I think it was a Sunday night back in 1998 when I fought tooth and nail to stay up late and watch the countdown of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies. At the age of twelve, I recognized less than a quarter of the list, but that three hour long battle over bedtime was my first introduction to many of the films I have recently gotten to know and love on this blog. The whole show led up to one film, that I would not see until nearly a decade later, Citizen Kane.
The film tells the story of a rich and powerful newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). Chronologically, it starts with his death, as we witness his last dying word, “Rosebud.” As the newsreel, summing up Kane’s life and legacy, is being wrapped up, reporter Thompson (William Alland) is sent to get another angle on the story and find out what “Rosebud” meant. This sends Thompson all over the country to meet Kane’s old friends, acquaintances and lovers, each of whom has another chapter of Kane’s personal life to reveal.
Orson Welles, who also wrote and directed the film, puts on an amazing performance showing Kane all through his adult life. At the young end of the spectrum, Kane is simply a more baby-faced Welles, who was only twenty-six when making the film. Here, Kane is cheeky, knowing he has enough money to do whatever he desires, and is full of ambitious energy to reinvent the whole newspaper industry. As Kane grows older, these energies are extended toward political office and searching for a woman to love him in return. By the time Kane and his second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) are residing in the Xanadu mansion, the man seems just as heartless and empty as his giant monument of a house. At this point, Welles has Kane never cracking a smile and walking stiffly about his empty, echoing chambers, like a Frankenstein monster. Welles was only nominated for best actor and director.
The amazing amount of creative energy Welles put into Citizen Kane is more deserving than the Oscar ceremony of 1941 showed. In fact, the film was a flop at the box office and was boo-ed at the Oscars every time one of its nominations was announced. The film was nominated for nine awards, but only won one, for best original screenplay. Losing so many awards to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, might have been more of an honor to young Welles, who greatly admired Ford’s work. But today, especially in the category of cinematography, we have so much more to admire from Welles’s Kane than Ford’s Valley.
Whole film is full of fantastic visual tricks. Welles’s direction made sure there was always something beautiful to see, even if we do not always realize how inventive it was. From the very beginning, with Xanadu growing closer and that light in the window always in the same place, we’re naturally drawn into the film (and Xanadu) by just the visual aspects. When the snow globe breaks and we see the nurse walk in, we are actually seeing the reflection off broken glass. This is only the first of many beautiful shots where Welles uses reflections in the film, some of which are quite inventive and meaningful.
I could go on for days on all the wonderful things about Citizen Kane, but a great way to sum it up is to remember that it is at the top of AFI’s list for a great reason. One thing I always end up thinking about for days after watching Citizen Kane, is what sort of legacy do we want to leave behind? The way we can be described in news reports, by old friends or just one word could all be very different stories. If only Kane had told someone about Rosebud.
“I suppose he had a private sort of greatness, but he kept it to himself.”