‘Swell Welles’ Part II – Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, and RKO 281

March 18, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

Citizen Gulliver stands proudly above the small farming community he led prior to beginning his quest for global media domination.

Flipping back to the beginning of Orson Welles’ film career (minus Hearts of Age, his 1934 sophomoric short film effort), Citizen Kane [M] which as been called the greatest most awesome untouchably perfect supremely brilliant most genius creation ever-ever.

I say this in jest, but it is a conundrum for anyone presenting this at a screening, in class, in a documentary, on home video, or even discussing it in writing: how do you not bring up that ‘greatest ever’ branding?

The alternative is ‘Here’s a little known film made by the guy who used to advise us that Paul Masson’s wines are never sold prior to their time’ on TV, or got very angry during the taping of a frozen peas advert.

That Welles had to whore himself during the latter part of his career to fund his film ventures is a complete opposite of his debut: he got to make whatever he wanted (with studio approval), however he wanted (according to an approved budget), with whomever he wanted, and with director’s cut. It was the envy of every director, and RKO clearly used it to lure radio and stage’s hottest boy wonder to Hollywood, hoping he would work his magic for the silver screen.

Welles did, but as dramatized in the 1999 HBO TV movie, RKO 281 [M], he also sewed his downfall in Hollywood by taking on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in satirizing key parts of his life without naming Hearst directly. The 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane [M] nicely traces the links between facts and fiction, and one quickly realizes Welles, along with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, was a bit of shit-kicker for poking fun at a living icon, going as far as tying the mystical element in the film to Hearst’s pet name for his lover’s hoo-ha.

Perhaps the best present-day correlation to such audacity is Oliver Stone’s W. (2008), or Gabriel Range’s Death of a President (2006) – two films that dealt with the same sitting U.S. President; the former movie chronicled his struggle to achieve ersatz greatness under the shadow of his more Presidential father, George, Sr., and the latter dealt with the fictional assassination of George, Jr.

Outrageous, yes, and coincidental for targeting a figure as controversial as power-monger, ruthless businessman, and pompous tabloid journalist pioneer Hearst, but 1941 was different from 2012 insofar that the contract system was well in place, and the concept of directorial autonomy was anathema to the business ethos of the ruling movie moguls. Even director Alfred Hitchcock had to endure the incessant meddling of producer David O. Selznick on films like Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound, (1945) before his contract was up, and his name in America was an assured commodity, permitting him to go independent (well, for a blip) and make his own films.

The reason Kane is still very relevant to modern times goes beyond the film itself: it was made by a gifted artist who proved far ahead of his time that one could make good pictures without studio interference in script, editing, and casting. Welles’ proof may not have yielded any further carte blanche contracts with studios  – The Magnificent Ambersons [M] (1942) saw to that – but he did show it what was possible, allowing other creative forces to gamble with their own talents, be it Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Ida Lupino, or Stanley Kramer within the next 10-15 years, particularly with major distributors like United Artists, which became a haven and funnel for indie-minded directors and producer-stars.

Kane was made in an era when total vertical integration (studios controlling the production, distribution, and ownership of films and talent) and media outlets were held by a few – a monopoly that was shaken up during the next 10-15 years, but has ironically, reverted back to itself, with the exception of talent no longer indentured to 7-year studio contracts. The studios own the cinemas, and the studios themselves are owned by hardware manufacturers and media conglomerates.

History may not repeat itself, but chunks recur because power and control are mandatory to corporate success, which is why the saga of an egotistical newspaper baron is no different than an egotistical media mogul.

It’s not hard to find parallels between Hearst and Rupert Murdoch, in terms of one man’s ideology attracting like-minded to man his news feeds in print and digital, but Hearst is more classical in the sense he behaved like a Lord, lost touch with changes in business, and blew his personal fortune on art treasures, homes, and the constant additions to his personal kingdom, San Simeon.

Murdoch is savvy, a street fighter, and smartly recognized the value of his media ventures; Hearst’s name is perhaps known – if at all today – for the media publications and his private castle that’s been a tourist attraction for decades, whereas Murdoch will live on as the man who transformed Fox from an aging studio to a media giant. He may be the closest we have to a classic media mogul, since he’s remained at the top of his corporate empire from the beginning.

Did I like Citizen Kane the first time I saw it? Sort of. I found it slow, and perhaps being an impressionable snot, figured it had to be a great film because everyone kept saying so.

In truth, Kane is superb, but like many of Welles’ films – or those of any auteur director – the personality of its maker is in the writing, the look, the sound, and in particular the pacing of his / her work, and Welles can be slow. He’s not an action or suspense director; his works are the cinematic expansions of the reconfigured radio dramas of his youth, with an experimental edge that buckled convention right to his final completed work, F for Fake (1973).

In seeing Kane, you’ll experience the work of a unique picture maker, but to understand his impact on the medium and the results of a vagabond life, popping up in derivative fodder to fund films he’d rarely complete, you have to see much more of his work, and luckily he did indeed direct more films than the woe-is-he line we reviewers are leading you to believe.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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