Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: "The Battle over Citizen Kane"

The PBS documentary "The Battle over Citizen Kane" from the acclaimed anthology series, The American Experience is a compelling snapshot of cultural history. The show depicts the clash between the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) and actor/director Orson Welles (1915-1985) over the release of what is universally considered the greatest American film ever made, Citizen Kane. Both men left indelible impressions on their respective eras. Hearst is to American journalism what John D. Rockefeller was to oil, as he controlled a sizable portion of the newspaper industry for the first half of the 20th century. Welles revolutionized American theater and film in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, Hearst and Wells, an old man and a young man, clashed over the limits of artistic expression on the eve of America's entry into the Second World War. The film skillfully used narration, photography, and the usual talking head commentary that captures the personalities of two giants.

Hearst holds a dubious place in American history, even more so than most titans of industry. The heir to a mining fortune, Hearst used cunning and wealth to build a news empire. Early in his career Hearst championed the underdog with stories favoring immigrants, the poor, and reformers. In 1898, Hearst favored war with Spain and helped spark a war fever in the country, with outrageous stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and their alleged complicity in the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. After a failed foray into politics, Hearst newspapers turned their focus to sensationalism and celebrity driven stories. In later life, he secluded himself at his Northern California mansion with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, and held court with the Hollywood elite. The life of Hearst is a metaphor for the corrosive effect of greed and epitomized the worst of American capitalism.

Welles cuts a far more interesting and enduring figure. During his childhood in suburban Chicago Welles was told he was a genius and believed it! In the late 1930s Welles shook up American theater with topical productions of classic Shakespeare plays. For example, he placed Julius Caesar in Nazi Germany. A star of the radio as well, Welles frightened the CBS listening audience in his legendary broadcast of War of the Worlds. In 1939, Hollywood came calling and he signed a contract with RKO that gave him complete creative control. Out of this came, Citizen Kane.

Modern film goers may not be aware the film is inspired by the life of Hearst, although the character Charles Foster Kane has the attributes of other historical figures. In 1941, when word leaked out the film gave a less than flattering portrayal of Hearst, he used all his power to prevent the film from being released. Hearst newspapers were banned from advertising the film and even distributed harsh reviews. Many theaters, under pressure from Hearst, refused to show it as well. Welles threatened major lawsuits on RKO if they caved in. The film was released to generally favorable reviews, but Welles had left a bad impression on the Hollywood elite. Citizen Kane only won one Oscar for original screenplay.

Several books and articles are available explain why Citizen Kane is a great film. The study by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book, remains the standard work. I would also recommend the commentary tracks on the DVD with film historian Peter Bogdanovich and the movie critic Roger Ebert. The groundbreaking cinematography and the non linear structure of the film were way ahead of its time. Welles's amazing transformation from an idealistic young man into a cold reactionary is still remarkable. Also, the film is a parable about the nature of wealth and fame in America. The film opens with Kane dying alone inside his mansion is an odd foreshadowing of the demise of future icons like Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson.

My one qualm in the film is its downbeat depiction of Welles. After the controversy surrounding Citizen Kane Welles lost creative control over his films. Amazingly, Welles was planning on film based on the life of Christ with himself in the title role! Eventually Welles left the studio system and became an independent filmmaker - before it was hip. The film implied that his post-Kane career was a downward spiral. Critics now acknowledge later films as masterpieces as well, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight. His work remains relevant and a recent film by the indy director Richard Linklater, Me and Orson Welles, is about his famous production of Julius Caesar. Overall, the is useful in telling the story behind America's greatest film.

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