DVD: Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)

March 23, 2012 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Standard

Label: PBS / Warner Home Video/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: November 4, 2000

Genre: Documentary / Film History / TV

Synopsis:  Finely detailed documentary on the battling egos as media tycoon William Randolph Hearst attempts to stop the release of Orson Welles’ movie debut, “Citizen Kane,” in 1941.

Special Features: Text Bios




Originally broadcast as part of PBS’s The American Experience series, The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a rare example of a making-of documentary that goes far beyond the factual details of a film’s production.

Relying on several interviews and a wealth of archival materials, filmmakers Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon use Citizen Kane [M] to trace the collision between two fiercely independent figures that used controversy to further their careers, but eventually lost their glory and reputation among industry insiders, and the public.

William Randolph Hearst was a born into a privileged family and developed an early hunger to possess things very ornate and pretty, while Orson Welles’ lacked a childhood, but was highly praised in his artistic efforts to the point where the child, the youth, and the young man turned into a brilliantly talented egotist.

As Hearst found his calling as a media baron, mining real stories and fabricating details into shocking headlines to sell newspapers, Welles turned the stage on its end by mounting then audacious productions of contemporary and classic drama, sometimes transposing them to contemporary time periods, such as Macbeth repositioned in voodoo-steeped Haiti, and Julius Caesar in Nazi-dominated Nuremberg. Both men worked their staff to the bone, and when Welles turned to radio, his Halloween prank – a news-style broadcast of Martians invading the Earth in his infamous 1938 production of War of the Worlds [M] – Hollywood eventually took notice of the boy wonder, with RKO offering him an unheard of contract to make pictures with direction, writing, producing, and casting under his control.

RKO passed on Welles’ first two projects (including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), and to pundits and gossip columnists he was becoming a symbol of studio excess – monies wasted on an untried director (if not a young snot). Welles was eventually forced by time and a sense of professional honor to find some project before he was finished in Hollywood without having shot a single frame of film. The solution came from friend and veteran screenwriter / boozer Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had built up notes for a possible work on Hearst over a 20 year period. Welles loved the idea of satirizing a contemporary tycoon, and the project was eventually given the green light under Mankiewicz’s title “The American.” This marked the first step in making what many critics regard as the greatest film ever made, and the project that destroyed Welles’ chance at ever sustaining a lengthy career in Hollywood.

The parallels in the lives of Welles and Hearst are very striking, and it’s amusing to see the contradictions, particularly when eyewitness interviews present Welles as a more calculating scoundrel when news clips or Welles’ own on-camera testimony paints him as a kind of innocent soul who got lost in a whirlwind idea, be it the War of the Worlds shocker, or his treatment of the Mercury Theatre actors in live plays.

Welles does maintain a presence in the doc through vintage interview clips from 1982, but the filmmakers often focus on Welles’ rare introspective replies, where he shows regret, disappointment, and some humility for the more cruel in-jokes in Kane (Davies’ interest in puzzles, and the ‘rosebud’ moniker) which only worsened Davies’ image as an untalented, gold-digging actress working a career built by lover Hearst. Perhaps the most affecting moment has Welles theorizing he may have enjoyed a healthier career in radio, on the stage, or via prose works had he walked away from filmmaking after Kane and Ambersons.

Hearst’s professional and financial end was a natural conclusion to blowing a substantive personal fortune on whatever he liked, with price never being an issue, but when Kane was released, the tycoon had already achieved his greatest professional successes, and had lived a full life (a detail not interpolated into the Charles Foster Kane character). Welles enjoyed similar meteoric success during his twenties, but by 25 he was regarded by Hollywood as a kind of has-been; his name still drew crowds as an actor, but the few studio directorial efforts were compromised by editorial changes, and Welles’ own indie work often remained unfinished.

As compelling as Battle may be in documentary form, its facts and striking drama proved worthy of a docu-drama, hence the production of RKO 281 [M] (1996), the HBO TV movie based on Epstein and Lennon’s doc, which is also worth a peek (and is available separately or as part of Warner Home Video’s Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition on DVD and Blu-ray.

WHV’s mastering of Battle is very clean, and includes the original opening and closing credits from its American Masters broadcast. Among the interview subjects, Peter Bogdanovich also contributed a commentary track to WHV’s Kane release. Welles expert & film historian Richard France provides additional details in the doc, and George Romero fans will recognize the stentorian-voiced figure from his appearances in There’s Always Vanilla (1971), The Crazies (1973), and Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Michael Epstein’s other documentaries include Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood (1998) for American Masters, and Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (2004).



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


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