerful and connected 76-year-old Hearst by telling latter’s story as a thinly-veiled work of fiction.
IV. Hearst’s Failure to Crush Citizen Kane
For some reason, Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane, gave a copy of the script to Charles Lederer, a San Simeon friend and nephew of Marion Davies. Big mistake, as it apparently got into the hands of Hearst. Through Louella Parsons, a well-known gossip columnist for Hearst papers, Hearst threatened RKO Pictures with “a beautiful lawsuit” in order to block the release of Citizen Kane.
When that didn’t work, Louis B. Mayer (after meeting with other movie moguls) offered $800,000 to buy the movie’s negative in order to burn it and squash the movie. Had Mayer and other heads of movie companies been subtly (or even obviously) threatened of having their private lives exposed in Hearst papers?
While RKO postponed the movie’s opening, stock holders of RKO met in New York City to decide the fate of the movie. Welles showed up at that meeting and gave a rousing speech illuminating Free Speech, and he won over the stockholders. The movie would be released. But channels of distribution blocked mass release of the movie nationwide. Hearst newspapers refused to mention or advertise the movie in anyway, but they did brand Welles a “communist.” Even the FBI got involved as they followed Welles’ tail.
For all his power, money and privilege, Hearst could not stop the opening of Citizen Kane. Perhaps this represents his single greatest failure in life.
“Neither man would survive the battle over Citizen Kane.”
“There is only one winner in the story of Citizen Kane, and that’s the film which couldn’t be killed.”
Both Hearst and Welles may have suffered; however, Welles bore the greater burden from the fallout surrounding Citizen Kane. Hearst was already 76 at the time of their initial clash. His star was already falling and his reputation had already been damaged even before the release of Citizen Kane. He died in 1951 at the age of 88.
Welles, meanwhile, was just 24 when he made the movie, and his second picture, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was yanked from his control. Welles period of “phenomenal success” peaked at the age of 25. He died in 1985 at 70 years old, the same age as Charles Foster Kane at his death in the movie, although Welles struggled creatively and financially for the rest of his life.
This documentary is definitely mandatory for Citizen Kane aficionados and history buffs alike. Its style (going back and forth between different historical figures and weaving together their stories) lays the seeds for greater progress in the later documentaries by Ken Burns. I believe that one should watch this documentary, either immediately prior to, or immediately after, viewing Citizen Kane, as it explains so much about the movie.
Copyright© 2012 by Brenda L. Hardy. All rights reserved. The material contained within these pages is the sole property of Brenda L. Hardy. All rights to copy, reproduce, publish or alter this material in any way are reserved. Reproduction of any kind is expressly prohibited without prior written consent.