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.