Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 15: Citizen Kane (1941)


Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Citizen Kane (1941) is referenced in Life Itself: Although Roger Ebert had for a time cited Citizen Kane as his all-time favorite film in other writings, the film is only mentioned in passing in his autobiography. On page 108 of the first edition hardback, Roger recalls a buxom woman he lusted after on his first trip to Hollywood as a young college student & likened her to a character in the film. On page 281, he notes that Orson Welles “allegedly watched [John] Ford’s Stagecoach one hundred times before directing Citizen Kane” as an illustrative anecdote about how directors learn from past works. In the film version of Life Itself, it’s mentioned that Citizen Kane was one of the films featured at Roger’s annual Cinema Interruptus lecture series at the Conference on World Affairs. The film is one of the most often-mentioned titles in Life Itself, but it is never addressed directly or at length.

What Ebert had to say in his review: “It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. ‘Citizen Kane’ is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as ‘Birth of a Nation’ assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and ‘2001’ pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others.” -from his 1998 review for his Great Movies series.


“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might’ve been a really great man . . .”

Citizen Kane failed to make back its production budget at the box office. Each time the title was announced at the Academy Awards in 1942 it was audibly booed. Although its writer/director/producer/star Orson Welles eventually did take home an Oscar for his screenwriting (one sole win for the film’s nine nominations), the movie studio he was signed to weaseled out of a contract that would allow him similar creative control on future projects. Audiences & critics alike were downright hostile to Welles’s first feature film. For at least a decade, Citizen Kane was considered a “bad movie”, a failure, and thanks to a smear campaign for an infuriated newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (whose life the film not so subtly mines for both drama & humor), a legal liability. Orson Welles gave the world one of the greatest films ever made and it effectively ruined his career.

Looking back at Citizen Kane‘s struggles for legitimacy is entirely unreal in a modern context. The film might’ve forever laid dormant in cinematic purgatory had its studio, RKO, not licensed large chunks of its library for television broadcast in the 1950s. It took over a decade for Citizen Kane to be reborn as a television mainstay & to reignite conversation over its merits as a work of art. In those intervening years the film had silently changed the industry, telegraphing a wealth of technical change that was to become standard in its wake, but obviously sat wrong with people at the time of its release. Critic noticed the sea change in the mean time and the loudest folks in the room, voices like Pauline Kael’s, began to point to its visual accomplishments & ruthless sense of style as a new watermark for the medium. Roger Ebert once called the movie “the greatest film ever made,” going on to say, “People don’t’ always ask about the greatest film. They ask, ‘What was your favorite movie? Again I always answer with Citizen Kane.” However, at a later time he confessed, “I found it easy to reply ‘Citizen Kane,’ hoping that my questioner’s eyes would glaze over and I could avoid a debate,” a comment on the ubiquity of its accolade as “the greatest film of all time.” It’s difficult to think of a film that’s experienced that drastic of a critical turnaround except for maybe Peeping Tom or its American cousin Psycho, and even those works are still sometimes considered to be on the wrong side of the trash/art divide. Citizen Kane‘s decades-long roundabout success story is entirely singular in its enormity.

Honestly, it’s sometimes easy to see, even today, where a 1940s audience would’ve soured on this well-regarded work. The two framing scenes that begin the film clash against each other wildly in what would be a jarring start to telling any kind of story. In the first scene, the titular Charles Foster Kane utters cinema’s greatest spoiler, “Rosebud”, as his last words in what feels like a downstream drift of deliberately slow pacing & is followed by lines form Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s eternally ambitious poem “Kubla Khan.” This high art reverie is immediately smashed to pieces by a newsreel mock-up of Kane’s biography, a loud & brash mashup of stock footage & talk-shouting so ludicrous I almost checked to see if the film weren’t, in fact, directed by Ed Wood. There was even a fake octopus & some Criswell intonation mixed in there to back up the comparison. Citizen Kane alternates its tone this way, mostly bulldozing through fragmented images & moments of intimacy and only occasionally slowing down to allow the audience to breathe through a slow crawl of stunning cinematography. I only know so much about cinema in the 20s & 30s, having seen mostly comedies & horrors, but it’s tempting to label Citizen Kane as the first modern film, the birth of an auteurist fever that wouldn’t fully take hold of the industry until the New Hollywood movement got rolling three decades later. Citizen Kane‘s punishing rhythm and hands-off-the-handlebars fragmentation feels strikingly modern even at today’s standards. I’ve seen it done before in earlier works like A Page of Madness, but not with such lush photography & such strong confidence in maintaining a narrative through the chaos. It’s easy to see how a 1941 moviegoer would balk at this kind of expressionistic filmmaking, as artful as it may seem in retrospect.

Citizen Kane is a character study that bucks against the idea that a person’s essence could ever be reduced to something as crass as a character study. In the aforementioned newsreel segment that opens Charles Foster Kane’s life’s story from birth to death to the audience not much is learned about the man except the bullet points of his public persona. In order to punch up the story with something more substantial, a journalist is assigned to interview every surviving character of interest from Kane’s life, assembling a more feet-on-the-ground type of journalism instead of the 1940s equivalent of sensationalist clickbait. It’s in these interviews that the story takes the fractured, hazy shape of memory and Welles uses this lens to explore topics as wide-ranging as love, lust, wealth, greed, narcissism, celebrity, journalism ethics, and ennui. Charles Foster Kane overtakes a normal, run of the mill newspaper early on in his career & turns into a literary circus, which is a nice parallel to the way Welles hijacks & reshapes the purpose of cinema with the film, a parallel he invites you to notice by playing Kane himself. He also asks you to draw comparisons between the futility of reducing a person’s life to an newspaper article or a feature length film and the idea that any similar kind of comprehensive knowledge could be obtained through something as small & insignificant as a single word, in this case “Rosebud.” Even assuming that you’ve been spoiled on Citizen Kane by knowing the unavoidable identity of “Rosebud” is a kind of folly, since the movie attempts to be about something more ambitious than what that identity could ever possibly signify. Orson Welles found a way to discuss the essential nature of Art & Humanity in the guise of a straightforward biopic, all while debunking the very idea of a biopic. It’s a feat that deserves all of its decades of ecstatic praise since its 1950s reappraisal, especially considering the time of its release & the technical accomplishments of its packaging.

Part of the brilliance of Citizen Kane is the way Welles structures his argument that the human spirit cannot be captured by a menial work of art around a character so much larger than life that the assertion resonates as wholly convincing. Obviously, audiences in 1941 saw a fair amount of real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst in Charles Foster Kane, including an incensed, litigious Hearst himself, but it’s difficult to think of a modern equivalent to that kind of iconoclast. Would a Kanye West or Donald Trump archetype be able to capture the over-the-top “I’m an American and I will always be an American” human contradiction that inspires both ire & adoration with every mere wave of their hand? Both examples have expressed interest in being President of the United States, so they at least share that with Kane, but it’s difficult to draw a more direct comparison. Citizen Kane may not have been appreciated in its time, but it could not have been made anywhere but 1940s America. Capturing the spirit of that time with the tools of filmmaking future (pioneering deep focus, forgoing opening credits, fracturing traditional narrative, etc.), Welles constructed a stunning work that clearly stood as a cinematic crossroads between the past and what was to come. William Randolph Hearst was merely a cipher for the times in which he thrived, but he was an extremely well-chosen one.

With titles like this, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo, what have you, that are often touted as “the greatest film of all time”, there’s always an enormous pressure for the film to perform to the previously uninitiated like myself (I’m just shy of 30 years old and just watched this film for the first time for this feature). Citizen Kane lives up to the hype. It’s a consistently entertaining work that can be riotously funny (actors Dorothy Comingore & Everett Sloane are especially hilarious), punishingly kinetic, and shockingly beautiful (the final pan over Kane’s untold number of possession in particular dropped my jaw; it was like a boundaryless metropolis of fine art, knickknacks, and shipping crates). As much as I love modern, well-crafted throwbacks to Old Hollywood landmarks like Hail, Caesar!, it’s difficult for them to stand up to the real deal, which this film certainly is. It establishes what it even means to have a modern cinematic eye while still having its foot in the door of old school filmmaking with its noir-bent purple prose, its art deco beauty, and its impossibly massive interior sets, all while attempting to encompass the nature of Humanity & Art (or questioning the validity of such an attempt). While I’m not exactly shocked that Citizen Kane‘s radical sea change was misunderstood upon its initial release, I’m thankful that it’s been championed as a pinnacle of the medium in the decades since. We’re extremely lucky to have its massive presence towering over us is a modern audience. It came a lot closer to disappearing into obscurity than a lot of people realize.


Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)


Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)


Next Lesson: From Russia With Love (1963)

-Brandon Ledet

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