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Guest Blogger Ethan Katz Discusses Citizen Kane!

Below is a contribution from guest blogger Ethan Katz to our continuing series in which I asked several of my close friends and colleagues to name their Favorite Movie of All Time.

When I first saw Citizen Kane, I was only seven or eight years old, and I knew little more about the film than the fact that critics had repeatedly dubbed it “the greatest movie ever made,” and that it took its inspiration from the real life story of famed newspaper publisher and political figure William Randolph Hearst. For these reasons, I looked forward to the showing, but I soon found that much of the film’s brilliance and most of its references were lost on me. Yet twenty-some years and several more critical showings later, I have become deeply attached to the film and find that it continues to offer new insights, visually, cinematographically, historically, and even philosophically.

At the most basic level, Citizen Kane is a deeply American story, and in a sense a deeply tragic one. The parents, particularly the mother, of Charles Foster Kane, a talented and precocious young boy, decide that their inheritance of a gold mine offering tremendous wealth should cause them to send the boy to be raised by a Mr. Walter Thatcher, whose top hat and posh British accent immediately tell us that he is the very embodiment of East Coast elitism. After becoming master of his own wealth at age 25, Kane decides to enter the newspaper business. He soon builds the greatest newspaper empire on earth. During that time, however, he also evolves from a muckraking idealist into a publicity hound with boundless ambition. A love affair with Susan Alexander, a hapless “singer” (the mocking quotation marks are the film’s) destroys Kane’s first marriage and his political ambitions. Alexander, who becomes his second wife, leaves him when she grows weary of his self-centeredness and the utter isolation of their enormous and lavish castle, “Xanedu.” There, Kane dies, an isolated, sad man, imprisoned by his own wealth and his personal failings.

Part of what makes Citizen Kane such a powerful film is that it chooses to portray a famous man’s life not through a conventional narrative of his greatest deeds but through the eyes of those who knew him up close: his business associates, longtime friends, ex-lover, and others. Moreover, though made in 1941, it does so in what we now call “fractured time,” moving repeatedly between various phases of Kane’s life and personal relationships. Orson Welles, creator and star of the film, seems highly self-conscious of the cinematic and story-telling revolution that such methodology portends. In fact, at its outset, the film shows a quick, incomplete newsreel on the life of Kane. A reporter then embarks upon a quest to discover what “Rosebud” means, and is taken through the fragmented story of Kane’s life. Such juxtaposition contains a clear message: the life of a man, particularly one as grand and complicated as Charles Foster Kane, is not simple. It cannot be reduced to a single story or a linear, three-minute news narrative. Indeed, it is the insistent ambiguity of this character, at once larger-than-life and intensely human, by turns selfish and generous, honest and corrupt, thoughtless and sensitive, charming and repugnant, that draws us back into the story and leaves us with a different outlook at the conclusion of each viewing of Citizen Kane.

There are a few of many favorite scenes to which I’d like to draw our attention. First, early in the film, when Mr. Thatcher learns of the newly independent Kane’s decision to take over a newspaper, he reads to himself with disgust the line from Kane’s letter: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper. I think it would be fun to run a newspaper?!” This scene and the subsequent confrontation between Kane and Thatcher, in which the latter tells him he is losing a million dollars a year, and the former smugly replies, “yes, and at the rate of a million dollars, I’ll have to close this newspaper…in sixty years,” offer a classic example of the charm and allure of Kane’s character. Here, he appears to cast aside the elitism and lust for profit at the roots of his own privilege and education. Whether Welles knew it or not, biographies of William Randolph Hearst show that his own actual father had a rather similar reaction of horror and betrayal at his son’s early entry into journalism and the attacks launched by his newspapers against big business interests, including those of the elder Hearst.

The second scene I want to point out begins with a political rally where Kane is at the height of his meteoric political rise. He is giving a speech at a rally shortly before the gubernatorial election in New York. The governorship is perceived as a stepping-stone to the presidency. What strikes the viewer in this scene is that the enormous photograph of Kane, his towering voice, and the cheers of the crowd cast him as a larger-than-life figure. Yet his movements as a speaker are in fact awkward. He is not at ease on the public stage. He is not terribly charismatic. All of these features reflect the humanness of Welles’ extraordinary performance and depiction of the man. They also correspond to the reality of Hearst himself as a politican: talented and clever, but never entirely magnetic, comfortable, or compelling in the arena. Meanwhile, the profile of Jim Gettys (clearly inspired by longtime Hearst nemesis “Boss” Charles Murphy of Tammany Hall) stands in the upper-deck of the hall, waiting ominously to bring Kane’s political career crashing to a halt later that evening. This sequence climaxes with the end of Kane’s confrontation with Gettys, in which the publisher refuses to protect the honor of his wife and child (by withdrawing from the race instead of having news of his apparent affair with Alexander published). After his wife and child have left, Kane yells down the stairs after Gettys, “I’m Charles Foster Kane!” As the viewer watches Kane, visibly flustered and frustrated, he/she understands that the man has chosen ambition over his family, but that this scene only cemented a choice he gradually made over time; one also can infer that no matter how big he may be, Kane will be unable to stop Gettys’ story from destroying his prospects in the coming election. As on numerous occasions throughout the film, even as we may find the protagonist’s choice deeply unfortunate, we cannot help having sympathy for him.

One small final favorite scene. As a historian who has visited scores of archives with mixed levels of hospitality, I have particular appreciation for the moment when the journalist seeking to uncover the meaning of “Rosebud” enters an enormous room at the “Thatcher Library.” According to pre-established rules, he may only sit for two hours and look at a very select number of pages from Walter Thatcher’s diary. The librarian is visibly curt with him, and speaks in a manner that communicates a rather grand, if misplaced, sense of self-importance. The journalist gets something of the last word at his departure, however, as he communicates only one line, a subtle but telling dig: “Thanks for the use of the hall.”

Meanwhile, William Randolph Hearst’s life was at least as interesting as that suggested by his fictional portrayal. He did everything he could to keep this film from entering theatres, and its power suggests to us why. Yet Hearst’s greatest anger came from the movie’s depiction of Susan Alexander, based loosely on Marion Davies, the newspaper publisher’s longtime mistress. Davies was far more talented and successful than Alexander’s character (who had no musical ability and was repeatedly forced to continue her singing by Kane). Welles later admitted that he had made a mistake in this regard and said he had enormous respect for Davies’ acting ability.

Despite the inherent interest in the film’s relationship to Hearst’s life, I do not believe that that is its greatest achievement or legacy. Ultimately, I believe that what draws us back to Citizen Kane over and over is that it is not the story of a great man. It is the story of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional but highly compelling almost great man. It is about towering hopes and ambitions and the human frailties that so often run them aground. Each time that I watch the film, though I know the sad outcome of Kane’s life, a small part of me hopes the story might end differently this time. But then if did, the vulnerability, the tremendous humanness of the character, would be destroyed. And in the process, Citizen Kane would lose much of its greatness.

Ethan Katz earned his PhD in History from the University of Wisconsin with a dissertation on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in Modern France.  He is also an enormous Star Wars fan and a key member of the “It’s a Good Life Chug” at Camp Ramah in New England.

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