'Citizen Kane'

Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.

Why does Citizen Kane endure, 72 years after it was released, atop so many best-of lists and revered as one of the greatest films ever? Truth be told, I didn’t have a great answer for that question after the first time I saw it. Same goes for the second.

It is undeniably excellent, but it is not my favorite film ever. It isn’t even particularly close to that status, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.

Perhaps it is partly this: greatness doesn’t necessarily win you favor. Much like its titular character, Charles Foster Kane, greatness sometimes wins you speechless awe, and speechless awe alone.

***

Citizen Kane is astonishingly modern. Let’s start with that. I’m not sure if it was the first “modern” film. I haven’t watched enough pre-World War II films to pretend that I could even make a proclamation one way or the other.

It is more than seven decades old. It is older than Casablanca (a film I count as my favorite ever) and yet it manages to feel so much more fresh and relevant than it and many, many other films that have come since.

It has this effect because of its story. The emotionally distant, impossibly driven Charlie Kane is a near-perfect portrait of the pathological celebrity, the type we can still find on the pages of Us Magazine or at the top of News Corp. headquarters. Loosely based on the life of Yellow Journalism publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Kane archetype is one that is effortlessly familiar to audiences today.

Kane achieves global fame and notoriety through his newspaper empire, but what he seeks is the adoration and love of everyone. As his failed marriages, his broken and bitter friendships and his lonesome death at his unfinished estate, Xanadu, illustrate, this is a desire that is completely impossible to fulfill. It makes Kane who he is – a professional success but a failure as a person.

It has this effect because of its narrative structure. It begins with the death of Kane and his mysterious last word “Rosebud.” It moves from there to mock newsreels that define Kane’s stature at the time of his death. Then it follows reporters as they travel the country and try to solve the “Rosebud” mystery, a step that, in turn, unleashes a series of vignettes that fill in the Kane character more fully.

And it has this effect because, well, it was way ahead of its time in more subtle ways. There is the makeup that convincingly transformed Orson Welles from a dashing young upstart in to the eccentric, unhappy recluse he was on his deathbed. There is the clever use of shadows and perspective to accentuate key moments in the story.

About the only thing that feels old is the black and white, and, in a world where The Artist can win Best Picture and Nebraska, Frances Ha and Much Ado About Nothing can have broad commercial appeal, I’m not even sure that feels so old anymore.

***

At least some of Citizen Kane’s reputation is owed to the story behind its production. Orson Welles, fresh off what is maybe the greatest prank in human history, was handed an unprecedented deal by RKO Pictures. With minimal intervention, he was allowed almost complete creative control over the film, including the final cut privilege, a right reserved for the crème de la crème even today.

Welles had never made a feature-length film before, and he was 24 when he and the studio agreed to a deal.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of an equivalent for days and … I can’t. It’s like if Mark Zuckerberg was made head of Apple three months after Facebook came out. It’s unfathomable. It’s crazy.

And yet it happened. Not only that, but it was a huge success. Welles pulled off the filmmaking equivalent of hitting a home run in his first at-bat in the major leagues. He co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in one of the most influential films ever in his feature-length debut, and he even managed it while drawing the ire of Hearst, a response that, yes, did actually threaten to have a very real impact on the film’s commercial success.

Now, I have very recently criticized Hollywood types for being too fixated on the narrative surrounding a film rather than the actual film itself when evaluating them during the course of Oscar season.

Here’s an excerpt from my post on the subject after the 2012 Academy Awards:

Instead, I want to focus on what seems to me to be a massive overcorrection in the voting habits of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To be more specific, they seem to be fixated on a film’s external narrative — how the proverbial sausage was made in Hollywood — rather than the final product that moviegoers end up seeing in the theater.

In short, the voters have turned into suckers for an underdog story only the underdogs never appear on screen anymore. They struggle to get the film made for years because it has an unconventional cast or shooting style. The Artist, with its Frenchness and its black-and-white dialoguelessness, represents some sort of apex with regard to this phenomenon, but it’s really not much different than most of the other nominees for Best Picture this year or The King’s Speech or The Hurt Locker or Slumdog Millionaire.

Hard-liner thought I might be, even I can not ignore the story behind Citizen Kane. Its mere existence seems implausible. That it is one of the greatest films ever is miraculous.

***

In the mock newsreels at the start of the film, Charles Foster Kane is referred to as “America’s Kublai Khan,” a designation placed upon him, no doubt, because of the name of his Florida hermitage, Xanadu.

Xanadu, for those of you that aren’t history students was Kublai Khan’s capital, a sprawling, luxurious city located in present-day Northern China.

The allusion is obvious. C.F. Kane, a Khan of his day, walled himself off in opulence.

But, why Xanadu? It seems even more deliberate than, well, the obvious laid out just above. It’s a very specific reference, and it’s also one chosen by Kane himself.

I don’t have a great answer. My best guess is that Kane, like the Khans, who were Mongol rulers of China, had trouble feeling like he would ever fit in.  Later in those same mock newsreels, when he returns to the United States after a trip to Europe, he tells a reporter, “I’m an American. Always been an American.”

I’m not sure we’re ever really supposed to believe him, despite his apparent conviction.

***

“Rosebud …”

You can only talk about Citizen Kane for so long before it all rounds back to Rosebud.

Its meaning – in the simplest of terms – is one of the great mysteries in cinematic history.

(And I am struck again, as I was in the first part of this series, by the way the truly great films bob and weave from genre to genre rather than hewing strictly to its superficial confines. Citizen Kane is a mystery and a dark comedy as much as it is a drama.)

“It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

So says one of the producers of those mock newsreels to an assistant when he is sent out to solve the mystery.

Rosebud is a simple thing, simpler even than a lost lover, as is speculated at the film’s outset. But its meaning is not so simple. It is obscure – a plaything from Kane’s childhood that he, and only he, could have known about. It clouds rather than crystallizes his personality.

In the film’s final scene it is revealed that Rosebud is the sled Kane played with as a child, a toy he was separated from when his family came in to a large fortune and sent him East for an education.

Had that producer’s assistant been able to figure that out before the sled was tossed in to a furnace along with many of Kane’s other belongings would it have made a difference?

No, and I suspect that’s the point. It's the reason the film is bookended by the "No Trespassing" signs outside Kane's estate.

Much of what Citizen Kane has to say is about celebrity – about how we can never truly know a public figure despite this persona that they cultivate in front of reporters and cameras. It is the source of Kane’s misery, his compulsive desire to be loved by all and his inability to truly love on an individual level. It is also the source of the Rosebud mystery, the reason anyone cares to try and find out what his dying gasp meant.

This is why Rosebud is the ultimate MacGuffin.

When Kane first meets Susan Alexander on the street in Manhattan, he is on his way to send for the belongings that have been in storage out West since his mother died, belongings that presumably include Rosebud.

“I thought I’d send for them now,” Kane says. “Tonight I was going to take a look at them. You know, a sort of sentimental journey.”

Once Rosebud is revealed, you can’t help but wonder had Kane kept walking – had he never spoken with Susan Alexander – if he might have found what he was looking for.

This is a passing thought. It defies what little else we know about Charles Foster Kane.