Many have called Citizen Kane the greatest cinematic achievement of all time. It is indeed a true masterpiece of acting, screen writing, and directing. Orson Welles, its young genius director, lead actor, and a co-writer, used the best talents and techniques of the day (Bordwell 103) to tell the story of a newspaper giant, Charles Kane, through the eyes of the people who loved and hated him. However, when it came out, it was scorned by Hollywood and viewed only in the private theaters of RKO, the producer. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, it was practically booed off the stage, and only won one award, that for Best Screenplay, which Welles and Herman Mankiewicz shared (Mulvey 10).
This was all due to the pressure applied by the greatest newspaper man of the time, one of the most powerful men in the nation, the man Citizen Kane portrayed as a corrupt power monger, namely William Randolph Hearst. One cannot ignore the striking similarities between Hearst and Kane. In order to make clear at the outset exactly what he intended to do, Orson Welles included a few details about the young Kane that, given even a rudimentary knowledge of Hearst's life, would have set one thinking about the life of that newspaper giant. Shortly after the film opens, a reporter is seen trying to discover the meaning of Kane's last word, "Rosebud".
He begins his search by going through the records of Kane's boyhood guardian, Thatcher. The scene comes to life in midwinter at the Kane boarding house. Kane's mother has come into one of the richest gold mines in the world through a defaulting boarder, and at age twenty-five, Kane will inherit his sixty million dollars (Citizen Kane). His mother is doubtful of the quality of th education her son will receive in Colorado, and therefore wishes to send her son to study with Thatcher.
Hearst's parents came by their money through gold mines (Swanberg 5), so both Hearst and Kane were raised with "golden" spoons in their respective mouths. Kane is unusually devoted to his mother, as shown when he turns away from his father to listen to his mother, and when he only pays heed to his mother's answers to his questions (Citizen Kane). Hearst likewise was completely devoted to his mother. He was sheltered from the real world by his mother and her money for most of his young life, rarely even seeing his traveling father (Swanberg 25). Also, Kane's dying word and the name of his childhood sled, "Rosebud", (Citizen Kane) was the name of a town twenty miles east of where Hearst's parents were born and grew up (Robinson 13). Everything from the newsreel at the start of the film on Kane's life matches Hearst's almost perfectly.
Kane ran over thirty newspapers, radios, and syndicates, had a well publicized romantic affair, tried in vain to be elected to public office, was totally and completely careless with his money, (always expecting there would be much more coming), and built himself a pleasure palace called Xanadu, which included a gigantic collection of statues and animals (Citizen Kane). Hearst also did all these things over the course of his life, which further served to convince movie viewers of Welles' libelous intentions in the making of the movie. (Swanberg). After the opening newsreel on Hearst's life, the movie goes through the boyhood scene where Thatcher takes Kane away from his parents.
It then quickly shifts to a point twenty years later, when Kane is about to inherit the sixth largest private fortune in the world. Thatcher is concerned that Kane won't know his place in the world, and his fears are affirmed when Kane sends a telegram saying that he has no interest in gold mines or banks, but, rather, he would like to take over a small newspaper of which Thatcher has taken possession, the Morning Inquirer, because, "I think it would be fun to write a newspaper". (Citizen Kane) The circumstances under which Hearst entered the newspaper world were very similar. Hearst's father, a nearly illiterate mining tycoon, owned a newspaper in San Francisco, The Examiner, which he used as nothing more than a political organ to further his candidacy for a seat in Congress (Swanberg 26). Against his father's wishes for him to enter the world of mining, young Hearst took control of the paper to try to reverse his father's enormous losses on it (Swanberg 47).
Both Hearst and Kane immediately began to revolutionize everything about their respective papers. Kane literally moved in to the office so that he might be constantly around his paper, constantly able to redo it at any hour, night or day. He makes it quite clear that, from now on, The Examiner was going to do more than just report what the current editor considered "newsworthy". It was going to report all news, large or small, especially if it could be made into a sensation and sell newspapers.
And if there was no current sensation, Kane would create the news. Hearst did the same thing, revolutionizing his paper to take on "undignified topics" to gain circulation, sporting shocking headlines and stories of "crime and underwear". In a classic example of similarity, Kane nearly quoted Hearst exactly: "You supply the prose and poems, I'll supply the war", (Orson Wells, Citizen Kane) as Kane discussed what to telegram back to a man in Cuba. Hearst was very much anti-Spanish dur ing the Cuban revolution, and if not for his efforts, it is probable that the war would not have even been fought.
But Hearst, who would do anything for a headline, cooked up incredibly falsified tales of Spanish brutality. As stories of Cuban injustice became old news to the public, especially as there was no real war, a reporter telegraphed Hearst that he would like to leave. Hearst replied, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war". (Swanberg 127) Such an obvious similarity can only have been deliberate, as Kane practically quoted Hearst. In the movie, Thatcher was furious with Kane's success in attacking trusts in defense of "the people" and providing false headlines such as those about the Spanish Armada being anchored off of the Jersey coast, a headline printed with virtually no proof to substantiate it.
Kane even used his paper to attack a company of which he himself, along with Thatcher, was the major shareholder. As Thatcher prepared to leave after his discussion with Kane on what new is, he mentioned to Kane his enormous losses, which totaled one million dollars for the year, a staggering sum to have been lost by one person, especially at that time. Kane, . however, laughed it off, joking that, at that rate, he " ll have to close down in sixty years (Citizen Kane). All these things were characteristic of Hearst as well. He attacked the trusts in favor of "the people" (a favorite phrase of Hearst's) and hired lawyers to try to get injunctions against the trusts and eventually destroy them. He supported the eight hour workday and the labor unions (Swanberg 235).
He made up headlines preying on people's fear and hatred of Spain and Japan which, not coincidentally, he had aroused by previous articles in The Examiner and other publications of his about Spanish atrocities in Cuba and the "yellow menace" of Japan (Swanberg 122,352) Hearst threw money away as though to him it literally grew on trees. A man with an income of fifteen million dollars a year at the height of his power, he had almost no savings and sometimes had to borrow money (Swanberg 88). Right after taking over The Inquirer, as told now by Bernstein, Kane ordered the editor to play up less "important" stories for the paper, the kinds of things that the nation wanted to see and read about, not just boring, plain "news". He became very involved in the editorial content of his paper, constantly trying to make it better that the rest, staying up late, thinking of headlines and ideas for scoops. Kane went to the office of The Chronicle, his main competition, to admire the best newspaper staff in the world and its gigantic circulation, and soon after he bribed those same men with large sums of cash to move from The Chronicle to his newspaper, achieving in six years what it took The Chronicle twenty years to accomplish. He married the president's niece, Emily.
(Citizen Kane) These were very Hearst-like maneuvers in many ways. First, as stated before, Hearst loved to embellish and exaggerate the news to get circulation. Second, Hearst was constantly stealing talented newspapermen from other newspapers, a practice which annoyed such men as Joseph Pulitzer to no end. (Pulitzer's World was Hearst's favorite publication) (Swanberg 95). Hearst paid any salary he had to without a care, for he had millions his disposal, since his father was still funding the enterprise. Hearst married young Millicent Willson, a parallel to Kane's Emily (Swanberg 246) Bernstein's narration ended with a telegram from Kane announcing his purchase of the largest diamond in the world.
Bernstein commented to Leland, Kane's best friend, that Kane was not collecting diamonds, but collecting someone else who was collecting diamonds (Citizen Kane). This is an early hint at Kane's belief that one could buy love like anything else, which is one of Welles' main criticisms of Hearst, and is shown as Kane's fatal flaw. It is certainly one of the main reasons Welles made the movie about Hearst in the first place. The next scene opens with Leland, one of Kane's only friends. Leland continued Bernstein's stories of Kane's belief in the ability to purchase love, and hinted at the one overwhelming thing about him, the absolute enigma he posed to even his closest friends. Leland explained how no one could understand Kane because of the contradictions in his beliefs and life.
He said that, "Maybe Charlie wasn't brutal, he just did brutal things", (Citizen Kane) explaining how Kane, while a firm believer in the government and law, couldn't see how it applied to him. Hearst, who was an incredible egomaniac, shared the same beliefs. He was in constant conflict with himself. For instance, he supported the coal strikers while being backed by Tammany Hall, the very head of the Democratic party machine with close ties to big business (Swanberg 238-245).
This trait is the one which Kane played out to full effect in his movie. Once the audience was sure that they were seeing Hearst up there, Welle's could explain the problems of a man like Hearst, a man who had to have his own way. His want at the moment was the largest paper in New York, but that would soon change. Leland told of Kane's arguments with his wife, which climaxed with Kane's ultimate statement of his belief in his own omnipotence. When Kane's wife begins, "People will think", he completes the sentence for her with, "What I tell them to think!" (Citizen Kane) Everything about Hearst's manner of speaking and his beliefs pointed to that fact that he was an egomaniac as well, a firm believer in his own power.
The one thing Kane wanted in his life, Leland explained, was love, but it was the one thing he never found. He wanted the people to love him just as his newspaper staff did, and he went about making sure that it occurred by entering the world of politics. Right before his campaign for governor, Kane met a pretty, young opera singer named Susan Alexander and entered into a relationship with her. Then he made his incredible bid for governorship on an independent ticket, an office which, for him, would have been the easy first step to the White House (Citizen Kane). Once again, the detailed similarities to Hearst's life were astounding. Hearst sought public office after his dominance over the newspaper world was assured.
The key office he sought, and which was denied to him by attacks by Theodore Roosevelt, was the governorship of New York on an independent ticket. Both of the men used dirty and abusive campaigning methods, portraying their opponents as jailbirds in their publ i cations. Had Hearst been elected, he would most likely have become president soon after. Here, however, both in the movie and in Hearst's life, the family obsession about the newspapers began to dissolve. Kane left the running of his newspapers to other men, not taking as much of an interest in them anymore. Hearst did likewise, ending his earlier practices of obtaining good men at any cost.
A man had to work to keep his job, and it could be snatched away at any moment by "The Chief" (Swanberg 263). Hearst also met a beautiful young actress, Marion Davies, and took her as his mistress (Swanberg 402). At this point, however, the two tales differ. Kane was defeated in the election when his affair with Ms. Susan Alexander was exposed by his opponent, Jim Gettys, who basically ordered Kane and Emily to come to see Ms. Alexander. Again Kane's towering egocentricity showed through when he completely disregarded everyone else's wishes and declared that only he decided what C.F. Kane did. As Gettys left, Kane flew into a rage and screamed, "I'm Charles Foster Kane, and I'm going to send you to Sing Sing, Gettys, Sing Sing!" The next day, the papers were filled with the story, and Kane lost the election.
(Citizen Kane) Hearst, on the other hand, was defeated by the president himself and people using his own newspapers against him, but it served Welles' purpose better to have Kane defeated by his own greed. Kane went on to divorce Emily and marry Susan. Having failed in his own right, he heaped his ambition on Susan. This was most clearly seen with his statement, "We " re (italics added) going to be a great opera star".
(Citizen Kane) The movie then shifted easily to Susan Alexander's portrayal of Kane as her own personal ambition factory. Whatever she was lacking, he supplied it for her and threw his papers heart and soul into backing her, even though she was a terrible opera singer. Hearst did the same for Davies, each movie of hers a greater triumph than the last, according to his reviewers. Although Marion Davies, unlike Susan, was a genuinely talented individual, there were enough similarities between the two women.
Both women loved jigsaw puzzles (Reflections on Citizen Kane), both were singers, both were well publicized affairs. However Kane married Susan, while Hearst never divorced his wife. Both men pushed and pushed and pushed their mistresses to the breaking point and ran their mistress's lives (Swanberg 585), at which point Susan attempted suicide and Kane found her lying in bed unconscious. Davies never went to such lengths, but found the pressure somewhat hampering.
When Susan awoke, Kane was so grateful, he let her have her way; she would not sing again even though it meant the end of Kane's hopes for greatness. Kane began to build Xanadu for them, a gigantic castle with a gigantic collection of animals from all over the world (Citizen Kane). Hearst built San Simeon for Davies, to whom he was truly devoted (Swanberg 447), unlike Kane and Susan. The latter couple eventually divorced after Susan's speech in which she says that Kane had never giver anything to her, he had just tried to buy her into giving him something. Finally, with the point of view of Kane's butler come two more similarities. Kane flew into violent rages when he didn't get something he wanted, as when Susan left him and he said that fateful word for the first time, "Rosebud".
Kane was also a collector of everything, he threw nothing out, and was always buying something. (Citizen Kane) Hearst had the same bizarre practice. He would destroy thousands of dollars worth of antiques in a fit of anger and then spend one hundred thousand dollars on a passing whim. He never, however, threw anything out (Swanberg 585).
The movie closed on the scene of the resolution of the Rosebud puzzle. Among all the junk Kane had collected, lay a tiny wooden sled, the one from the day when Thatcher took him away from his mother, which was hauled off and thrown into the fire. Upon closer examination, the word "Rosebud" can be made out as it is slowly incinerated. Having taken into account the evidence presented above, it was clear that Orson Welles had based his movie around the life of William Randolph Hearst, a fact which upset Hearst to no end. In fact, a representative of the Hearst Organization offered eight hundred and forty two thousand dollars to RKO, the film's producer, if they would burn it.
This plot having failed, RKO was blacklisted by the gigantic Hearst press and had to show the movie in private theaters. And yet, Welles still claimed that his movie had no intention of being biographical. He said, It is not based upon the life of Mr. Hearst or anyone else. On the other hand, had Mr. Hearst and similar financial barons not lived during the period we discuss, Citizen Kane could not have been made". (Zin men 238) In his life, Hearst ran many newspapers, as of course, did Kane.
When he was still beginning, he owned four, and at the time he committed all of them to warring with Spain, as mentioned above. This singular, small event was the turning point in the life of a brilliant man and indeed the turning point of a nation. He had almost single handedly, using his power of the press, sent one of the most powerful nations in the world to war. The people of the United States had been manipulated wonderfully by the press to believe that Spain was such a menace that they must rally for war, even though it was all an invention by Hearst and his constituents to promote the newspaper's circulation. If the press could do that, he believed it could do anything, even send a Mr. Hearst to the White House who had not the slightest experience as a political leader. And it very nearly did (Swanberg 245).
When he realized that his newspapers were a source of infinite power, that he could manipulate the people to get what he wanted, Hearst changed. His goals changed. His fight went from one for larger circulation to one for personal power, as much as he could get. He stopped being physically involved in his papers, as mentioned before, instead directing from his throne at San Simeon. He entered the political arena, where the ultimate prize lay, the ultimate investment of power in a single individual, the presidency. And yet again and again, by the voters or the corrupt bosses at Tammany Hall or by his many political enemies, he was defeated.
His, like the story of Kane, was a story of constant personal failure due, as often as not. to his own faults However, things for Hearst were not always as bad as they were for Kane. Hearst did actually win public office once. He became a state representative of New York. This he accomplished with the backing of the Tammany Hall bosses and a Democratic constituency in the district. Beyond that he hurled his newspapers and money into the effort, earning a colossal victory over his opponent. However, Hearst was not content to be a Representative.
He wanted to be president, had wanted to be president ever since he realized that he had a chance. He had wanted to be the biggest newspaper publisher in America, and he was. He had wanted Ms. Davies, and he had her and was devoted to her and spent millions for her entertainment. Everything which he had wanted he had received, in any way that he could think of at the moment. Orson Welles' criticism of Hearst was the way in which he went about getting what he wanted, using his immense power over the people of the country simply to gain personal power.
This is the overarching theme, portrayed so powerfully, in Citizen Kane. When Welles disclaimed any biographical intent, he did not pretend he was not depicting the forces that governed Hearst's life. His newspapers changed drastically, and men spoke to him with reverence and fear, for his darker side had come to light. He enjoyed being king over his empire, watching his subjects squirm. With the building of his palace at San Simeon he only made concrete what many had known for a long time: William Randolph Hearst sat on a throne as the king of an empire which controlled the country's information. As brought out explicitly by the movie, Hearst wanted love, but not just the love of a few, the love of all.
He needed whatever he wanted, and he wanted the people's love. While Hearst was not the loveless monster Kane is portrayed as, he had many faults, the main one being that he often seemed to believe he could buy love. Welles attacked this belief heart and soul, claw and tooth in such scenes as when Leland returns the check with which Kane had hoped to preserve their friendship, now torn into shreds. Kane simply cannot fathom why he returned it, because he doesn't realize that there is more to loving that gifts.
(Cowie 37) Hearst gave lavish parties and demonstrations to try to win people over to his side, and it often worked. He assailed his political opponents with his newspapers, attacking them in whatever way he could, transforming the newspapers from something he thought he loved into a tool with which he could get things, a bat he could swing at his opponents, a way to quench his thirst for money and power. Hearst was a man who discovered the power he controlled and then proceeded to abuse it, a practice Welles found intolerable. All in all, Orson Welles directed, starred in, and helped to write possibly the greatest film of all time, all to one purpose, to denounce William Randolph Hearst and all men who were abusive of power and the public trust. Why did he spend all this effort on this one man, an apparent crusader for the people, for the working man Simply, it was because Hearst, for all his apparent love of the people, was only trying to get love and power for himself by abusing the most potent weapon and shield of his day, the free press. "If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man".
(Orson Welles, Citizen Kane)
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