Citizen Kane, the rebirth of a masterpiece

Commercial failure in the United States on its release in May 1941, little distributed in Europe because of the Second World War, « Citizen Kane », the cult film by Orson Welles, had, contrary to its reputation, a mixed success in his exit. Out of nine Oscar nominations, he only got that for the original screenplay. It took until the following decade and a new release in 1956 for critical recognition to be almost unanimous, despite a timorous reception from the public. The film gains in esteem, but not financially.

The work of Welles especially suffered from the enormous pressures and obstructions of William Randolph Hearst, this magnate of the Californian press who tried everything to prevent the film from existing. Charles Foster Kane, the main character, strangely resembles him, as well as his eccentric home, Xanadu, and his mistress, whom he wants to make a star. He is a mixture of Hearst and other upstart businessmen, hungry for power and profit.

At the head of a print media empire, son of a multi-millionaire industrialist, Randolph Hearst could not stand what he considered to be a caricature of himself in the character of Kane. He succeeded in limiting screenings, prevented many media under his control from mentioning the film and called for its boycott. Various sources report that, through his friend Louis B. Mayer, boss of MGM, Hearst made an offer of $842,000 to the producer to confiscate the negative of the film. Without success (1). Thirty newspapers and magazines and eight radio stations of the group had to refuse any advertising from the RKO production studio. To the point that the latter almost gave in before Orson Welles threatened him with a lawsuit for breach of contract. The film ends up hitting theaters on May 1. The public is not there. According to the “Hollywood Reporter”, on May 6, 1941, when the filmmaker celebrated his 26th birthday, the film was screened in a half-empty theater in Chicago.

Deconstruction of codes and genres

Welles’ feature debut, « Citizen Kane » tells the story of billionaire Charles Foster Kane. The prologue opens with a transgression: the camera crosses the gate of the domain of Xanadu despite the plaque indicating “No trespassing” (no entry). With his last breath, Kane whispers one word: « Rosebud. » A journalist is then tasked with investigating to decipher the meaning of this word. From there, the film unfolds an unstructured story with flashbacks allowing us to discover Kane’s life and journey from his childhood to his obsessive delusions of power, including his marriages, his affairs, his political career. . From the outset, the director surprises with his narrative inventiveness. He deconstructs the codes and genres of classic cinema. A cutting into sequence shots using depth of field, cross fades and a short edit destabilized the public but seduced insiders.

uncompromising with capitalism, orson Welles settles accounts with the very people who gave him carte blanche in hollywood.

André Bazin considers that the film « remains an unequaled masterpiece of cinematographic editing » (2). To paint a virtuoso and cynical portrait of Kane, a capitalist who accumulates wealth and success, women and newspapers, but whose desire remains unfulfilled, Orson Welles called on Herman Mankiewicz for the screenplay, Gregg Toland for the lighting, Robert Wise for the editing (before he directed his “West Side Story”) and to the composer Bernard Herrmann, for whom this is the first score for the cinema. The interpretation is provided by his troupe, the Mercury Theater, to the chagrin of Hollywood studios.

With the uncompromising look it casts on capitalism through its most emblematic figures, including those of the press and the media, Welles’ first film settles accounts with the very people who gave him carte blanche in Hollywood. . Indeed, the agreement concluded with the RKO in 1939 grants the author almost total artistic freedom over his works. It’s unusual at the time and it arouses a lot of jealousy. But the RKO was won over by the success of the plays and radio soap operas – including “War of the Worlds” – of the young prodigy. Orson Welles is not 25 when he signs the contract.

Pressures from post-production

The filming of « Citizen Kane » takes place, in the most total discretion, from June 29 to October 23, 1940, at a cost of 820,000 dollars. The rushes arrive at the assembly on October 23, 1940, revealing the subject of the film. This is when the pressures and troubles begin, jeopardizing the profitability of the film. But not his notoriety. « Everything that matters in cinema has been influenced by ‘Citizen Kane' », says François Truffaut, speaking of a « narrative, technical, stylistic revolution » (3). For decades, Orson Welles’ film has been placed in the pantheon of cinema, despite some dissenting voices. It is one of the most studied and analyzed cinematographic works.

His commercial failure, however, led to questioning the « fabulous contract » which gave Welles carte blanche. Hollywood can’t stand a movie that doesn’t make money. The filmmaker will accumulate commercial failures with « The Splendor of the Ambersons » and « Journey to the Land of Fear », two works rejected by the producers. In 1945, he was forced to resell the rights to « Citizen Kane » for the modest sum of $20,000. A few years after the death of Randolph Hearst, in 1951, the film reappears. He will finally experience a deserved success. Its author will not receive a penny from the theatrical or television distribution of his work, considered « one of the greatest films of all time ».


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