Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Citizen Kane (1941) ****

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the great director Orson Welles.  In honor of his birthday, TCM will air a slate of his films each Friday this month.  Citizen Kane remains the ultimate masterpiece of American cinema.  At this point watching Citizen Kane might feel like homework for some, especially upon initial viewing, but it achieves a greater significance each time I watch it.

Released in 1941, Citizen Kane met with critical success, but slumped at the box office. Nominated for nine Oscars, Kane won for original screenplay. After Citizen Kane, Welles worked on The Magnificent Ambersons, but left the project after RKO studios insisted on editing changes.  Thus for the rest of his life Welles depended on his acting to finance his own projects and usually worked outside the system, leaving many films unfinished.

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a media mogul who lived both the American dream - and nightmare.  Loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst (and a few other tycoons), the story examines the emptiness of wealth, fame, and the collapse of youthful idealism into hubris and cynicism.

Kane's guardians plan his future.
Upon its release in 1941 Citizen Kane looked unlike anything Hollywood had ever produced. The film opens with the forbidding mansion of Xanadu as the camera pans to a  "No Trespassing" sign.  Then a mock Time-Life Newsreel telling the story of Kane's life from humble its beginnings and rise in the newspaper industry.  And then a shift to a screening room as newsman enclosed in darkness argue about the meaning of Kane's final words, "Rosebud."
The rest of the film follows a reporter on a quest to unlock the secret of "Rosebud." Flashbacks trace his childhood, rise in journalism, and eventually politics.  He personified American exuberance as it entered the 20th century, manifesting itself in imperialism. Kane led the charge for war with Spain in 1898.

Kane marries the niece of the President and seemed predestined to attain the presidency, the end all and be all of the American dream.  But wealthy men seldom attain the highest office - Nelson Rockefeller, Donald Trump, Steve Forbes etc... Kane campaigns as a champion for the poor.  And yet the speech looks foreboding, almost Fascist.  Like many American politicians, a sex scandal undid his political career.
Running for Office
The second half of the film takes on a much darker tone. Kane's second marriage to a young opera singer leads to unhappiness for both.  Both wander around like strangers in Xanadu.  Growing balder and fatter, he spends his final days in despair about his life.  As he says prophetically later in the film, "If I hadn't been very rich, I might've been a really great man."

Images and sequences from Citizen Kane stay with you forever.  My particular favorite is "Charles Foster Kane" dance sequence.  With Kane at the height of his powers he holds garish party and we see him subtly evolve from idealistic young man to a megalomaniac.
The "Dance Sequence"
Now at 100, Welles is undergoing something of a renaissance.  Recently The Projection Booth Podcast dedicated a whole episode to his unreleased movie from the 70s, The Other Side of the Wind.  The film had an amazing cast consisting of John Huston, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, and Susan Strasberg.  

Happy Birthday Mr. Welles!

                                  THE WHITE STRIPES "THE UNION FOREVER"

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