Citizen Kane's legacy is notorious, legendary

Updated on Nov 26, 2011 11:37 PM IST

Why Orson Welles' hit enraged newspaper tycoon William Hearst

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None | ByPeter Rainer

So much has been written about Orson Welles the boy genius and the making of Citizen Kane that the film itself is sometimes treated as an afterthought. Watching it again - I've seen it at least a dozen times over the years - reminded me of just how electrifying it is.

William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who was the inspiration for Welles' Charles Foster Kane, wasn't such a big fan. When he got wind of what Welles had done, he tried to kill the movie.

At first, Hearst papers were forbidden to mention the film. Later, they went into attack mode. There were insinuations that Welles was a Communist and a homosexual. The FBI prepared a thick dossier. Theatre owners were afraid to show the film and newspapers were afraid to advertise it.

When Citizen Kane opened on May 1, 1941, at the Palace Theatre in New York, it caused a sensation. That was no problem for the 25-year-old Welles, who loved attention and controversy.

As a young theatre director, he had staged an all-black Macbeth and a Julius Caesar that mimicked the look of Hitler's Nuremberg rallies. His radio dramatisation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds in 1938 triggered widespread panic by listeners who thought the Martian invasion was real.

Why was Hearst so angry with Welles and his co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz? An answer can be found in the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane which first aired on public television. It is included as an anniversary-edition extra in a beautifully restored, three-disc edition which Warner Home Video has issued to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Citizen Kane. It is available in both DVD and Blu-ray.

According to the documentary, Hearst was infuriated by the unflattering portrait of Kane's second wife, a character based on the publisher's longtime mistress Marion Davies.

"Rosebud," the nickname for Kane's boyhood sled and the Freudian key that unlocks his psyche, was supposedly Hearst's pet name for Davies' genitals.

No wonder the guy flipped out.

Part of the legend of Citizen Kane is that its notoriety and lacklustre ticket sales started Welles' downfall. Eventually exiled by Hollywood, Welles spent much of his life foraging for money to make movies and acting in dreadful films.

There were exceptions, of course, such as his unforgettable performance as the elusive criminal Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man and his portrayal of the sermon-spouting Father Mapple in John Huston's Moby Dick.

In a 1982 interview, three years before he died, Welles admitted: "I spent 2% of my time directing movies and 98% of my time hustling to make them. That's no way to spend a life." Still, Welles left behind a great legacy.

His second film, the The Magnificent Ambersons, is arguably even better than Citizen Kane, and Touch of Evil is one of the finest thrillers ever made. He also directed and starred in two magnificent Shakespeare adaptations, Othello and Chimes at Midnight.

Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

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