Citizen Kane

Good morning, class. 

Hopefully you were able to complete your Classic Hollywood 101 assignment. I'm guessing a lot of you watched Casablanca. And who can blame you?

This week we're going to do things a little bit differently. You can't really have a film history class without including the film most often considered the greatest film ever made, so this week your assignment is to watch Citizen Kane

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.


To talk about Citizen Kane, first you have to talk about Orson Welles

Citizen Kane was Welles' very first film. But before he even got to Hollywood, he was already a massive star. 

He got his start in plays, walking into a theater in Dublin and bluffing his way into a role. From there, he rose quickly through the ranks with equal parts bravado and talent, eventually directing productions for the Federal Theatre Project, a project made possible by FDR's New Deal. Welles took chances at every opportunity. His production of MacBeth set in Haiti with a black cast was a massive hit. They called it "Voodoo MacBeth", which is a very racist term, but that's how newspapers operated back then. 

Naturally, the Shakespeare traditionalists were not happy.  

Welles was 20 years old. 

His production of the political operetta The Cradle Will Rock met with budget cuts and when they were locked out of the theater on opening night, he walked the entire production down the street, a move that was basis for the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.

(This trailer is really bad)

At the same time, he was doing radio. And it's important to remember that radio was everything back then. It was TV and the internet combined. People really did sit around the radio at night and listen to their favorite shows. 

It was there that a young Orson Welles, struggling to gain a foothold against the radio powerhouses of the time, came up with the idea to do H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds as a news broadcast. 

People freaked out. It created a panic.

It sounds crazy in retrospect, but when you think of how many people get caught up in social media hoaxes, it kind of starts to make sense. 

Here's the entire broadcast. 

It was so newsworthy that Hitler even mentioned it in a speech. 

The best part about it is really his reaction after learning that people freaked out. 

At this point, he was 23 and he was a star. 

Naturally, Hollywood came calling. 

RKO gave him an unprecedented deal. Not only did Welles have Final Cut (the power to tell the studio he wouldn't make changes), but he had the power to not let anyone at the studio even watch the footage during production. It was unheard of.


He had the run of the place.  

He took footage from other RKO films and dragged it across the floor to age it. He ripped up floor boards. 

Welles had never been on a film set before and while he had ideas, he didn't know if they were possible. He'd watch movies and ask people in the crew how various things were done. He learned on the job. 

Welles hired Oscar winner Gregg Toland as his cinematographer. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Welles had someone who would find a way to make his ideas work and Toland had a director who would let him try things. 

I was calling for things only a beginner would have been ignorant enough to think anybody could ever do, and there he was, doing them. (Welles)

It's somewhat impossible that a situation like Citizen Kane ever happened. You need a scenario where film isn't already deeply ingrained in someone's head, where TV doesn't exist yet and an artist doesn't grow up with the moving image as an integral part of his or her DNA. Then you need them to have a track record of brilliance such that one of the top cinematographers in the world volunteers to work on their first film. Then you need that pairing to have complete artistic freedom AND a budget big enough to experiment. 

It really was a perfect storm. 

The video above mentions multiple times Toland's idea of " deep focus", where...

every part of a frame is clearly visible, the blocking within that frame must be exact and the filmmaker must figure out how direct the viewer’s attention when there is so much information within the frame. 

But that's not all! 

Toland and Welles broke a lot of rules. It was one of the first films to ever show a ceiling, using a muslin faux ceiling to hide microphones. Here's Toland: 

The Citizen Kane sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt that it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture. Furthermore, lighting effects in unceilinged rooms generally are not realistic because the illumination comes from unnatural angles. We planned most of our camera setups to take advantage of the ceilings, in some cases even building the sets so as to permit shooting upward from floor level. None of the sets was rigged for overhead lighting, although occasionally necessary backlighting was arranged by lifting a small section of the ceiling and using a light through the opening. The deep sets called for unusually penetrating lamps, and the twin-arc broadsides mentioned earlier filled the bill. The ceilings gave us another advantage in addition to realism — freedom from worry about microphone shadow, the bugaboo of all sound filming. We were able to place our mikes above the muslin ceiling, which allowed them to pick up sound but not to throw shadows.

They did fantastic things with shadows and light. 

There's special effects all over the place. Here's filmmaker William Friedkin ( The French Connection, The Exorcist )

“Somewhere between 50 to 80 percent of this movie is comprised of special effects shots,” Friedkin continues. “Optical printing, double exposures, miniatures, matte paintings. Welles experimented with the technical innovations that had emerged about a year or so before he made the film. He wanted the camera to move to an extreme close-up of the snow globe but the ball was too small. Linwood Dunn, inventor of the Acme-Dunn Optical Printer, had the idea to superimpose snow over the outside of the snow already falling in the ball, to cover the film grain and optically zoom in. It would have been a highly grainy shot, otherwise, and almost nothing in Kane is grainy.”

The one exception is the “March of Time” pastiche of newsreel footage Welles uses to lay out the broad details of Kane’s life. “They actually dragged that negative on the ground to degrade it and make it appear to be stock footage,” says Friedkin. The footage covers some 50 years of Kane’s life, showing his rise as a titan of yellow journalism, and then his fall into irrelevance and obscurity. Friedkin again responds to the energy, inspiration, and invention Welles brought to the film.

“These shots are so offhand that you believe you’re looking at a newsreel about a real person. And here’s an unusual shot for the day,” he points as a handheld camera with a long lens captures through a fence the elderly Kane being wheeled by a butler. “This sequence looks like it was shot by a hidden photographer without permission. Also, the makeup is totally believable, invented for this picture by Maurice Seiderman, who was a nonunion makeup artist sweeping the floors at RKO when Welles found him experimenting with pieces of latex for makeup, which is now common practice.” ( more)

Welles was 25.

The camera issues were nothing compared to the political ones. 

Welles based his film on William Randolph Hearst. The Hearst family was kind of a big deal in that time. Hearst ran for President in 1904 and later owned enough newspapers that 20 million people read them daily. Hearst was blamed for the Spanish-American War (hence the line in the film "You provide the prose poems; I'll provide the war.") Hearst controlled the news, he controlled everything. 

Naturally, that's who Welles decided to attack. 

Welles (and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz) created Charles Foster Kane, a mixture of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch but wholly inspired by Hearst. 

Donald Trump cites this as his favorite film, partly because he identifies so strongly with Charles Foster Kane. But, like everything else in life, he misunderstands it completely. Kane is not the hero. He's the villain. 

Life imitates art.

The film's central mystery revolves around the utterance of "Rosebud", which was allegedly Hearst's nickname for Marion Davies'...uh...woman parts. One of the unintended tragedies of the film is the damage that did to Davies' career. Or, to quote Welles: "she was an extraordinary woman—nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie."

In 1941, Hearst was one of the most powerful men in the world and he used every ounce of that power to try to kill Citizen Kane

It didn't work. 

When theaters wouldn't show it, Welles had RKO show it in tents. That hurt the box office, but it was still nominated for 9 Academy Awards. It won only 1, for Best Original Screenplay, a distinction sometimes referred to as "the Citizen Kane Award" for films that are too original and groundbreaking to win Best Picture. But probably Citizen Kane's greatest legacy is that an uber-powerful person who tried to kill it to protect his reputation (and the reputation of his mistress) is now almost entirely known as the subject of the film. 

Quick: name a Hearst paper.

The pen, it turns out, is mightier than the sword after all

But the pen can only do so much. 

Welles is largely credited with making the greatest film in the entire history of the art form, but he never got this sort of creative freedom again. The studio took his next film away from him and he spent the rest of his career hustling to make something else. The list of his unfinished films is staggering

We'll see him again, but eventually he got very fat and was reduced to doing commercials and appearances with the Muppets

His career is one of the great tragedies of cinema. 

This week's films

Obviously, the idea here is to watch Citizen Kane, but there's a couple of other things you can watch when you're done to learn even more. 

Citizen Kane
(1941 | Orson Welles)

Watch: HBO Max | Every library in the world

There's just so much more to this film that we haven't covered. 

If you have the chance, track down a DVD copy that has an audio commentary by Roger Ebert. 

This is an epic and a dramatic masterpiece and also a comedy and a technical and narrative breakthrough. It is everything you could ever want in a film 

The Battle Over Citizen Kane
(1995 | Epstein & Lennon)

Watch: Some DVD editions of Citizen Kane | Amazon DVD

This documentary about the making of Citizen Kane was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. You can find it on a lot of DVD releases of the film.

RKO 281
(1999 | Benjamin Ross)

Watch: Amazon (DVD)

This is pretty hard to find, but if you can track it down, it's a fun look at the making of Citizen Kane and the power struggle behind the scenes. 

After premiering on HBO, it received 13 Emmy nominations.

Drunk History

If you aren't familiar with Drunk History, you're in for a treat. 

The premise of the show is that people get drunk and narrate a story from history and that narration is acted out by actors. It's great.

For the Citizen Kane episode, John Lithgow plays William Randolph Hearst and Jack Black is Orson Welles. 

Coming Soon...

Next week is a dealer's choice where you can watch any other film from the list. So many choices!

Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.

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