Tag Archives: Citizen Kane

The A-Z of Kane

As a new print of the film generally regarded as the greatest ever made is released, here’s my guide to the Orson Welles masterwork.

A-Z of Citizen Kane

A is for the American Film Institute which, in 2007, voted Citizen Kane the Greatest Movie of All Time – as it had also done in 1998.

B is for Boy Wonder, the nickname given to stage and radio star Orson Welles even before he made Citizen Kane (1941).

C is for ceilings. One of the innovations of Citizen Kane was the way in which the domineering title character was always shot from below, so that his power was always underlined (weaker characters were shot from above) – the result was that the ceilings of rooms were seen for the first time in the movies; in fact this was the first time the sets had had to have ceilings..

D is for debuts. Citizen Kane would have been a phenomenal achievement no matter who had made it but the fact that it was Welles’s debut as a movie director (and actor and producer) is astounding. He had to learn even the basics of filmmaking while he preparing Kane. Despite this – or perhaps because of his lack of technical experience and willingness to experiment – Welles subverted the rules of filmmaking and created a new vocabulary in the language of cinema.

E is for the end. Citizen Kane opens with the end of Kane’s story – his death – and then goes back to his humble beginnings.

F is for flashbacks. The story of Kane’s life is told through a series of flashbacks triggered by a newspaper reporter’s interviews with the tycoon’s former colleagues, ex-wife and friends.

G is for Gregg Toland, the cinematographer hired by Welles because of his flamboyance and unconventional style. One of Kane’s many innovations was “depth of field”, the method Toland devised of composing shots so that the screen was loaded with information and the figures and objects at the front of the screen were in focus at the same time as those at the back.

H is for Hearst, William Randolph – the American press baron who inspired the character and story of Citizen Kane. The film was essentially a thinly veiled biopic, which showed how power corrupted and how great egos are born – and grow out of control. Before the film was released, Hearst offered RKO Studios $800,000 (the cost of the film) to destroy the negative.

I is for innovation. Citizen Kane is packed full of new techniques, from the pioneering use of overlapping dialogue (which Welles brought from radio) to the ahead-of-its-time make-up which allowed the young star to convincingly age by 50 years during the course of the film.

J is for Judy Holliday. The scenes in which Susan Alexander is being bullied by Kane into being an opera singer are similar to those in the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, in which a gangster tries to turn his moll into a refined lady. By coincidence, Judy Holliday, that movie’s Oscar-winning star, was tested for the part of Susan in Citizen Kane.

K is for “King” Cole. The great pianist (and singer) Nat “King” Cole can be heard playing in the scene at the El Rancho nightclub where Susan is working.

L is for legacy. Citizen Kane stands as an astonishingly fresh piece of work nearly 70 years after it was made, and it has inspired countless filmmakers, among them Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg who pays homage to it in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

M is for Mercury Theatre, the stage company that Welles founded with John Houseman in New York in 1937. Known for its bold, original productions, Mercury Theatre branched out into radio drama – most famously its vivid 1938 dramatisation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which, although broadcast as a Hallowe’en prank, caused a nationwide panic as thousands of Americans believed they were listening to news coverage of a real-life alien invasion.

N is for Neverland. Michael Jackson’s vast estate – a sort of mini-kingdom – is the closest modern-day equivalent to Kane’s Xanadu, where he stored and showed off “the loot of the world” – the art work, architecture and animals he collected from across the globe. The gothic Xanadu was inspired by Hearst’s gargantuan castle San Simeon which was stuffed with antiques and art and had its own zoo.

O is for Only One Oscar. Yup, The Greatest Film of All Time won only one Academy Award – for the screenplay written by Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz. In 2003, Welles’s statuette was about to be sold in an auction at Christie’s in New York (by Welles’s youngest daughter) but was voluntarily withdrawn so that the Academy could buy it back for $1, a deal which all Oscar winners have to agree to. It had been expected to fetch over $300,000.

P is for Parsons. Louella O Parsons was the Hearst newspaper group’s Hollywood gossip columnist who could make or break careers. When she heard that Welles’s film was really about her boss, she demanded to be shown it – and blew a gasket. It was her report to Hearst which triggered his pre-emptive strike of banning advertisements for the film from his papers, a move which led some cinema chains to cancel their bookings.

Q is for the QT. Several key scenes in Citizen Kane were filmed on the quiet, behind closed doors, so that studio executives couldn’t interfere with the production. The projection room scene, plus the interviews, were passed off as tests but Welles fully intended to use them in the movie – and he did.

R is for “rosebud”, the last word uttered by Kane as he dies in the opening scenes of the film. It is the quest to discover what “rosebud” was that drives the whole film as a reporter is assigned the job of getting to the bottom of the mystery by interviewing as many of Kane’s friends and associates as necessary.

S is for score. Bernard Herrmann’s evocative score – his first feature film score – contributed much to the sinister atmosphere of the film. He went on to compose the music for such diverse classics as The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Taxi Driver (1976).

T is for twenty-four, the age Welles was when he was making “the greatest film ever made”.

U is for unorthodox. A particularly unusual technique was devised by editor Robert Wise (later the director of The Sound of Music) to make the newsreel footage at the start of the film look authentic and grainy: he ran the film through cheesecloth filled with sand.

V is for vendetta. Hearst’s papers conducted a smear campaign against Welles in revenge for Citizen Kane; one rumour which circulated was that Welles was a communist.

W is for “will-they-won’t-they?”. The release of the film very nearly didn’t happen as RKO’s board buckled under pressure not just from Hearst but also from other studio heads, who felt the controversy would damage the industry. Finally, three months after its original scheduled release date, it opened in New York – the result of Welles pointing out to the studio that his contract gave him the right to sue if the film wasn’t shown within a certain period of time.

X is for x-tras. These included Alan Ladd (who would become a leading man the following year) as the pipe-smoking reporter at the end of the film.

Y is for years. The story of Citizen Kane spans an epic 65 years, from his childhood when he was sent to live in the care of the family lawyer, to his death as an isolated old man. For 50 of those years, Kane was played by Orson Welles.

Z is for the Ziegfeld Follies, the show in which William Randolph Hearst’s much-younger mistress, Marion Davies, was appearing when they first met. Hearst’s relationship with Davies differed from that of Kane and Susan Alexander in the movie in a few ways: although Hearst undoubtedly got Davies into movies, she was actually an accomplished comedienne, whereas her fictional alter ego was a pretty lousy opera singer. And while Susan marries and divorces Kane, Davies, whose movie career made her independently wealthy, remained devoted to her man (though they never married) until his death.
* A new print of Citizen Kane is showing at the GFT, Glasgow from October 30 until Thursday 5, and at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh from October 30 until Sunday 8.

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Hollywood’s Renaissance Man

Today’s Hollywood comedies are a lacklustre lot. If they’re not completely puerile and catering to the lowest common denominator, then they’re saccharine sweet and ultimately as unsatisfying as a quick sugar hit. Anyone looking for snappy, intelligent dialogue and interesting characters with more to them than good looks and a permanently youthful appearance either has to wait for the next Coen Brothers movie or check out the work of one of the greatest exponents of the comedy genre: Preston Sturges.
 
Sturges, who died exactly 50 years ago, produced movie comedies which have not only stood the test of time, but have also influenced generations of writers and filmmakers, of whom the Coen Brothers are the most overt examples. During a flurry of intense creative activity in the early 1940s, Sturges, a maverick character with an insatiable lust for life, made a string of unforgettable films which quickly established him as the master of comedy in much the same way as Hitchcock was the master of suspense.
 
The sexy screwball comedy of The Lady Eve, the high-octane hilarity of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Palm Beach Story, and the poignant tragi-comedy of both Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero, all helped to make Sturges a familiar name to wartime cinemagoers. At the height of his success, he was Paramount’s top director. More importantly, he was Hollywood’s first writer-director, paving the way for the likes of the better-remembered Billy Wilder.
 
But his determination to have complete control over his work led to a falling-out with his home studio. In just a few years, he went from being Hollywood’s boy wonder to being one of its forgotten men.
 
So who was this pioneering filmmaker – and where did his genius come from? Of Sturges’s achievements, filmmaking was only one on an incredible list which also included perfecting a kiss-proof lipstick, owning and running two restaurants, penning pop songs and Broadway plays, and inventing a silent engine. He was, as the French director Rene Clair, observed: “like a man from the Italian Renaissance, wanting to do everything at once”.
 
The greatest single influence on the young Sturges was his mother, Mary Biden, who married his father in 1897 and spent the duration of the marriage trying to get rid of him. Sturges later said: “Mr Biden never sounded like much of a husband to me, but it must be remembered that he was one of Mother’s very first ones, and like the celebrated Mrs Simpson, she did better later.”
 
Sturges was born in 1898, and in 1901 Mary married Solomon Sturges, an eminent Chicago financier. Even after her marriage, she spent much of her time in Europe with her new friend, the dancer Isadora Duncan who persuaded her to dress in Grecian robes. Sturges later wrote: “When I look back at what I was exposed to as a child, I realise how extraordinarily lucky I was never to have become a male interpretative dancer with a wreath of gold leaves around my head.”
 
Sturges claimed to have had a bellyful of culture in his childhood, but his bohemian upbringing had a profound effect on his filmmaking style. His films blended European sophistication with snazzy American dialogue and humour, and were populated by the kind of oddballs that his mother so readily attracted.
 
The young Sturges tried various careers and although brilliant at whatever he did, he was always restless. In an interview with four years ago, his widow, Sandy, told me: “He read a book entitled Two Lifetimes in One – or How Never to be Tired, and he said that it had changed his life. He said that to rid your body of fatigue and restore your vivacity, you just need to lie down for 15 minutes in total peace and quiet.”
 
In 1928, Sturges read a tome entitled A Study of the Drama, and realised he had found his vocation. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was written in just six days but became a long-running Broadway hit. Brought to Hollywood in 1932, he wrote an original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, based on stories told to him by his second wife, socialite Eleanor Hutton, about her ruthless tycoon grandfather. But Sturges was not happy with the resulting film, and decided that he had to get into the “directing racket” himself.
 
Over the next six years, while he freelanced as a screenwriter, his frustration increased. Finally, in 1940, he made Paramount an offer they couldn’t refuse: the script for The Biography of a Bum for $1, provided they let him direct it. Retitled The Great McGinty, it was the first film to have the credit “written and directed by” and it won Sturges the first Oscar in the newly created category of Best Original Screenplay. A box office smash, it is said to have influenced aspects of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and it confirmed Sturges’s theory that “good dialogue is the cheapest insurance a producer can buy”.
 
With the 1941 screwball romance The Lady Eve, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as a sexy cardshark who first cons and then falls in love with goofy Henry Fonda, Sturges established himself as the king of comedy. He was to the movies of the 1940s what Woody Allen was to 1980s films or what the Coen Brothers are to today’s: a unique, almost self-contained operation with his own stock company of memorable character actors.
 
The movie which earned Sturges the genius tag was Odyssey-like Sullivan’s Travels which he wrote to demonstrate that “there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh”. Strikingly original, it moved gracefully between knockabout slapstick and stark realism, between raucous badinage and poetic philosophising, between scenes of life-affirming laughter and those of human suffering. Unusually long sequences free of dialogue but full of visual eloquence, blend into scenes which feature some of the fastest exchanges of the screwball era. It catapulted Veronica Lake to stardom and revealed Joel McCrea’s hitherto untapped flair for comedy – a discovery which he attributed solely to Sturges’s dialogue and direction. It is without doubt a masterpiece.
 
In 1944, Sturges tested the loyalty of his studio and courted controversy with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The story of a small-town girl who falls pregnant to a GI, it brilliantly blended slapstick with pathos. Sturges managed to get this ahead-of-its-time movie past the censors to give Paramount another hit.
 
Sturges’s reign as the king of comedy ended later that year with Hail the Conquering Hero, a satire which summed up many of his thoughts about patriotism and the public’s readiness to accept anything at face value – a recurring theme in his movies. By the time the film was playing in cinemas, Sturges had fallen out with Paramount over its apparent lack of faith in his 1943 drama The Great Moment.
 
By 1959, Sturges had finally found happiness in his private life, with a fourth wife and their two young sons. He was offered a huge advance to begin work on his autobiography provisionally entitled The Events Leading Up to My Death.
 
On August 6, 1959 Sturges wrote: “These ruminations, and the beer and coleslaw that I washed down while dictating them, are giving me a bad case of indigestion. Over the years, though, I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak it.” With typical Sturges irony, croaking it was exactly what he did.
 

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