On the centennial of Orson Welles’ birth, Mark Steyn looks back at his greatest achievement:
Directing-wise, I prefer Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and A Touch of Evil. And acting-wise, of course, his Harry Lime turn in The Third Man. Yet Citizen Kane is the great film of all great films — the one that from the Sixties on would reliably come in at Number One whenever anyone compiled a Top 100 Films Of All Time list. But, if you were a 25-year-old radio director given carte blanche by a Hollywood studio, what would you do? Orson Welles knew it wouldn’t be enough just to hand RKO a nice little movie: he had to make a splash; he had, at the very least, to top his own War of the Worlds for the Mercury Theatre Of The Air. And, in topping himself, he managed to top everyone else, too. And yet, for all that, the more you watch Citizen Kane, the more Welles’ sense of it as a great film threatens to overwhelm its greatness.
It’s about Charles Foster Kane, who’s really William Randolph Hearst, up to a point. Welles planted the thought with his cast, and sure enough, just before Citizen Kane was to open at Radio City Music Hall, Ruth Warrick (who plays Kane’s first wife) carelessly gave it away in a publicity interview: “He’s a composite of the kind of men that Americans make into heroes, when, really, they are despoilers,” she said.
“Like who?” asked the reporter, reasonably enough.
So she told him. He dropped his pencil. “I’ve gotta make a phone call,” he said, and never came back. The next day, Radio City canceled the opening, Hearst’s papers banned all advertising and news coverage of the film, and Hearst himself sued. Miss Warrick outlived almost everyone else in the cast and became better known to American audiences as Phoebe Tyler, the queen of Pine Valley, on ABC’s long-running daytime soap “All My Children”. After the director’s death in 1985, she would tell people that Welles, a master of magic and misdirection, knew he could rely on her to give the game away: the fuss over War of the Worlds had got him the RKO gig and taught him the importance of a big commotion.
As a huckster himself, Hearst might have appreciated the stunt. But that’s hardly important now: these days, no one knows or cares who William Randolph Hearst was; he lives on in America’s collective memory only as the pretext for an Orson Welles performance – which is a shame, as the real Hearst was a more complex and fascinating figure than Kane, or Welles. But, in the simplicity of its trajectory – precocious child to empty genius – Welles wound up prefiguring his own autobiography. Which you sort of feel he knew as he was making it.
One huge problem for new audiences discovering Citizen Kane is that we’re watching the history of the movie industry backwards, and it’s virtually impossible for most audiences to understand the worldview of the 1941-era audience that Kane was aimed at. Seeing Kane today would leave many new viewers wondering what the fuss was about, because so many of the film’s innovations — the deep focus photography, the elliptical plot, the multiple points of view in which the characters see Charles Foster Kane from their own worldviews, the incredible optical effects (and those so subtle they remain invisible to all but the most skilled Bletchley Park-level cinephile cryptographers) — became either de rigueur in movies to come, or simply fly past the heads of the audience. I imagine a young kid raised on the eye-popping CGI of today’s zillion dollar assembly-line Marvel products would look at Star Wars (let alone its prototype, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as equally innovative a film as Kane) and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Of course, far left film critics aren’t immune to this phenomenon, either: consider all of the modern-day critics who laugh at Charlton Heston playing a Mexican policeman in Welles’ last American directorial effort, 1958’s Touch of Evil, without the knowledge that Heston, at the height of his career as a box office superstar, insisted to Universal that either Welles directed the film, or he wouldn’t star in it. And how in-your-face a gesture it was to American audiences for Welles to cast the WASP-y Heston as a sympathetic Hispanic figure of authority.
As Mark writes, “These days, no one knows or cares who William Randolph Hearst was,” which makes understanding Kane that much more difficult. Not the least of which is grasping the scope of San Simeon, Hearst’s real-life prototype for Welles’ fictional Xanadu. It’s none too too shabby an estate either — and far more warm and human than the gothic grotesqueries depicted in Kane. San Simeon’s many religious artifacts came from Europe in the 1920s, for which Hearst paid fire sales prices as the Continent began its great PC clean-up, anticipating the real “Progressive” fire sale to come shortly before Kane went into production.