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Orson Welles and CITIZEN KANE

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Orson Welles’s emergence as a Hollywood filmmaker and the production and release of CITIZEN KANE provide an illuminating example of the rapid ascent of the producer-director as an industrial and artistic force in prewar Hollywood, as well as of the remarkable range of product differentiation and the license for stylistic innovation. Although still in his twenties and with no real filmmaking experience, Welles had the artistic credentials and celebrity status to secure a contract with RKO in 1939 giving him unprecedented creative and administrative authority. And he made the most of it on CITIZEN KANE , easily the most innovative and controversial picture in prewar Hollywood—and in the view of many critics and film historians, also the most important.

While the creation of this cinematic masterpiece invariably is ascribed to Welles’s genius, CITIZEN KANE was scarcely the product of a single filmmaker. But Welles’s multifaceted creative role (including his on-screen portrayal of the title character), his wellpublicized RKO contract, and the controversy surrounding the release of the film all reinforced the conception of K ANE as an “Orson Welles film.” And recalling Bordwell’s criteria for film authorship, K ANE clearly represents not only the “rare exception” wherein the individual creative control and trademark status of the director should be taken into account but also that rare occasion when a directors distinctive style is evident within an individual picture—moreover, within his initial filmmaking effort.

Actually, Bordwell’s criteria for directorial authorship may apply to Welles and CITIZEN KANE to a degree that is altogether unique in Hollywood annals. The film critic and historian David Thomson has noted “the fact that, before or since, no one in Hollywood has carved out such freedom for himself” as did Welles on KANE . 29 Welles’s biographer Barbara Learning, discussing the deal that Welles cut with RKO’s George Schaefer, has said: “It was Orson’s image, and his uncanny ability to attract attention to it, that impressed Schaefer. And, as he saw it, the generous contract was actually a publicity gimmick—a shrewd investment that began paying off the moment it became public.” 30 And K ANE was heralded (then as now) as vitally innovative in formal and narrative technique, introducing, in the words of Time’s reviewer, “new ways of picture-making and story-telling.”

Born in 1915 to a wealthy midwestern family and clearly a gifted and precocious child, Welles developed an early talent for theater and the arts. After completing prep school at age 16, and having traveled abroad extensively with his father, Welles set out for Europe on his own to pursue his acting and artistic interests. He had some success on the stage and in 1934 made his acting debut on Broadway and on radio. He also teamed up with another emerging theatrical talent, John Houseman, and in 1937 the two formed the Mercury Theatre, a stage company which quickly became known for its daring, innovative productions. In 1938, Welles landed his own drama program on CBS radio, aptly titled First Person Singular , which featured adaptations of familiar stories   that Welles narrated in the first person and in his distinctive baritone. Welles frequently involved Houseman and other Mercury players—such as Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, and Ray Collins—in the CBS broadcasts, most notably on Halloween in 1938, when “Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air” presented an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). The program caused a national sensation (and a state of temporary panic) and firmly established Welles in the national consciousness as a prodigious talent and significant media personality.

Welles parlayed his (and Mercury’s) stage and radio success into the July 1939 contract with RKO—entered into primarily to raise funds for Mercury’s stage productions. The deal called for Welles to produce, direct, write, and act in two pictures over the next two years; Welles and the company would receive $100,000 plus 25 percent of the net profits on the first picture, and $125,000 plus 25 percent of the profits on the second. RKO reserved story and budget approval if projected costs exceeded $500,000, but Welles had total control over story and script development, casting and crew assignments, and production supervision. Moreover, Welles was given “final cut” of the pictures so long as he stayed within the prescribed schedule and budget. 33 Welles actually had a preapproved project under way when he signed: an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , which he planned to shoot entirely from the “first-person singular” viewpoint of Marlow, the novel’s protagonist-narrator. The picture was in pre-production by November 1939, but a budget estimate of more than $1 million effectively sank the project. Welles briefly considered adapting a lightweight spy thriller, The Smiler with the Knife , as a Carole Lombard vehicle, but that also fell through.

In January 1940, Welles began casting about for another project, and he soon connected with Herman J. Mankiewicz on an idea for an epic-scale, quasi-fictional biopic. A veteran screenwriter and industry iconoclast, Mankiewicz had wanted for years to do a screen biography of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz himself was a longtime friend of the newspaper magnate and his actress-protégée Marion Davies, as well as a frequent guest at San Simeon, Hearst’s Xanadu-style estate. In his conversations with Welles, it soon became evident that Mankiewicz’s ideas for the Hearst biopic jibed quite nicely with Welles’s ideas about a suitable film project. While it is impossible to designate either Welles or Mankiewiez as the originator of the story for CITIZEN KANE , this much is certain: The first draft of the screenplay was written by Mankiewiez in the spring of 1940 under the editorial supervision and watchful eye of John Houseman, and it clearly was based on the life and career of Hearst. It is also clear that Welles heavily revised the script in May and June as he prepared the actual production. Welles’s rewrites were so extensive, in fact, that he later claimed sole writing credit—resulting in a dispute with Mankiewiez that was settled by the two sharing credit for both story and script.

Welles’s revisions resulted not only from his own creative impulses but also from RKO’s qualms about producing an obvious Hearst biopic. Welles was encouraged to further fictionalize the story, and he complied, maintaining Mankiewicz’s multiple flashbacks to reconstruct Kane’s life but introducing several crucial framing devices: the highly expressionistic prologue depicting the moment of Kane’s death and his utterance of the enigmatic “Rosebud”; the “News on the March” newsreel which rehearses Kane’s life story; and the ensuing projection-room scene wherein the newsreel’s creators discuss its lack of a satisfactory "hook"—thus initiating the search for the meaning of “Rosebud” and setting the story in motion. Welles designed the numerous montages to both condense and speed up the story, thus providing yet another distinctive narrative device. And while he dismissed Mankiewicz’s Rosebud-as-sled angle as “dollar-book Freud,” he made eminently effective use of it in tying up the detective story.

Welles took KANE into production in late June, at which point RKO set the budget $740,000—actually quite reasonable for so ambitious a production. The final cost reached $840,000, some 15 percent over budget but scarcely enough to warrant the widespread rumors of Welles’s extravagance. In fact, KANE was a relatively cost-efficient picture by current industry standards, owing in large part to Welles’s effective collaboration with key creative and technical personnel. Percy Ferguson, for instance, designed the massive, imaginative sets so well suited to the film’s visual technique. Remarkably, considering the number (110 in all) and size of the sets for KANE , Ferguson held the set costs to only $60,000, far below the usual for a top feature. Another key collaborator was Vernon Walker, who handled the special effects and optical printing (layering and assembling of images, etc.), which were more extensive on KANE than any RKO picture since KING KONG in 1933.

Perhaps Welles’s most important collaborator on KANE was Gregg Toland, the cinematographer and in many ways the covisionary on the picture. Something of a prodigy in his own right, Toland had established himself as a leading cameraman while still in his twenties and by 1940 (at age 36) was among Hollywood’s leading black-and-white cinematographers and visual innovators. Toland, then under contract to the independent producer Sam Goldwyn, had his own photographic unit (including camera equipment and two camera assistants) and was just reaching the peak of his creative and technical powers. 37 On recent pictures such as WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) and THE WESTERNER (1940), with the director William Wyler, and THE GRAPES OF WRATH and THE LONG VOYAGE HOME with Ford, Toland had been experimenting with high-speed film, wideangle lenses, deep-focus cinematography (infinite depth of field), and what he termed “ceiled” (roofed-in) sets. Thus, Toland already had begun to refine the highly stylized "realism"—a term he frequently used in his own writing—and the visual style so often associated with KANE .

Toland had yet to combine these elements satisfactorily in a single picture, and he saw KANE as “the opportunity for such a large-scale experiment.” 39 In a June 1941 article in Popular Photography entitled “How I Broke the Rules on CITIZEN KANE ,” Toland related that “the photographic approach … was planned and considered long before the first camera turned,” a procedure that was itself “most unconventional in Hollywood,” where cinematographers generally had only a few days to prepare to shoot a film. 40 Robert L. Carringer, in his in-depth study of the production, writes that Welles and Toland “approached the film together in a spirit of revolutionary fervor,” and that “Welles not only encouraged Toland to experiment and tinker, he positively insisted on it.” 41 To accomplish the particular effects Welles was after on KANE —particularly the long takes from a fixed camera position, with the drama played out on multiple planes of action and in separately lit areas of the massive sets—Toland continued to innovate. He used arc lights rather than incandescents to achieve the chiaroscuro lighting effects (i.e., pools of light illuminating portions of an otherwise dark set) and used newly introduced coated lenses to eliminate glare and increase light transmission under low-level light conditions.

While Welles and Toland were very much in sync in their conception of the look and the storytelling approach to KANE , they realized how unorthodox that approach was by Hollywood’s standards. Thus, Welles decided to pass off the first days of shooting—which included the projection-room scene and a few other highly unconventional sequences—as photographic “tests.” “What was shot on these first few days departed radically from the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking at the time,” Carringer notes. “Much of it was openly, blatantly experimental.”

Equally unorthodox was the construction of Kane’s story, not only the flashback structure and aggressive use of montages and temporal ellipses but also the optical effects used to give the film its distinctive narrative and visual flow. These were achieved primarily in post-production, with Welles working closely with the effects specialist Vernon Walker and the editor Robert Wise. Welles also experimented during post-production with sound as a means of both advancing and condensing the narrative (through sound montages), and he encouraged Bernard Herrmann to compose a score which conveyed more than simply the usual emotional cues for the audience. Thus, K ANE’S dialogue and sound-effects tracks and its musical score were laden with abrupt changes in tonality and sound level and contained as many distinctive “touches” and innovations as the visuals.

When post-production on K ANE was completed in December 1940, the Hearst connection was still under wraps. A press screening in early January changed all that; the gossip columnist (and Hearst employee) Louella Parsons stalked out during the screening to inform Hearst that KANE was a thinly veiled biography and veritable character assassination. Hearst immediately began a personal campaign against both the picture and the studio, refusing to review or to promote any RKO picture in his newspaper chain—beginning with RKO’s KITTY FOYLE , then just going into release—until the studio agreed to withdraw KANE from release. 44 That set off a pitched battle over the picture, with top industry figures lining up both for and against KANE’S release.

RKO postponed KANE’S February release, choosing to build support for the film rather than openly defy Hearst. In a key strategic move, Schaefer held a special press screening of KANE in early March, with the magazine publisher Henry Luce (Time, Life, and Fortune) in conspicuous attendance. The screening was a success, owing mainly to the quality of the film itself. John O’Hara in Newsweek , for instance, called KANE “the best picture” he had ever seen. And the Hollywood Reporter , under the headline “Mr. Genius Comes Through; ‘Kane’ Astonishing Picture,” began its review with a simple declaration: “‘Citizen Kane’ is a great motion picture.” 45 The Motion Picture Herald ran a major story on the screening and related issues—Welles’s threat to sue RKO, for instance, and Luce’s offer to buy the film for a reported $1 million—and quoted Time magazine’s assessment: “The objection of Mr. Hearst, who founded a publishing empire on sensationalism, is ironic. For to most of the several hundred people who have seen the film at private screenings, ‘Citizen Kane’ is the most sensational product of the U.S. movie industry.” 46 Another successful press preview was held in early April, and by then the tide clearly was swinging to RKO.

Finally, on 1 May 1941, five days before Welles’s twenty-sixth birthday, CITIZEN KANE premiered at the Palace in New York. The accolades continued, culminating in the New York Film Critics naming it the best film of 1941 and the Academy nominating KANE for nine Oscars, including best picture, director, and actor (Welles), and also for its cinematography, editing, and score. The public was less enthusiastic, however. KANE opened fairly strong—aided, no doubt, by the controversy generated by Hearst—but lost roughly $150,000 on its initial release.

Schaefer welcomed the critical prestige and was scarcely surprised by the box-office response. He continued to support Welles and his Mercury unit, which by late 1941 had two more RKO pictures in production: THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS , an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel starring Joseph Cotten and the RKO contract player Tim Holt and scripted, produced, and directed by Welles; and JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1942), an adaptation of Eric Ambler’s spy novel which Welles coscripted with Joseph Cotten, who also starred (Welles played a minor role). While AMBERSONS was another prestige-level “Orson Welles picture,” JOURNEY INTO FEAR was a modest B-plus project directed by Norman Foster, a low-budget specialist who handled the Mr. Moto series for Fox. Although Welles had assured Schaefer he would codirect simply to get the project going, he served only as producer and creative consultant on JOURNEY INTO FEAR , which was in production in late 1941 while he and Robert Wise were cutting AMBERSONS .

At that point, Welles’s life and film career took a curious turn. After Pearl Harbor, at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller and in support of the good neighbor policy, Welles began serious work on “It’s All True,” a blend of fiction and documentary set in South America. Welles left for Brazil in early February 1942 to begin shooting, and thus he was not in attendance at the Academy Awards ceremony later that month when HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY took the major awards and when any mention of Welles and CITIZEN KANE reportedly was met with a smattering of boos and derisive laughter. 48 Of KANE’S nine nominations, its only Oscar came for the Mankiewicz-Welles screenplay—which many saw as another slight of the boy genius.

The lingering resentment of Welles and KANE is perhaps not all that surprising, considering the young filmmaker’s supreme self-confidence, his exceptional creative talents and contractual freedom, and his open disregard—if not outright disdain—for the conventions of Hollywood cinema and the commercial realities of the movie marketplace. Indeed, among the lessons learned on CITIZEN KANE were the limited market value of a filmmaker’s trademark status and the limits of product differentiation as well. Welles was perhaps too “creative” for moviegoers, and KANE simply too different to attain popular or commercial success. These lessons were undoubtedly on the minds of Schaefer and his colleagues at RKO in early 1942 when they screened the completed versions of both THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and JOURNEY INTO FEAR promptly demanded retakes and reediting to render the pictures more suitable for popular consumption.

So as Welles pursued an even more radical film experiment a continent away, RKO had begun to rein in its resident auteur . This scarcely signaled an erosion of directorial authority in the industry at large, however. While Welles charted the outer limits of individual autonomy and creative control in the prewar studio system, other filmmakers like Capra, Hawks, and Hitchcock managed to operate within those limits and to enjoy unprecedented creative and administrative authority over their work.

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