In 1998, the American Film Institute released “100 Years…100 Movies,” a definitive list of 100 of the best American-made films.
Few match the honors that are bestowed upon No. 1, Orson Welles’ 1941 classic "Citizen Kane."
When I saw the list, I wanted to know why. What I found was fascinating.
Welles made his way to movies through acting in, producing and directing both plays and radio shows. He made big waves at the age of 21 by directing an all African-American version of Shakespeare’s "Macbeth," shaking up the system by Shakespeare’s classic to break the color line.
After a string of successful theater productions and his terror-causing radio presentation of H.G. Wells’ "War of the Worlds," Welles set his sights on Hollywood.
Working in the tightly controlled Studio System, RKO Pictures offered the 24-year-old an unheard of two-picture deal that gave him complete artistic control of the films he wanted to make.
At the time, not even the Alfred Hitchcock was given that kind of artistic freedom.
Having pitched a few ideas to the studio brass, Welles and his writing partner, Herman J. Mankiewicz, finally threw in what would become their greatest known work, in screenwriting, acting and directing. At the time it was known simply as RKO 281.
"Citizen Kane" is a broad, sweeping biography of the life of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper magnate who rises from fame, to notoriety, to eventual failure amongst seemingly unbeatable odds.
Welles, working within a narrative thread that jumps back and forth from Kane’s old age to youth, laid the tracks for the style of filmmaking that we typically attribute to modern directors like Quentin Tarantino.
To say that it was before its time is an understatement.
Just as "Pulp Fiction" made famous to a new set of viewers more than 50 years afterwards, "Citizen Kane" jumps from the end to the beginning, then back and forth in between amongst a changing backdrop of characters, sets and situations. It can be hauntingly confusing until one gets a few screenings in.
The film drew the ire of one major and powerful critic, without whom the film might not be so infamous.
Though the life of Kane is based off of Welles himself and a few other subjects, most similarities pointed directly to William Randolph Hearst, who was at the time one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Kane, like Hearst, ran a newspaper empire. Kane, like Hearst, had a failed run for public office. Most scathing was how Kane, like Hearst, had an affair with a hopeful starlet.
Welles made sure that during production that no one outside of the studio knew exactly what he was working on but once it was unleashed on the public, there was nowhere for "Citizen Kane" or Welles to hide.
The film’s production received a lot of press for more reasons than one, so Hearst investigated the rumors about the film and, horrified, ran a campaign of fear against its release, going so far as to label Welles a communist in an attempt have him blackballed.
Hearst refused to let either RKO studios or the film be mentioned in any of his newspapers.
He pressured the closeted owners of other studios, all of whom were Jewish, with a possible “outing” unless they stopped the film’s release.
A few of those studio heads offered RKO a sum of money if it would destroy the master copy of the film. In the end, Welles was forced to cut about three minutes out of the final product.
Welles won the battle and what is left is a masterful enigma.
The film panned at the box office but received nine Academy Award nominations. When the awards ceremony was held, every time its name was announced, the audience booed.
"Citizen Kane" reins supreme continually due to its advances in editing and cinematography, the screenwriting magic of Mankiewicz, a masterful direction by Welles, and the mystery surrounding whatever “Rosebud,” Kane’s last word, means.
While it was still in theaters, Welles ran into Hearst in an elevator and offered him free tickets to a showing.
Hearst declined, and Welles replied, “Charles Foster Kane would have taken the tickets.”
Game, set, match, Orson.
Tune in next week to learn about life on a movie set.