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The Battles Behind Citizen Kane: How the World’s Most Famous Film Made it to the Screen



Critics and film-lovers the world over are united in believing that Citizen Kane is one of the finest movies ever made. Fewer people, however, are aware of the equally dramatic story of how the film was made and released. Citizen Kane is about the personal tragedy of a man who has everything and the story of Orson Welles bears a remarkable resemblance to it.

When Welles arrived in Hollywood at the end of the 1930s, the film industry was already suspicious about the twenty-something prodigy who had made a name for himself with his Mercury Theatre group. Dubbed “Little Orson Annie” by his jealous peers, Welles’ movie career began in inauspicious circumstances. Three scripts — an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, The Smiler with the Knife and Mexican Melodrama — all failed to make it into production and his first screen credit, for RKO, was for narrating The Swiss Family Robinson.

Then, in 1940, Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz began work on a script called American. They began shooting on July 22 of the same year after paring it down from its original 268 pages (enough for a four-and-a-half hour picture). The movie was shot amid great secrecy and Welles’ contract with RKO gave him total artistic control over the film, which was realeased as Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane

George Coulouris, Buddy Swan; rear: Harry Shannon, Agnes Moorehead

Rumours inevitably emerged about the subject of Welles’ debut feature and poisonous newspaper columnist Louella Parsons visited the set in August 1940 to investigate the whisper that it was about her boss, William Randolph Hearst (the Murdoch of his day). Explaining the film’s story, Welles told her, “When a man dies, there is a great difference of opinion about his character. I have everyone voice his side, and no two descriptions are alike.”

Parsons went away and wrote a favourable story, although the article was the genesis of another Citizen Kane battle. Co-writer Mankiewicz was peeved that Welles had claimed that he himself was the writer of the film and saw it as unnecessary ‘credit-grabbing’. This question over the authorship of Kane would rage for decades, with American critic Pauline Kael presenting the case for Mankiewicz’s influential involvement in the early 70s.

The Giants lock horns and the Fight goes public

Production finished on October 23 and in December Welles watched the final cut alone in a Los Angeles cinema, later claiming that this was the only time he ever saw Citizen Kane. With the film due to open on February 19, 1941, the first press show took place on January 3, and then the fun started.

On January 7 a magazine, Friday, ran an article comparing Citizen Kane with William Randolph Hearst’s life and a quote, allegedly from Welles, saying, “Wait until that woman [Louella Parsons] finds out that the picture’s about her boss.” She found out two days later, attending a screening with two lawyers. She left before the end, promising “the most beautiful lawsuit” if the film was released.

Although any legal action was unlikely to succeed, the Hearst papers wasted no time in running a series of smear stories about Orson Welles, RKO and studio head George Shaefer. Hearst organised lavish parties and excluded RKO employees and RKO reciprocated by hosting even more lavish affairs and banning Hearst’s journalists.

Citizen Kane

“William Randolph Hearst is conducting a series of brutal attacks on me in his newspapers,” Welles wrote at the time. “It seems he doesn’t like my picture Citizen Kane. I understand he hasn’t seen it. I am sure he hasn’t. If he had, I think he would agree with me that those who have advised him that ‘Kane’ is Hearst have done us both an injustice.”

George Shaefer had to face up to pressure from more than just Hearst. A group of movie moguls, led by Louis B Mayer, offered him $842,000 to destroy the Citizen Kane negative because they feared Hearst would take his revenge against the entire film industry. Thankfully, Shaefer stood by his 25-year-old director and the film finally opened on May 1 to a collection of unprecedented rave reviews.

Although it was named film of the year by the New York Film Critics, Citizen Kane was shunned at the Academy Awards (winning only for best screenplay) and was finally withdrawn a year after its release with estimated losses of $150,000. Welles’ status as the ‘boy wonder’ was lost, and insiders joked that he’d signed up for two more pictures at RKO: one not to be released in 1942 and another not to be shown in 1943. Only time would enable Welles to have the last laugh.