Welles vs. Hearst: The Story Behind Citizen Kane

Welles vs. Hearst: The Story Behind Citizen Kane


70 years after its release, Citizen Kane remains at the top of the cinematic canon– still considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. The groundbreaking 1941 film tells of the rise and fall of a fictional media mogul, Charles Foster Kane It’s the fundamental story of the corruption of power of the American Dream sought, found and broken. And it’s a film that almost never was. The off screen drama surrounding the motion picture rivaled that of it scripted story, a bitter clash between two powerful geniuses, Orson Welles, the boy wonder playwright and radio star and William Randolph Hearst, the mega-rich newspaper tycoon. Both men of unbridled ambition and destructive pride, it’s Citizen Kane that put them each other’s way. 24 year old Welles was the films Director and star. Much was riding on the success of what would be his first Hollywood picture. And Hearst, 76 at the time Kane was made was the thinly veiled subject of the film’s narrative. Welles used the film not only to assail not only the American Dream motif but also Hearst himself. And sometimes very personally. Orson Welles was no stranger to controversy. In fact he’d already built quite a career on it After training in the arts as a child, he became a phenomenon in the theater and radio world at just 20. He directed Voodoo MacBeth a Haitian twist on the Shakespeare classic starring an all black cast. He formed the Mercury Theater and performed Julius Caesar, framed by fascist Italy, to critical acclaim. Perhaps his most controversial endeavor was the radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. The news bulletin style radio play left some confused listeners believing Martians had invaded rural New Jersey. The stunt skyrocketed Welles fame RKO pictures offered him the greatest contract ever offered to a rookie director complete creative control. Welles was the talk of the town before he even arrived in Hollywood. At this time, William Randolph Hearst had enjoyed a long and prosperous career in the newspaper business. he was living openly with his mistress in a hill top castle near San Simeon, California, on a property half the size of Rhode Island. His penchant for art buying accounted for an estimated 1/4th of the world market. His newspaper holdings were vast with one in five Americans reading Hearst papers. Like the title character in Citizen Kane Hearst got his start in publishing when he took over a struggling newspaper owned by his father It was at the San Francisco Examiner that he honed his flare for the dramatic He boosted circulation with bold, brash, sensational and often fabricated stories. When Hearst took over the New York Journal and battled Pulitzer’s New York World for circulation, this reckless but lucrative style of journalism continued. Hearst blatantly used his papers to promote his own causes and take on his enemies. He used the Examiner to break up the Standard Pacific Railroad monopoly. He staged crimes so his reporters could write about them. He pushed for US involvement in the Spanish-American war. When he sent a reporter to Cuba to cover the rumored war, the reporter wired Hearst and said there was no war in progress and he’d like to return home. Hearst reportedly wired back, “Please remain. You supply the pictures; I’ll supply the war.” Hearst tried for most of his life to bolster his political career. He served as a member of the US House of Representatives but sought higher acclaim He ran for Mayor and Governor of New York, narrowly losing both races He sought the democratic nomination for president in 1904 and lost. When his political hopes faded he resigned himself to his California castle from which he maintained considerable power, especially in Hollywood. His girlfriend Marion Davies was an actress and comedian. The two would regularly host lavish parties for Hollywood elites. Film company holdings in his vast media empire as well as the advertising space and reviews in Hearst papers tied him closely to the film industry. When asked by a colleague why he didn’t focus more energy on motion pictures and their worldwide audience Hearst replied, “Because you can crush a man with journalism, and you can’t with motion pictures.” Well, in Hollywood the young Orson Welles was about to try. Welles was struggling to find a film he could produce for RKO on budget when screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz approached him with the idea to do a picture based on Hearst. Mankiewicz had been a guest at Hearst parties and saw first-hand where the newspaper baron’s ambitions had carried him. The two men wrote a screenplay and shot Citizen Kane in 1940. Orson Welles depicted Charles Foster Kane as an embattled megalomaniac, hell- bent on the approval of the masses but unable to please those closest to him. The comparisons to Hearst were unmistakable: inheriting a small paper and poaching staff from competition, trying his hand at politics, being indulged by those around him and living on his later years in a hilltop castle. But most personal and likely most offensive to Hearst when he got his hands on the script was the film’s depiction of Hearst’s relationship with lifelong mistress Marion Davies. In the film Kane spends large sums of money on the singing career of his mistress Susan. He write favorable reviews of her performances in his newspapers. He even builds her an Opera House. While Hearst financed many of Marion’s films and backed her with publicity the actress was a real talent unlike her on-screen proxy. Those close to her say the relationship with Davies was a true love story. They lived together until his death. The personal attack leveled against Hearst went even further than what met the eye. Citizen Kane begins with the famous last words of its title character “Rosebud.” The films narrative–the telling of Kane’s life–is built around a reporter’s quest to determine what this word meant to him. While the film reveals Rosebud represented Kane’s lost childhood the puzzling world held significance in the life of Hearst. At the San Simeon parties, drinking was generally not tolerated at Hearst’ s request. But when he’d head to bed, Marion Davies was known to pull out liquor and continue entertaining guests well into the morning. It was on one such occasion that guest Herman Mankiewicz learned that Hearst had a nickname for the most intimate part of Marion’s anatomy and that nickname was “Rosebud.” Welles ran a closed set and managed publicity to ensure that the influence of Hearst’s life on the film was kept a secret When a Hollywood columnist for Hearst saw an early screening of Citizen Kane she reportedly stormed out. Hearst soon threatened RKO with a lawsuit if they were to release the film. Hearst went into full-on attack mode against the Welles picture in his papers and in private conversations with studio heads He banned RKO advertising and coverage from his papers. Later limiting the band to Citizen Kane alone. In reviews of Welles Broadway plays, Hearst labeled the director, a communist. The FBI soon opened a file on Welles which was filled with clippings from Hearst publications. This proved damaging for Welles’ career and the imminent Hollywood blacklist years. The FBI file concluded that Welles was a threat to the nation’s internal security. The real power of William Randolph Hearst was over the movie studios. He threatened to pull film advertising for any studio that showed Kane in its theaters. He went even further reminding the movie moguls of potentially damaging information he’d suppressed over the years at their request Stories of rape, drunkeness, affairs and so on. And further still he reminded them that the Americans who read his newspapers might not look kindly on the high percentage of Jews who worked in the film industry. He threatened to campaign against the major studios who hired what he called “immigrants and refugees” instead of giving jobs to Americans. the Hearst campaign was largely successful The Hollywood elite respected or at least feared Hearst and weren’t to fond of young newcomer Orson Welles. MGM’s Louis B Mayer brought the studio heads together and offered $800,000 to buy the film…and burn it. RKO continued to delay the Kane premier as Hearst’s assault continued Since no other movie houses would show it, RKO converted its New York Palace Theater to a cinema and finally showed Citizen Kane It was a big hit in New York, winning award after award. It was a moderate financial success, but nowhere near what RKO had envisioned when they first hired Welles. In 1941, Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Anytime Kane was mentioned at the ceremony some members of the crowd booed. Awards voters gave Welles only one award: best screenplay. A vote most say was for Herman Mankiewicz. The film ran its course theatrically and disappeared from v iew. Welles’ RKO contract had been a two picture deal, but the studio took control of the second film, the Magnificent Ambersons, and finished it without the director’s input. Never again did Welles have creative control over a major Hollywood picture. Before reaching age 30, he became known as the world’s youngest has-been. He spent the rest of his life attempting to self-finance films paying the bills by appearing on talk shows and lending his persona to voice-overs and commercials. In his forties, Welles gained substantial weight–weighing as much as 400 pounds, restricting his travel. Much like the Kane character he’d so brilliantly portrayed, Welles spent his later years in relative solitude. While his career saw a precious few more shining moments including his direction and performance in 1958’s Touch of Evil, he’d already peaked with Citizen Kane, The maverick director had taken on one of the most powerful men in the country and the injuries his career sustained never fully healed. William Randolph H earst died in 1951. While his clash with Welles was just one of many battles in his life, it was one where he thought he’d come out on top and he had until Citizen Kane’s revival in the late 1950s. The film’s renaissance came after RKO sold its library to television and Kane began to be played on TV. In America, the art house movement was on the rise. Soon enough critics and film historians were including the film on their list of greats, prompting re-evaluation from American critics and movie watchers. It’s been on top ever since, long outliving the men who fought over it. Any reference to Hearst’s career made today is sure to include a mention of Citizen Kane So, in a way, maybe Welles won. The legacy of Charles Foster Kane eclipses that of William Randolph Hearst, decades later. But the real winner is the film itself which has laid the groundwork for the decades of cinema that have come after it. It remains a potent source of insight into the lives of these men who each like Kane were as flawed as they were extraordinary. In a twist of fate Citizen Kane is the lasting legacy for both Welles and Hearst, now forever fused by fiction.

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    Rick Walker

    They are not fused by fiction. Hearst was a media Goliath giving birth to sensationalism in journalism where Welles was an up and coming Hollywood David that brought attention to a evil person in power.

    There is nothing fictional about a man that created wars that didn't exist.

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    RonaldReaganRocks1

    "Citizen Kane" isn't that great, though. It is most likely such a celebrated film because it was picked up by the Left Wing, socialist media and praised.

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