Citizen Kane is a 1941 American drama film, directed by and starring Orson Welles. It was released by RKO Pictures, and was Welles’s first feature film. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories; it won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles. Citizen Kane has been voted the greatest film of all time in each of the last five Sight & Sound‘s polls of critics, and is particularly praised for its innovative cinematography, music and narrative structure.
The story is a film à clef that examines the life and legacy of Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, a character based in part upon the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, and aspects of Welles’s own life. Upon its release, Hearst prohibited mention of the film in any of his newspapers. Kane’s career in the publishing world is born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolves into a ruthless pursuit of power. Narrated principally through flashbacks, the story is revealed through the research of a newsreel reporter seeking to solve the mystery of the newspaper magnate’s dying word: “Rosebud.”
After his success in the theatre with his Mercury Players and his controversial 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, Welles was courted by Hollywood. He signed a contract with RKO Pictures in 1939. Unusual for an untried director, he was given the freedom to develop his own story and use his own cast and crew, and was given final cut privilege. Following two abortive attempts to get a project off the ground, he developed the screenplay of Citizen Kane with Herman Mankiewicz. Principal photography took place in 1940 and the film received its American release in 1941.
A critical success, Citizen Kane failed to recoup its costs at the box office. The film faded from view soon after but its reputation was restored, initially by French critics and more widely after its American revival in 1956. Many film critics consider Citizen Kane to be the greatest film ever made, which has led Roger Ebert to quip: “So it’s settled: Citizen Kane is the official greatest film of all time.” In addition to the Sight & Sound polls, it topped the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list and its 10th Anniversary Update.
The film was released on Blu-ray disc September 13, 2011, for a special 70th anniversary edition.
Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), an enormously wealthy media proprietor, has been living alone in Florida in his vast palatial estate Xanadu for the last years of his life, with a “No trespassing” sign on the gate. He dies in a bed while holding a snow globe and utters “Rosebud…”; the globe slips from his dying hand and smashes. Kane’s death then becomes sensational news around the world. Newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) tries to find out about Kane’s private life and, in particular, to discover the meaning behind his last word. The reporter interviews the great man’s friends and associates, and Kane’s story unfolds as a series of flashbacks. Thompson approaches Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), now an alcoholic who runs her own club, but she refuses to tell him anything. Thompson then goes to the private archive of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), a deceased banker who served as Kane’s guardian during his childhood and adolescence. It is through Thatcher’s written memoirs that Thompson learns about Kane’s childhood. Thompson then interviews Kane’s personal business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), Susan for a second time, and Kane’s butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) at Xanadu.
Flashbacks reveal that Kane’s childhood was spent in poverty in Colorado (his parents ran a boarding house), until the “world’s third largest gold mine” was discovered on the seemingly worthless property his mother had acquired. He is forced to leave his mother (Agnes Moorehead) when she sends him away to the East Coast of the U.S. to live with Thatcher, to be educated. After gaining full control over his possessions at the age of 25, Kane enters the newspaper business with sensationalized yellow journalism. He takes control of the newspaper, the New York Inquirer, and hires all the best journalists. His attempted rise to power is documented, including his manipulation of public opinion for the Spanish American War; his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a President’s niece; and his campaign for the office of governor of New York State, for which alternative newspaper headlines are created depending on the result.
Kane’s marriage disintegrates over the years, and he begins an affair with Susan Alexander. Both his wife and his opponent discover the affair, simultaneously ending his marriage and his political career. Kane marries his mistress, and forces her into an operatic career for which she has no talent or ambition. Kane finally allows her to abandon her singing career after she attempts suicide, but after a span of time spent in boredom and isolation in Xanadu, she ultimately leaves him.
Kane spends his last years building his vast estate and lives alone, interacting only with his staff. The butler recounts that Kane had said “Rosebud” after Susan left him, right after seeing a snow globe.
At Xanadu, Kane’s vast number of belongings are being catalogued, ranging from priceless works of art to worthless furniture. During this time, Thompson finds that he is unable to solve the mystery and concludes that “Rosebud” will forever remain an enigma. He theorizes that “Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost.” In the ending of the film, it is revealed to the audience that Rosebud was the name of the sled from Kane’s childhood – an allusion to the only time in his life when he was truly happy. The sled, thought to be junk, is burned and destroyed in a basement furnace by Xanadu’s departing staff.
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First Published: Apr 14, 2012 – Last Updated: Apr 11, 2013