CITIZEN KANE (1941, Director Orson Welles)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Often found at the top of lists of “all-time great films,” Citizen Kane is undoubtedly the most important film by a man widely regarded as America’s most brilliant film director. Michael Denning argues that Welles is “the American Brecht, the single most important Popular Front artist in theater, radio, and film, both politically and aesthetically. … Welles is our Shakespeare” (362–63). And Denning is not alone in his admiration for Welles’s work. For example, Thomas Schatz calls Citizen Kane “easily the most innovative and controversial picture in prewar Hollywood,” noting also the unusual extent to which the film bears the creative stamp of its director (90). Welles’s innovative use of a variety of narrative strategies and of imaginative camera angles and techniques such as unprecedented deep-focus cinematography (developed for this film by cinematographer Gregg Toland) made Citizen Kane one of the most technically influential films in Hollywood history. The use of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst as the obvious model for the protagonist of Citizen Kane also provided a framework within which Welles addressed a number of important social and political issues, creating considerable controversy but also gaining considerable attention for his message.

Citizen Kane is the fictional biography of Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles himself), “the greatest newspaper tycoon of this or any other generation,” with Welles delivering a dazzling performance in the lead role. But it is far more than the fictional biography of an individual, even if Kane is largely based on one particular real-world person. In the film, Kane and his life take on allegorical dimensions that make him representative of large trends within American society, and his story becomes the story of America—or at least of those aspects of America that are dominated by the rich and powerful, a group whose very existence is an awkward fact of life in a society that is supposedly egalitarian, offering equal rights and equal opportunities to all. That Welles saw Kane as an allegorical figure of modern American society can be seen in his use during filming of working titles such as “American” and “John Citizen, U.S.A.” Kane stands out from all other Hollywood films of its time in the extent to which it makes daring and innovative technical and aesthetic choices that push the envelope of what film can be and do. Ultimately, though, what makes Kane such a great film is not only its astonishing stylistic achievements, but the fact that these achievements are put to work in the service of a narrative that interrogates important aspects of the American national identity, while also engaging with more specific political issues as well.

Citizen Kane begins with a bang. After the stark opening title, the screen goes black and then cuts to a worn and tarnished “NO TRESPASSING” sign on a carceral-looking chain-link fence. As ponderous, almost funereal music plays, the camera pans slowly upward, the fence fading into an even harsher-looking version and then finally to a lattice-work that might look less carceral but still looks dark and worn. Another fade transitions us to a shot from above what we have been seeing, now revealed to be a tall gate topped by a large encircled “K.” In the distance, through a fog, we see a dark and ominous-looking mansion with a lone window lighted. This house might be a haunted one, though the palm tree we see inside the gate suggest a balmier setting than the ones we are accustomed to seeing in Gothic horror films. This suggestion is immediately reinforced by a shot of two monkeys outside in a cage (though an odd cage whose bars appear to be too far apart to actually contain the monkeys), again suggesting a warm climate but also adding an extra touch of strangeness to the scene. More strangeness is then added via a cut to a dock protruding into a body of water on which exotic gondola-like boats are shown floating and in which the “haunted” mansion is reflected upside-down, wavering in the lightly rippling surface of the water. Another fade brings us back to a direct shot of the mansion, now seen from the grounds, which seem to involve elaborate decorations, including a drawbridge. This shot then fades into another view of the mansion, now with a sign intended to label the 16th tee of a golf course (two greens with flags are visible in the distance), suggesting that the estate contains a full 18-hole course. Eventually, the camera moves in on that lighted window, which is covered by a heavy screen, increasing the carceral feel of the setting, despite the obvious presence of once-elaborate posh trimmings on the site. Then the light suddenly blinks out, punctuated by a sudden stop to the music. The music resumes as the shot of the window shifts to an interior view, looking outward toward an apparently rising sun. Suddenly, what appears to be falling snow surprisingly sweeps across the window, in the midst of another fade. Perhaps the setting is not so balmy, after all? But then, as the fade is completed, the camera suddenly zooms out to reveal that the snow is falling inside a snow globe, which sits in the palm of an extended hand. A cut to a close-up of a man’s lips and mustache show him whispering (with a slight echo that makes the whisper seem more mysterious), “Rosebud.” Then a cut back to the hand shows it going limp, allowing the snow globe to fall out and roll down some steps, until it shatters on the floor. Then we see a shot of a door opening, allowing nurse to enter the room, her image distorted by what appears to be a shot through a piece of the broken globe, that outstretched hand shown weirdly above her. Then we cut to a shot of the nurse, now seen directly, but from an oddly close, shadowy, noirish shot that leaves her face off the screen, as she takes that limp hand and folds it up onto the chest of its apparently dead owner. The nurse then pulls a sheet up over the face and head of the man, in a traditional signifier of death. We then return to that shot of the sunrise through the window, before the screen goes entirely dark, followed by a stark cut to a new scene, including the sudden, startling intrusion of the film’s first spoken words, other than that enigmatic “Rosebud”: “News on the March,” announcing the title of a newsreel series, one installment of which is inserted in the film at this point.[1]  

The entire opening sequence of Kane’s death at his now-decaying and nearly-abandoned estate only takes a bit more than three minutes, but it contains more overtly artful camerawork than most entire Hollywood films of its era, with its intrusive cuts and fades, its odd camera angles and movements, and its suggestive Expressionist lighting. This sequence also introduces information in tantalizing, but confusing, dribs and drabs that will only be clarified later, much in the mode of literary Impressionism.[2] In both its Expressionist visual style and its Impressionist technique of introducing content, Citizen Kane seems overtly designed as a challenge to the usual Hollywood style, in which lighting and camera manipulations are designed not to be noticed by viewers and in which stories are told in a straightforward linear manner. Thus, the film already, in these first three minutes, announces that it will not be the usual Hollywood fare, instead aligning itself more with literary modernism, while at the same time visually anticipating the development of film noir.

“Citizen Kane” contains a number of visuals that anticipate film noir.
Another noir visual.
A very noir hall of mirrors.

The inserted newsreel that follows this opening segment then serves as an unconventional bit of exposition that retroactively clarifies much of what we have seen in the opening three minutes, in particular identifying the dying man from the opening scene as one Charles Foster Kane. Meanwhile, as newsreels tend to do, it recaps Kane’s life in a nonlinear, fragmentary fashion, anticipating the way in which the remainder of the film will do the same. This newsreel (as that genre typically does) packs a great deal of information into its short runtime (just over nine minutes). Among other things, we learn that Kane has been a wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate (as Hearst had been), accompanied by a brief history of Kane’s newspaper empire. Here, we learn that Kane’s empire was actually quite diverse, extending into many realms beyond journalism, and that it actually had its roots in his family’s gold mine, the “third largest in the world.”[3] We also learn that the empire had been badly damaged by the Great Depression and that, by the time of Kane’s death in 1941, it was rapidly declining and in a state of near collapse.

In addition, the setting of the opening segment is revealed to be Kane’s once-bustling elaborate Florida estate, named “Xanadu,” in reference to the “stately pleasure-dome” mentioned in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic poem “Kubla Khan,” written in 1797, but not published until 1816. One of the most important items of information contained in this newsreel is the fact that Kane scoured the world seeking treasures and curiosities with which to decorate the unprecedented splendor of his Xanadu “palace,” including one shot of a camel heavily laden with goods meant for Xanadu, suggesting the exotic origins of some of Kane’s treasures. Indeed, Kane’s extravagance building his estate is specifically compared to that of the Egyptian pharaohs, identifying Xanadu as the most expensive human monument since the pyramids. Meanwhile, that these treasures are described in the newsreel as “the loot of the world,” immediately gives them a negative intonation, suggesting that they were essentially stolen from their rightful owners in a case of what might be described as consumerist imperialism. Xanadu, of course, is based primarily on Hearst castle, the palatial estate that William Randolph Hearst built near San Simeon, California, between 1919 and 1947 and which was indeed filled with artifacts from around the world, Hearst himself having expressed the desire to make it a sort of museum of the world’s finest things. But this motif also goes beyond Hearst and aligns Kane with the habits of other famous super-wealthy individuals in American history. The camels in the newsreel, for example, recall the devotion of financier and industrialist J. P. Morgan to collecting art from around the world—including ancient Egyptian artifacts—in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.[4] Among other things, such collections suggest that, even in the years when the United States was a famously isolationist nation, American capitalism was already extending its tentacles around the globe, making the later emergence of corporate-dominated globalization seem like a logical and predictable development.

This subtle suggestion makes isolationism appear to be an unrealistic and possibly dishonest attitude, because it shows that the U.S. is already extensively involved in the affairs of the rest of the world. And it is only one of many ways in which the film undercuts the ideology of isolationism, an attitude that had made the U.S. very hesitant to enter the war that began in Europe in 1939. Politically, Welles was very much aligned with the collation of left-wing groups known as the Popular Front, which was centrally devoted to encouraging the U.S. to join Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi Germany. The most obvious allegorization of isolationism in the film, of course, is Kane’s turn away from the public world and retreat to Xanadu, which is depicted as a pathetic and defeatist move, thus suggesting a similarly negative view of isolationism in global politics.[5]

The newsreel also makes clear that Kane had been a very public man, loved by millions and hated by just as many. It is also clear that his newspaper empire had given him considerable political power, giving him access to some of the world’s most powerful leaders. In perhaps the newsreel’s most important single image, Kane is shown at one point rubbing elbows with Hitler, whom the narrator of the newsreel suggests had once been supported in the pages of Kane’s papers, though it is also suggested that Kane later withdrew that support. The newsreel also points out that, upon his return from a European trip shortly before the outbreak of World War II (which occurred in 1939), Kane announced that he had consulted all of the most powerful European leaders and assured his public that there would be no war. In this and other ways, Kane’s judgment and perspicacity are subtly questioned in this newsreel, which is far from a mere elegy.

Kane pals it up with Hitler.

The newsreel suddenly comes to a screeching halt, revealing that we have not been seeing an ordinary newsreel as shown in a theater. Instead, we have been watching a preliminary cut, which is being shown in the private screening room of the producers of News on the March. The newsreel makes it clear that Kane had been a rather enigmatic figure, despite being so well known. In fact, he is so enigmatic that the producers of this newsreel are unsatisfied that they have adequately captured the gist of the man[6]. As a result, one of their reporters, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), is assigned to research Kane further, to try to find an “angle” that will capture the real essence of the man. In particular, he is assigned to investigate the meaning of “Rosebud,” the final word spoken by Kane before his death, in the hope that this will somehow provide a summary insight.

Thompson will then spend the remainder of the film attempting, without success, to decipher the meaning of this enigmatic final word, though audiences are presumably clued in just before the end of the film as workers, clearing some of the less valuable detritus at Xanadu by burning it, toss a cheap child’s sled into a fiery furnace. We can see, just before it is consumed in flames, the insignia that is imprinted on the sled: “Rosebud.” Mystery solved. Rosebud was the name of the sled Kane owned as a child, which he has now tracked down and retrieved, in a symbolic suggestion of the importance of his lost childhood to the remainder of his life. But Citizen Kane, of course, is not a film that lends itself to simple and definitive interpretations, certainly not ones as cheap and sentimental as this one. The name of the Rosebud sled is revealed almost immediately after Thompson has declared that no single word could sum up a man’s life, and most of the film supports his position, especially in the case of Kane, who is filled with so many contradictions. As James Naremore puts it, in Citizen Kane “everything evokes its opposite and all statements about the protagonist are true in some sense.” Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that a thoughtful consideration of this final revelation about the sled shows that it actually raises more questions than it answers. Presumably, the snow globe held by Kane as he drifts into death has helped to trigger memories of his childhood in a snowy Colorado. But Kane’s emotional relationship with the globe is complicated by the fact that (as we learn in the course of the film) he had found the globe in the bedroom of his second wife, Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), while he was wrecking the room in a fit of rage after learning that she was leaving him. In the midst of smashing a number of expensive artifacts, Kane suddenly sees the snow globe, itself merely a cheap trinket, and halts his rampage. Clutching the glass orb, he mutters “Rosebud,” making it clear that the snow globe and the sled are linked in his mind, presumably because they are both connected with snow, something that he associates with his childhood.

The burning sled.

Meanwhile, all of this is complicated by the fact that, when Kane first meets Susan and goes with her to her apartment in a later scene of the film, she already has the snow globe sitting on her dressing table. Thus, the globe is not a literal memento of Kane’s snowy Colorado, nor is it something that was given to Susan by Kane. The film calls no attention to the globe when it is shown in Susan’s apartment, so we can only speculate about whether Kane even noticed it, let only whether it somehow connects Susan with his lost childhood, making his attempt to gain ownership of her part of his larger quest to recover something he feels he has lost from his past.

Susan Alexander’s dressing table, complete with snow globe.

In short, the snow globe perhaps poses as many questions as it answers, and the same might be said about the Rosebud sled. The seemingly simple, straightforward interpretation of the meaning of “Rosebud” as an emblem of Kane’s lost childhood actually requires viewers to make a number of assumptions, filling in a great deal of information that is not really supplied in the film. Are we sure that the sled we see burning at the end of the film is in fact the very sled that Kane had owned as a child, or is it simply a sled that is similar to that one? And how is it seemingly public knowledge that Kane uttered “Rosebud” as he died, given that he was, in fact, alone in the room as he issued this utterance?

One might compare here the famous last words of Kurtz (“the horror, the horror”) in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. These words supposedly supply a fundamental insight into the nature of Kurtz and his view of life, though it is entirely unclear what insight is really supplied. In addition, we are not at all sure that the information identifying these as Kurtz’s dying words is really reliable. After all, this information comes to us from an unnamed and unidentified narrator who is relaying to us second-hand what he claims that Charlie Marlow, the novel’s central character, had identified to him as Kurtz’s dying words. We know, though, that Marlow is an unreliable source of information and that he is not above outright fabrication. In addition, from what he himself apparently told the narrator, Marlow was not actually present at the moment of Kurtz’s death, but instead supposedly heard Kurtz mutter “the horror” some time before his death, which was itself apparently witnessed only by an African servant.

Because of its complex narrative voice and because of Marlow’s obvious unreliability, it is impossible to know anything for sure about Heart of Darkness. And the same can be said of Citizen Kane, the bulk of which consists of Thompson’s search for information about Kane by consulting a series of Kane’s former associates, each of whom supplies a flashback narrative that supposedly provides one piece of the puzzle. All of the information he gathers about Kane is thus second-hand, as is all of the information we get about Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Moreover, all of this information about Kane is itself partial in both senses of the word: it is not only incomplete, but it is also clearly colored by the points of views of the suppliers of the information.

Susan Alexander Kane

Thompson begins his quest by interviewing Kane’s second wife, whom he discovers working as the headline entertainer at the “El Rancho” nightclub in Atlantic City, which is introduced though another complex, moving-camera shot that makes clear that the artistry of this film will not be limited to the prologue but will continue through Thompson’s investigation. After the camera soars above the nighclub and then apparently moves through its cracked skylight, Thompson finds a drunken Susan Alexander Kane sitting at a table inside. She seems a sad and fallen figure, presumably because of Kane’s death. The headwaiter at the club does, however, suggest that he might have some information about the meaning of “Rosebud,” taking a bribe that Thompson slips to him, but then saying that he once asked Susan about Rosebud and that “she never heard of it.” This moment thus becomes one of many in which the film teases us with bits of information while withholding most of it.

Walter Parks Thatcher

Rebuffed by Susan, Thompson next goes to the Thatcher Memorial Library in Philadelphia, where he hopes to find information in the papers of deceased banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), an important figure in Kane’s life. Thompson consults Thatcher’s private unpublished memoirs, which are among the papers held at the library. These papers do, in fact, supply a great deal of information, but neither we nor Thompson are in a position to judge its reliability or to question Thatcher about it. In addition, one of the conditions under which Thompson is allowed to examine the memoirs is that her will use no direct quotes from it, so that we are not able to tell just how closely the flashbacks that follow actually match Thatcher’s memoirs (or how closely those memoirs match reality).

The flashback begins in 1871, and it quickly becomes clear that the artistry of the film’s early moments is still at work. Indeed, these flashback segments are oddly artistic—and perhaps far stranger than they might first appear. In particular, it is clear that the flashbacks contain far more information and are far more artfully presented than anything that could be contained in the actual information Thompson is presented in Thatcher’s memoirs or in his direct interviews. So where does all this come from? It comes, of course, from Welles and Toland, thus reminding us, on one level, that this film is a constructed work of fiction. But this emphasis on fictionality also extends into the world of the film, reminding us that the narratives Thompson garners from his various interviewees are also constructed and not necessarily reliable.

In this first flashback, Thatcher travels to Colorado to meet with the parents of young Kane, who is first seen sledding in a snowstorm, establishing an immediate connection with the “Rosebud” motif. The Kanes are owners of a somewhat seedy boarding house, but the mother, Mary Kane (played by Agnes Moorehead), has come into possession of a seemingly worthless gold mine from a boarder who signed the deed over to her in lieu of paying for his board. The mine has now turned out to be fabulously rich in ore, and Mary—over the objections of the boy’s father—has arranged for Thatcher to become the boy’s guardian and to take him back to New York to be raised in surroundings appropriate to such a wealthy child. As part of the deal, Thatcher’s bank will also assume management of the gold mine, paying a sum of $50,000 per year to the Kanes (a fact that causes the father suddenly to withdraw his objections).

The bulk of the wealth from the mine is to be held in trust for young Charles until he reaches his 25th birthday, at which time he will assume full control of the wealth. We then see the handover of young Charles to Thatcher, with a clear implication that Charles’ mother is attempting to act in what she sees as the boy’s best interest, with clear implications that the boy’s father might have been physically abusive, causing the mother to want to get the boy away from him. The boy is then taken away, struggling to resist, while Rosebud is left behind in the snow in a sentimental shot that seems unlikely to have been generated directly by Thatcher’s memoirs. Indeed, this entire segment is generated from Thompson’s reading of less than 60 pages of handwritten text, so we can infer that there is probably a great deal of reading between the lines going on here and that many of the details may or may not be accurate—either because Thatcher did not report them with sufficient detail or accuracy or because Thompson modified them in his interpretation of Thatcher’s memoirs—assuming that his interpretation is what we are seeing in the flashback. The scene then suddenly cuts to a Christmas scene in which Charles is presented by Thatcher with a much nicer sled[7], but in surroundings that are completely lacking in love or family warmth. The next cut then takes us immediately to the approach of Kane’s 25th birthday, when Thatcher is dictating a very impersonal letter informing Kane that he is to assume control of his own finances (the world’s sixth largest private fortune, we are told) for the first time. Most of Kane’s childhood is thus missing altogether from the film, but there is a sense in which it is missing from Kane’s life. Raised by a bank rather than a family, Kane is man with missing parts, a product of the capitalist system, a system that produces only soulless commodities.

The next cut shows Thatcher reading Kane’s response, which suggests that Kane has little interest in the various properties being turned over to him, except for the New York Inquirer, which Kane suggests it might be fun to run. Then there is an immediate to montage sequence (accompanied by comical music) in which Thatcher is shown reacting with exasperation to a series of campaigns that Kane has launched in his newly-acquired newspaper, all designed to expose inequities in Thatcher’s various business dealings. This sequence ends with a confrontation between Kane and Thatcher in which Kane is shown, in compromising fashion, suggesting that he is willing to instigate a war between the United States and Spain over Cuba, just so his newspaper will have something sensational to cover.[8] Kane also announces in this scene that he sees himself as a crusader, defending the common people of America against “money-mad pirates” like Thatcher and his ilk, and thereby hoping to prevent a potential revolution in which the common people might defend themselves.

The film next jumps to the collapse of the stock market in late 1929 and to Kane’s subsequent loss of much of his property, including the Inquirer and the far-flung newspaper syndicate into which it had grown. He is shown signing over ownership of his newspaper  empire back to the opportunistic Thatcher, though Kane himself will still exercise a measure of control. Kane seems defeated here, viewing his life in retrospective, as if there is nothing more to be accomplished. He tells Thatcher that he wishes he could have been everything Thatcher hates, making clear the depth of animosity that he still bears toward the aging banker, an animosity that (among other things) raises questions about Thatcher’s objectivity as a source of information about Kane.

Mr. Bernstein

Indeed, this “Thatcher” segment raises key epistemological questions that runs through the remainder of the film, in which events from Kane’s life are presented to us on screen as if we are observing them directly, even though in fact we never are. All of the information presented in Citizen Kane is indirect, and most of it is of questionable reliability, perhaps echoing the questionable reliability of the information presented in Kane’s newspapers. Thompson turns directly from his visit to the Thatcher Library to a visit with Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloan), Kane’s long-time lieutenant at the Inquirer, now the Chairman of the Board of Kane’s former company. He sits in a posh office with a huge portrait of Kane on the wall at his back, suggesting that his relationship with Kane is far different from Thatcher’s. It is also clear that Bernstein’s relationship with Thatcher is adversarial. When Thompson mentions that he had visited Thatcher’s library, Bernstein immediately declares Thatcher “the biggest fool I ever met.” He also suggests that Thatcher, who was devoted only to making money, never understood Kane, because Kane had other interests. Thus, Thatcher’s account of his experiences with Kane is immediately put further into doubt.

Bernstein’s own narrative about Kane begins on the first day Kane took control of the Inquirer, sending us into another flashback segment. Kane arrives at the newspaper offices in the company of his old friend and former college chum Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), who will turn out to be a key figure in the film. Bernstein is trailing close behind with a wagonload of Kane’s personal furnishings, which he installs in the office of the editor-in-chief of the paper, where Kane plans to live for the time being. Then he sets about making the Inquirer into a bigger, flashier, and more successful paper, clearly with an eye more toward producing eye-catching headlines than toward solid journalism. Kane launches his regime by publishing a “Declaration of Principles” in the next issue of the paper, pledging that he will henceforth print the news truthfully and make the Inquirer a champion of human rights. Leland, impressed, claims the handwritten original as a memento of this auspicious beginning.

From the beginning, though, Kane seems more devoted to increasing his paper’s circulation any way he can. In particular, he sets his sights on the crack reportorial staff of the Chronicle, which has a circulation nearly 20 times that of the Inquirer.[9] Over a period of the next six years, he poaches the entire staff; the circulation of the Inquirer, meanwhile, has increased from 26,000 to 684,000 in that time. Kane conducts an elaborate celebration, complete with marching band and dancing girls, in a scene that suggests he is more into showmanship than accurate reporting. Meanwhile, he hints that would like to stimulate circulation further, perhaps by encouraging a war with Spain, giving his paper something spectacular to cover.

We also learn from this segment that Kane had begun collecting statues from around the world almost as soon as he came into his fortune. In addition, we learn of his first marriage—to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), the niece of the President of the United States. We also learn that this marriage ended badly, though no details are supplied at this time. More than anything, Bernstein urges Thompson to consult Leland as the best source of personal information about Kane, which Thompson agrees to do, having already located Leland, who is currently a patient in a New York hospital, suffering from “old age.”

Jedediah Leland

The Leland segment begins as Leland assures Thompson he remembers absolutely everything, something that he suggests is a curse. He also acknowledges that he was Kane’s oldest and closest friend, though it is also clear that the two had been at odds ever since Kane’s meddling helped to trigger the Spanish-American War forty-three years earlier—a suggestion that shows just how alone in the world Kane really was. Kane, says Leland, never believed in anything except himself. He then begins to fill in the story of Kane’s first marriage—about which he will be the only source, given that Emily is long deceased, killed (along with their son) in an automobile accident that occurred two years after the Kanes’ 1916 divorce.

The film then moves into a flashback sequence that details the gradual deterioration of the Kane marriage, which Leland presumably knows about because Kane confided in him about his domestic life, though there is another bit of uncertainty here about the sourcing of the information. Indeed, this sequence contains a great deal of detailed information that is unlikely to have been fully available to Leland. In the flashback, with Kane devoted more to the Inquirer than to his marriage, he and Emily gradually grow apart, especially after his paper begins attacking her uncle in its pages. This sequence presents the gradual alienation of the two spouses with brilliant economy, via a montage sequence that shows the Kanes at their breakfast table, which begins with relative intimacy, as Kane kisses Emily on the forehead before sitting with her at their small table. In subsequent shots, the two grow more and more distant—even literally, as we see in the final shot, which reveals that they now sit at opposite ends of what is now a much longer table.

Leland also fills in the details of the first meeting of the fifty-ish Kane with Susan Alexander, a twenty-two-year-old salesgirl. The two meet cute in a rainstorm, and we will learn later that this encounter diverted Kane from a trip to a warehouse that had just received a number of items from his former home in Colorado (presumably including the Rosebud sled). This meeting quickly leads to an affair that ultimately destroys not only Kane’s marriage but also his political ambitions. Engaged in a campaign to become governor of New York, Kane is brought down when his apparently corrupt opponent, incumbent governor James “Jim” W. Gettys, learns of the affair and announces it to the public after attempting to blackmail Kane into withdrawing. This announcement causes Kane, whose campaign as a “fighting liberal” had seemed to be headed for a sure victory that might ultimately have been a springboard to the presidency, to lose all support. Gettys is re-elected in a landslide, and Kane’s political ambitions are permanently derailed. This event also alienates Leland further from Kane, whom Leland believes should have withdrawn from the race to avoid a public scandal and humiliation for both Emily and Susan. Kane, says Leland, was a man who wanted everyone to love him but who never loved anyone except himself (and possibly his mother).

This segment suggests that Kane’s passion for Susan Alexander was based not so much on genuine love as on the hope that the down-to-earth ordinariness of the young woman might help him to recover something that he had lost in himself. This relationship thus continues the theme of loss that runs throughout the film, while also adding a touch of pathos as Kane, attracted to Susan because she is so ordinary, then finds himself irresistibly driven to try to make her extraordinary, apparently in order to feed his own insatiable ego. Susan has a vague interest in singing, so Kane sets about attempting to make her into a successful opera star, though she clearly doesn’t have the voice for it. He spends huge sums of money, going so far as to build a new multimillion-dollar opera house in Chicago for Susan to perform in. But she simply lacks the talent, and her career (like Kane’s attempt to promote it) becomes an object of derision.

William Randolph Hearst, it might be noted, was engaged in a long-time affair with actress Marion Davies, thirty-four years his junior. Though married, Hearst openly lived with Davies, ultimately building Hearst Castle to occupy with the actress, while Hearst’s wife lived her own separate life, refusing to grant a divorce. Hearst and Davies had a daughter together, though the girl was presented to the world as Davies’s niece and ward until shortly before her death in 1993. Hearst used his considerable influence in Hollywood in an attempt to promote Davies’ acting career, insisting that she be cast in serious dramatic roles, for which she was ill-suited. Unlike Susan Alexander, however, Davies was a gifted comedic actress and had a substantial career on her own before Hearst’s interference, making enough money in acting to help bail out Hearst when he was near bankruptcy during the depression. In fact, Hearst’s attempts to promote her to serious roles probably damaged her career significantly.[10]

Hearst and Davies remained together for over thirty years, until his death in 1951, but Kane and Susan are not so successful. The flashback continues with their wedding celebration, which Kane orchestrates in a very public fashion, as if in defiance of the scandal mongers who would decry his relationship with the “singer,” as one newspaper headline characterizes her, including the scare quotes. But Kane’s attempts to make Susan into an opera star do nothing but make her into an object of mockery, while Leland’s negative review of her debut performance drives a further wedge between Leland and Kane, who already have spoken since the Gettys affair, now years in the past. Actually, Kane stubbornly completes that negative review himself after Leland passes out while drinking and writing the review, then fires Leland from his job as the drama critic for the Chicago Inquirer. From this point, Kane’s attempts to dominate and control her life finally drive Susan to leave him, leading to the famous scene in which he ransacks her room, which in turn takes us back to the film’s opening (and Kane’s closing) moments.

Susan Alexander Kane II

Leland’s segment, which lasts more than thirty-five minutes, is the longest in the film, suggesting the way in which Leland and Kane were relatively close in their early years together. At the same time, even Leland never got that close to Kane, and the two men spent more years of their adult lives estranged from one another than they did as friends. The Leland segment thus ultimately serves to reinforce the characterization of Kane as a lonely man with no real connections to anyone, a man unable to view other people as anything but objects to be manipulated in the interest of his own goals. Indeed, Susan Alexander was perhaps the person who came closest to really knowing Kane, so Thompson now returns to the El Rancho to take another shot at interviewing her. This time, sunken even further into drink, she agrees to talk.

The following flashback segment is perhaps the most poignant in the film, as it becomes clear how much Susan suffered in the attempt to try to fulfill Kane’s ambitions for her as a singer. In this version, we see an extended sequence from Susan’s fateful debut performance in Chicago; it’s painful for most of the audience to watch and even more painful for Susan to perform. Kane, meanwhile, looks on in rapt fascination with a clear look of ownership, his male gaze consisting not of desire for Susan so much as desire for her to make him look good. Indeed, Laura Mulvey—the important film critic whose work first popularized the notion that Hollywood films tend to be dominated by the male gaze, positioning the audience to see the film from a male perspective—has pointed out in her book-length study of Citizen Kane that this is one of the few films of its era that is not dominated by the male gaze. For Mulvey, in fact, this is one of the key ways in which Citizen Kane is “strikingly anti-Hollywood” (26). Thus, while Susan performs in this scene in the most scantily clad costume of the film, the effect is not to evoke sexual desire but instead to invite sympathy for the way she is put on display in this performance[11]. In short, we are invited to see this performance from Susan’s own point of view, rather than from that of Kane or any other male audience member.

“Citizen Kane” contains very little that seems to cater to the male gaze.

As Mulvey puts it, “The scenes in which Susan performs in the opera actually undercut and caricature the figure of woman as erotic spectacle” (26). Meanwhile, this motif is made even more interesting because the opera in which she appears, Salammbo, is presumably based on Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 historical novel Salammbô (which has been adapted to opera several times, though the opera in the film seems to be entirely fictional). Ironically, the title character of Flaubert’s novel (and presumably the character played by Susan in the opera) is very much a figure of woman as erotic spectacle, with a healthy dose of Orientalism thrown in as well, presumably making her more exotic and sexually enticing. In the opera, however, this erotic spectacle falls flat, and Susan never appears to be anything other than a poor young woman who is very much out of her element and very uncomfortable with being on display in this way.

When Susan, humiliated in the wake of her debut, angrily announces that she is giving up singing, Kane says that she must keep singing, because “I do not propose to have myself made ridiculous.” Susan screams back at him that she is the one who has to do the singing. We’ve known all along, of course, that Susan’s singing career is all about Kane, not Susan, but it is, in fact, Kane who begins to look ridiculous as he sends her on tour, printing rave reviews of her performances in his papers. Eventually, Susan is driven to attempt suicide, after which Kane finally relents and allows her to stop singing. The two move into their own private world at Xanadu, where she spends most of her time doing giant jigsaw puzzles, and he spends much of his time wandering about in near darkness.[12] The Kanes occasionally have elaborate, highly choreographed parties, but the cinematography emphasizes the growing gulf between them, culminating in that crucial moment when Susan announces her departure from the marriage, ending the flashback and returning us to the El Rancho, where Susan recommends that Thompson talk with Kane’s butler Raymond, because “he knows where all the bodies are buried.”

The camera emphasizes the distance between Susan and Kane.

Raymond the Butler

The film immediately cuts to Thompson’s interview with Raymond (Paul Stewart), ominously conducted in almost total darkness. Raymond begins by negotiating for payment from Thompson, offering to reveal the secret of Rosebud in return for $1,000, clearly echoing the head waiter back at the El Rancho. Raymond’s venality casts suspicion upon his motivations and perhaps makes his flashback sequence the least reliable of all. This sequence begins exactly where Susan’s ended, with her departure from Xanadu—which is convenient, given that Raymond presumably has no idea where Susan ended her narrative, raising the question of whether we should think of these flashbacks as having been edited by Thompson all along. In the wake of her departure, the aging Kane, in a bravura scene, goes berserk and wrecks her room, staggering about in a manner that suggests that this fit of fury might have hastened his death. He stops when he finds the snow globe and utters “Rosebud,” which Raymond looking on from outside the room, overhears, later telling Thompson that he heard it “that other time, too,” apparently meaning at the moment of Kane’s death and also presumably solving the puzzle of the source of that information. On the other hand, Raymond is presented as a somewhat untrustworthy source, clearly not above simply inventing information if he thinks it might be marketable. Thus, far from solving the question of the source of the “Rosebud” information, this revelation raises serious questions about whether Kane uttered this word at all at the moment of his death.

In any case, Kane pockets the snow globe before stumbling back to his room, his large retinue of servants looking on in stunned silence as Raymond’s flashback ends. Thompson angrily stalks away, telling Raymond that his story (which, after all, explains nothing) is not worth $1,000. As Thompson leaves, with Raymond trailing behind still angling for payment, we see workers gathering Kane’s leftovers, with valuable items being catalogued and crated up and less valuable ones burned. After Thompson departs, we see workmen toss an old child’s sled bearing the name “Rosebud” into the flames, just after an overhead tracking shot designed to show the vast extent of Kane’s collection comes to rest on an old photograph of Kane as a child, with his mother. We see a dramatic shot of a smoke plume wafting skyward from the furnace, suggesting the way in which Kane’s childhood went up in smoke. Then, a final shot of the gate and the “No Trespassing Sign,” completes the film with a neat symmetry.

This last scene adds a touch of pathos, but in general Welles presents Kane’s story in a mode free of sentimentality, though he does humanize the central character, thus producing a certain amount of sympathy for a man who himself has little sympathy for anyone else. Kane is a complex character with deep and fatal flaws, but he has sympathetic aspects as well. Indeed, Citizen Kane is carefully constructed in a highly dialogic fashion, fundamentally built out of contrasts and contradictions. But Kane’s story is not merely a personal one, and the film also carefully interweaves the personal with the political. This aspect of the film adheres most obviously in the way Kane’s personal relationship with Susan undermines his political career. But it runs throughout the film. For example, Mulvey argues that both the snow globe and the “Rosebud” sled serve as “a reminder of the place that ‘things’ came to occupy” in American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (11). Indeed, that period was the period of the rise of consumer capitalism, which brought about a transformation in the entire fabric of American society during that period.[13]

That such seeming trivial consumer commodities could play such an important role in Kane’s life speaks volumes about the growing importance of such objects in American life. Moreover, these objects are contrasted in the film with the art treasures collected by Kane from around the world, suggesting that American capitalism has replaced objects of genuine aesthetic value with cheap consumer goods. At the same time, almost everything about this film offers multiple interpretations. The film, according to Naremore, is “an impure mixture of ideas, forms, and feelings—part magic show, part tragedy; part satire, part sentiment.” It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there is a way in which Citizen Kane might actually flip this comparison between different classes of objects. In a key scene just before she leaves Xanadu, Susan complains that the expensive gifts Kane gives her and the expensive art objects he collects both mean nothing, because they are “just money.” “You never really give me anything that belongs to you, that you care about,” she declares. “You never gave me anything in your whole life. You just try to buy me into giving you something.” What he wants her to give him, of course, is love, but Susan’s speech here suggests that items such as the snow globe or the Rosebud sled, which have little commercial value but a great deal of sentimental value, might ultimately be more valuable in a real sense than gaudy jewelry or ancient statues, though the latter have much greater exchange value on the open market. In this sense, the sled and the globe might be seen as anti-capitalist images.

In any case, however important it might be to acknowledge the brilliance of Citizen Kane as a work of art, it is clear that the film makes a number of political statements. The most urgent of these is its implicit anti-fascism and its call for the U.S. to enter the war against fascism—which the U.S. did three months after the release of the film (though the film was not responsible for that event). In a more general sense, Citizen Kane also comments in important ways on the rise of the modern American media and on the dehumanizing and alienating consequences of capitalism, whatever its material benefits. Citizen Kane is, indeed, the most leftist Hollywood film of its era, taking a stance that was enabled partly by the unusual leeway given Welles in his contract with RKO and partly by the way in which the formal complexity of the film tends to obscure its politics.

Finally, it should be noted that even this aspect of Citizen Kane can be seen in very different ways. On the one hand, the careful way in which the film balances alternative interpretations of almost everything in it is a demonstration of the fact that Welles’ Popular Front politics were fair and open-minded, as opposed to the fanatical single-mindedness often attributed to the Left by its opponents. One could potentially even push this interpretation further to argue that Citizen Kane’s structural oppositions actually give the whole film a dialectical[14] quality, which—according to Karl Marx—was the only adequate way to analyze something as complex and contradictory as capitalism. But one could also argue that the oppositional structure of Citizen Kane vitiates the immediate effectiveness of the film’s political commentary and can possibly be seen as an attempt to get the film made and distributed at all.[15]

Finally, it should be noted that all of this is colored by the fact that the film was made in a very different historical and political context than the one in which we now watch it. The film’s critique of isolationism and warnings against fascism would have seemed immediate and obvious to audiences in 1941, just as the film’s tour-de-force violations of the Hollywood style would have seemed more striking, even stunning, in 1941 than they do now, given all the stylistic razzle-dazzle we have seen in the films of the past few decades. Meanwhile, Citizen Kane’s warnings about the manipulative power of the media and the creeping cancer of consumerism would have probably seemed secondary to the concerns about fascism in 1941 but now stand out more than ever after the explosive growth of media penetration into every aspect of American life in the past few decades. What is perhaps most remarkable about Citizen Kane is that, despite all of these changes in context the film remains such a landmark in the history of cinema, still able to elicit admiration for its aesthetics and critical debates about its meanings.

WORKS CITED

Carringer, Robert L. The Making of Citizen Kane. Revised and updated ed. University of California Press, 1996.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. Verso, 1996.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.

Mass, Roslyn. “A Linking of Legends: The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane.” Literature/Film Quarterly (1974) 207-15.

Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury (on behalf of the British Film Institute), 2019.

Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. Scribner’s, 1997.

NOTES


[1] Newsreels were a popular form of visual information distribution in the years before television. Essentially short documentary films, newsreels were typically shown in movie theaters as supplements to the feature films showing there at the time, though some theaters featured programs consisting entirely of newsreels. One of the most popular newsreel series, Pathé News, was distributed by RKO from 1931 to 1947. Welles himself had worked on a radio newsreel known as The March of Time, which inspired a filmed newsreel of the same title that was shown in theaters from 1935 to 1951. This newsreel seems to have been the principal model for the one in Citizen Kane.

[2] See Roslyn Mass for a comparison of both Kane and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel The Great Gatsby with the work of Joseph Conrad, one of the leading practitioners of literary Impressionism. That Kane might be influenced by Conrad would not be a surprise given that Welles pivoted to the making of Kane immediately after abandoning an attempt to adapt Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) to film.

[3] Hearst built his own empire on the wealth he inherited from his father, George Hearst, whose principal source of wealth was the Homestake Mine, a very rich gold mine near the town of Deadwood in the Black Hills of South Dakota. George Hearst figures as a particularly reprehensible villain in the HBO television series Deadwood.

[4] Morgan’s collecting is an important motif in E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel historical novel Ragtime, set in the early years of the twentieth century.

[5] It should also be noted that, especially during the Popular Front period, Hearst was a dedicated isolationist, espousing precisely the attitudes that the Popular Front was designed to oppose.

[6] Denning argues that the rest of Citizen Kane can, in fact, be read as a critique of this newsreel and of the kind of dramatized reporting it embodies, converting important news events into entertainment spectacles, a suggestion that, of course, makes the film more relevant today than ever. Citizen Kane, argues Demming, both “mocks and mimics” the magic of the newsreel form (388).

[7] This sled is labeled “Crusader,” foreshadowing the role that Kane will later play as a newspaperman, especially in his crusade against Thatcher.

[8] The reference here, of course, is to the 1898 Spanish-American war, which Hearst, in his New York Journal, helped to initiate with sensational reporting that denounced Spain and helped to create enthusiasm for the war among his readers.

[9] The rivalry between the Inquirer and the Chronicle is based on that between Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

[10] One of the persistent rumors about Citizen Kane, unverified but widely reported, is that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s pet name for Davies’ clitoris, a fact that she might perhaps have shared with her friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the script for Kane along with Welles.

[11] Welles also had to shoot around the fact that Dorothy Comingore was pregnant during filming, which further limited the kinds of shots that could be featured in the film.

[12] These puzzles, of course, serve as self-referential images of the film itself, in which Thompson attempts to re-assemble the pieces of Kane’s broken life.

[13] See Leach for a superb account of the rise of consumer capitalism in America during this period.

[14] Marx’s dialectical method of thinking through problems, derived through an improved historicization of the method used by G.W.F. Hegel, essentially consists of comparing opposed positions on a given topic, then working through that opposition to achieve a new viewpoint that acknowledges elements of both of the initial positions but also goes beyond either of them.

[15] The making and distribution of Citizen Kane were, in fact, fraught with difficulties, partly because the film goes against the grain of the Hollywood system in so many ways and partly because Hearst and his allies exerted considerable pressure in an attempt to bury the film. See Carringer for a detailed account of the compelling story of the making of this film, something that has also been dramatized in the award-winning 1999 television film RKO 281.