Classic Cinema Wednesday is a weekly spotlight review series focusing on a classic film from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood (roughly 1927-1960) that I have never seen prior to watching for this series. The goal of the project is to catch up on old films that I haven’t seen and have overlooked due to their age.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead
Director: Orson Welles
Writer(s): Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Genre(s): Drama, Mystery
Release Date: May 1, 1941
Running Time: 119 minutes
Citizen Kane is widely considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, and it’s certainly noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was the motion picture debut of Orson Welles, already a noted theater performer. Welles starred in, directed, produced, and co-wrote the movie, and as director he brought a number of innovative techniques to the film. The camera angles he used, the way he staged scenes, and the lighting, amongst other things, were all innovative. More importantly it all worked out well.
Any film fan would have heard tons of great things about Citizen Kane, but despite all that, it was a film I never cared to see. If I would have caught it on TV at some point I might have considered watching it, but I never did. Thankfully, Amazon Instant Prime has the movie available for free streaming (for Prime members) and I’ve finally been able to sit down and watch the “greatest movie ever made.”
Citizen Kane tells the story of the millionaire media mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) in flashbacks. The film begins with reporters trying to figure out the meaning of Kane’s last word: “Rosebud.” Yes, Kane is dead before the film begins and what we’re seeing are flashbacks of his life told by those who knew him as reporters dig through his past to decipher his last word. And what an ultimately miserable life it was.
Kane became wealthy and bought a newspaper and his media empire grew from there. He ended up becoming one of the richest and most powerful people in the world, and certainly in the United States. But his materialistic, greed and power driven world ultimately leaves him with nothing that truly matters.
He had political ambitions, but those fell through and ended up costing him his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick), who was the niece of the President of the United States. Kane married the singer, really a talentless one that was part of the scandal that thwarted his political ambition, Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore). Emily ultimately died in a car crash along with their son.
Kane builds an opera house and forces Susan to sing opera at it, even though it’s obvious to everyone including Susan that she’s bad at it. He even has his newspapers write positive reviews of the show. When he allows Susan to stop performing the opera, the two move into Xanadu, a massive estate with a castle that Kane was building in Florida. Susan eventually gets tired of the dominating, and sometimes violent, Kane and leaves him. Afterwards, Kane basically becomes a recluse in Xanadu and his media empire collapses. He dies alone, last uttering the word “Rosebud.”
The reporters never find out the meaning of the word “Rosebud,” but we viewers are able to walk away with at least a good guess as to the significance of the word. Kane was taken from his parents at an early age when his mother granted guardianship of him to the rich Walter Parks Thatcher. On the day he was taken away, he was riding a cheap sled with the tradename “Rosebud.” After his death, workers were in Xanadu throwing some of possessions into an incinerator. As we see at the end of the film, one of the items being burned is a sled with the word “Rosebud” on it.
I agree with many who view “Rosebud” as the symbol of dying man speaking the word of something from when life truly ended for him, in this case when he was taken away from his mother at a young age. Thus the death of his innocence and childhood with his mother, perhaps the only person he ever truly loved.
Is Citizen Kane the “greatest film ever made?” No, I don’t think so. It’s a very good film, great even, but not something I could watch again and again, over and over. The acting is mostly good; Orson Welles gave a fantastic performance as the title character in his first film (in a film career that would span decades) but other performances like Dorothy Comingore’s portrayal of Susan Kane were okay at best.
The directing and cinematography though is all top notch, and that’s saying something since this was really Welles’ directorial debut as well. The story is also a good one (not great), although its saved in the way that it is presented (I particularly enjoyed the beginning and the ending and the mystery of it all). I don’t usually care for movies made up of flashbacks, but in this instance I think the movie is all the better because of it.