THE CLASSIC FILM CLUB #1
CITIZEN KANE PODCAST
Hello and welcome to The Classic Film Club, the podcast dedicated to taking a fresh look at famous films of the past and shining a light on less famous, overlooked and forgotten films that are well worth discovering. I’m Richard Kuipers, a film critic for the international trade paper Variety, a film festival programmer and documentary producer, inviting you to join me on this cinematic adventure of discovery and celebration.
Today I want to look at one of the most famous films ever made. From 1962 until 2012 it was number one in the Top 10 Films of all Time critics poll conducted by the respected British magazine Sight and Sound, and is widely regarded as the best debut feature ever made. Orson Welles was just 25 years old when he directed, co-wrote and played the lead role in CITIZEN KANE, which was released in May 1941, six months before the US entered the Second World War.
Telling the life story of fictional media tycoon and political aspirant Charles Foster Kane, CITIZEN KANE was nominated for 9 Oscars, winning only one for the original screenplay by Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz. It performed well at the box-office without being a smash hit and got mostly positive reviews, including one from Newsweek critic John O’ Hara who praised Orson Welles as “ the best actor in the history of acting.” On the other hand the Tatler’s James Agate said Welles’ movie was “the well-intentioned, muddled, amateurish thing one expects from high-brows.”
By the early 50s it was largely forgotten film but thanks to screenings on the new-fangled device called television, and an influential 1956 essay by film critic Andrew Sarris in Film Culture magazine, CITIZEN KANE began its re-emergence. First it became a Great American Film. Within a few years it was frequently being hailed as “the greatest film of all time.” Other films have claimed that title in countless critics’ and public polls over the years – GONE WITH THE WIND, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, RAGING BULL, VERTIGO among them - but none have the same aura and mystique as CITIZEN KANE. When critics and publicists want to describe the best of a kind they still use the term “The Citizen Kane of …” NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been called the CITZEN KANE of zombie movies. The Sex Pistols film “THE GREAT ROCK’N’ROLL SWINDLE” was promoted as “The CITIZEN KANE of rock movies” … and at the other end of the scale we have midnight movie favourite THE ROOM being described as “The CITIZEN KANE of bad films.”
Few motion pictures have inspired such awe and intrigue as CITIZEN KANE. Awe at the immense story it tells and the techniques it employs, and intrigue about every aspect of its production – from the moment it began filming in secret with largely unknown cast of film actors, before being released amid boycotts from some cinema chains and fear of lawsuits from William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon whose business and private life has some strong parallels with the central character. Hearst prohibited any of his newspapers from even mentioning the film. We could spend forever talking about that but let’s get to the film itself. How does CITZEN KANE shape up almost 80 years later? How well has it stood the test of time and what can we take from it today?
I hadn’t seen CITIZEN KANE for about 20 years before I gave it a refresher run just recently. What struck me right away after the RKO Radio pictures logo - which is one of the best of all time and I never tire of looking at it – is the opening credit “A Mercury Production By Orson Welles.” Immediately it has the air of an event, something that’s not merely a movie but the unveiling of a major work of art. And in 1941 it was, with Welles already hailed as a young genius. In 1937 at the age of 22 he and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theater repertory company in New York. A year later Welles frightened the pants off listeners with the Mercury’s radio production of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” - convincing many that Earth was actually being invaded by Martians.
As the first images of CITIZEN KANE appear we could be forgiven for thinking we’re in gothic horror territory. The camera lingers over shots of Xanadu - a dark foreboding castle guarded by a huge gate and with letter K and a “no trespassing” sign. With Bernard Hermann’s brilliant score setting a sombre tone we could be looking at the House of Usher or Dracula’s Castle. Then, after two minutes and thirty seconds, we see a close-up of an old man’s lips uttering the film’s first line of dialogue and one of the most celebrated and discussed words in cinema history – “Rosebud.”
Rosebud is the dying word of Charles Foster Kane and it holds the key to understanding so much about the life of this extremely rich, powerful and ruthless man. It’s like the riddle of the Sphinx. Why did Kane say it and what does it mean? The task of finding out goes to newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson, played by William Alland in his only significant acting role. Before Thompson begins the detective work of interviewing everyone close to Kane we’re given a rousing account of the dead man’s life in the form of a newsreel, such as audiences used to watch in cinemas for a small admission fee in the days before television. We learn about Kane’s astronomical wealth and the building of Xanadu “with 20,000 tonnes of marble, enough artefacts to fill 10 museums and a collection of animals to rival Noah’s ark.” The newsreel narrator tells us that some people called Kane a communist, others thought he was a fascist. Loved and hated in equal measure, he met Hitler and played down any concern about war. He was married and divorced twice, once to US President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton, and once to Susan Alexander, a singer of modest ability for whom he built an opera house and forced her to embark on a humiliating career.
This is a dazzling opening 10 minutes, setting up Kane as a towering figure of staggering wealth but also a man who died alone and aloof. And I think this is one of the main reasons why CITIZEN KANE remains relevant and powerful. Kane is a man who had everything and yet nothing. In 1941 this was a bold and subversive theme – to present the American dream of wealth, success and power as being empty and meaningless. Kane collected things and people but for reasons we will slowly discover he was unwilling or perhaps even incapable of finding happiness. We may dislike Charles Foster Kane from the outset but we are fascinated by him, maybe even compelled to feel some sympathy as the screenplay spins back to his poor childhood and recounts events that made him one of the richest men in the world by the age of 25. There have been many Charles Foster Kanes in the movies over the years. For me the most memorable is Daniel Plainview, the oil man played by Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, the 2007 drama by director Paul Thomas Anderson that many critics voted as best film of the year and the decade.
The personality of Kane and the business empire he creates is strikingly relevant today. His first foray into media is with the struggling New York Inquirer newspaper. Kane chooses sensationalism over substance to boost circulation - yellow journalism or tabloid journalism to give it the common names. It’s a wildly successful tactic that eventually makes him the USA’s most powerful media magnate and increases his political influence.
He may have been an amalgamation of real-life moguls such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, whom audiences of the day were familiar with, but for every generation since the release of CITIZEN KANE there have been media magnates whose business methods and personal lives have drawn parallels with aspects of Charles Foster Kane. Lord Lew Grade (or Low Grade as he was called by some of his critics), Robert Maxwell (father of Ghislaine), Italian publisher and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his infamous bunga-bunga parties … and closer to home here in Australia the Packer empire, Sir Frank, Kerry and James …and the Murdoch family – well, former Australian citizen in the case of Rupert, who started out with just the little old Adelaide Advertiser all those years ago and built a news juggernaut including the so-called news channel Fox News. The acclaimed HBO series Succession – about venal and vicious machinations inside a media family – comes from the CITIZEN KANE playbook and bears remarkable similarities with certain media dynasties of today. It’s as if Charles Foster Kane has always existed in that junction between myth and reality, fact and fiction and he will forever more in film and television.
As Thompson the journalist continues his investigation into the meaning of Rosebud we meet the support players in Kane’s life. That’s all anyone could ever hope to be; an extra, or a possession like the thousands of artworks he acquires and never looks at again – as if knowing that he owns it and somebody else doesn’t is all that matters. First of all there’s Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), a reporter for the Inquirer and the conscience of the film. Then there’s Kane’s first wife Emily, played by Ruth Warrick, who was married six times herself in real life. Emily’s deteriorating relationship with Kane is shown in a brilliant series of camera pans and edits with the characters at the same kitchen table over the course of many years. Everett Sloane plays Bernstein, Kane’s loyal business adviser who overlooks Kane’s faults and gives him unconditional love because he has come closer than anyone to understanding the darkness in Kane’s heart and soul.
But most importantly there’s Susan Alexander, portrayed by Dorothy Comingmore. She was discovered by Charles Chaplin and only had bit parts under the name Linda Winters before landing the role of her life here. Susan is the film’s innocent – at first anyway. Kane is initially attracted to her because she doesn’t recognize him and presumably doesn’t want anything from him. It’s what Kane wants Susan to be that destroys her. He insists she become an opera singer despite not possessing the requisite talent. He builds a grand theater for her to perform in – one that becomes a prison of humiliation.
Unlike the untalented Susan Alexander, Dorothy Comingmore is superb in the role that made her immortal on the screen but also destroyed her life and career. The popular notion has always been that Susan Alexander was based on Marion Davies, the young mistress of William Randolph Hearst. He formed a production company, Metropolitan Pictures to promote her career. Davies was actually a skilled comedienne but Hearst wrecked her career by insisting she appear in stodgy historical dramas. Although Welles always denied Davies was the inspiration, and he always publicly praised her talents, Hearst went for Dorothy Comingmore with a vengeance. Her left-wing political leanings were all he needed to ruin her career, eventually driving her into a State Mental Home, alcoholism and a tragic early death aged 58.
Stories such as the tragic fate of Dorothy Comingmore go beyond the film but over time they have become part of the film. That’s what happens so often with movie classics or cult films. The stories behind them are something we take with us when we watch them. Think of APOCALYPSE NOW for example, with all those tales about Marlon Brando and the apocalyptic filming conditions. Knowing about that can affect how you see the film. Once you know even a little about W.R. Hearst, Marion Davies and the Hearst Castle that inspired Kane’s Xanadu mansion their presence inhabits the picture, hovering in your mind as you watch Orson Welles and Dorothy Comingmore. If you want to know more about Hearst and Davies I recommend you seek out THE CAT’S MEOW (2001) by Peter Bogdanovich, a terrific drama about the 1924 death of producer Thomas Ince during a party on Hearst’s yacht. It’s got a fantastic cast including Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies and Eddie Izzard as Charles Chaplin.
I deliberately haven’t said much about early sections showing Charles Foster Kane as a boy and featuring the great Agnes Moorehead as his mother. If you haven’t seen the film these segments are best encountered with as little knowledge and information as possible, I promise you.
It’s not just the sweeping story of CITIZEN KANE that helps it stand up so well 79 years after it was released. It’s technically very impressive, with superb editing and cinematography standing out. The editor was Robert Wise, who became a very successful director and won Oscars for WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Wise cut the film in non-linear fashion, with the timeline of Kane’s life jumping backwards and forwards, creating a mosaic that we piece together as part of the viewing experience. Non-linear editing has been common since the ‘70s and reached new heights with films such as Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION, but in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood it was rare to find anything much more complex than simple flashback sequences. The dialogue, too, is delivered at a rapid-fire rate – Welles background in radio is evident here. This was common in screwball comedies of the day but not in weighty, serious dramas such as this – though it must also be said that CITIZEN KANE also has its fair share of amusing moments. One of very few things about CITIZEN KANE that remind us of its age is the frequent use of wipes in editing, where one shot replaces another by moving from one side of the frame to another. We don’t see wipes used much these days – or fades to black for that matter. The emphasis is on hard and increasingly faster cutting to hold the attention of contemporary audiences.
A lot has been said about the brilliant cinematography of Gregg Toland. Welles placed Toland on the same frame as him in the credits, so highly did he regard his work. It’s true that Toland’s deep focus photography – which allowed everything in the frame to remain in focus regardless of distance from the camera – is truly extraordinary and used for powerful emotional effect. The same can be said for his stark lighting of sets such as the echoey, empty halls of Xanadu and the massive fireplace that stands taller than Kane himself. Many of these camera and lighting techniques had been used earlier in films such as NOSFERATU, THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI and other German silent classics …. But, like the non-linear editing, these visual stylings had not been used quite like this in a big mainstream Hollywood film. Welles and Toland adopted and adapted techniques and methods from everywhere. They brought European touches to this very American story, which make it visually stimulating and striking for us today. In more recent times we’ve seen filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino bringing elements of Asian action movies and spaghetti westerns to his films, with thrilling results. In their own way Welles and Toland brought some of world cinema to Hollywood almost 80 years ago.
Watching CITIZEN KANE today is like viewing a timeless masterpiece in an art gallery. It’s something that time simply can’t touch. As long as movies are being watched, talked about and taught about at schools and universities, Welles’ masterpiece will be part of the conversation. Welles was far from a one-hit wonder – he directed and often starred in some great films like the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, his 1942 follow-up at RKO that was drastically cut by the studio; THE TRIAL (1962), an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s classic novel; MR ARKADIN (1955), a fascinating CITIZEN KANE-like tale of a mysterious millionaire. And then there’s his 1958 crime masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL. For me this is Welles’ second-best film and comes very close to rivaling CITIZEN KANE. In fact everything with Welles’ name is worth watching, even his lesser films offer extraordinary moments. He appeared just as an actor in lots of terrible films like BUTTERFLY in 1982, but that was always because he wanted to raise money for his own projects – and that’s forgiveable for an artist such as Welles. You can watch CITIZEN KANE on Prime Video and if you’re interested in films about CITIZEN KANE I recommend seeking out RKO 281, starring Live Schreiber as Welles, ME AND ORSON WELLES starring Zac Effron and Clare Danes, and MANK with Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Tom Burke as Welles. And finally, there’s a wonderful, wonderful scene in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, starring Johnny Depp as the famously inept filmmaker. Look out for the scene in which Ed Wood has a deep and meaningful conversation with Orson Welles – played by Vincent D’Onofrio. It’s truly magical.
Now to our discovery spot, where I take a look at special and important films that aren’t world famous and have sometimes slipped out of view and become just another title you could easily pass by on the menu of a VOD service like Netflix or Prime. When there are so many thousands and thousands of films out there it can be challenging to find the real gems, and that’s exactly why I’m here. Some listeners will already know and love these films, and I couldn’t be happier to celebrate that with you. For others, I hope these might be exciting new movie treasures
There’s something special about British cinema from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s and my pick comes in the middle of that, from 1968. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes as was named by the British Film Institute as the 12th greatest British Film of the 20th century. It was the start of a loose trilogy that followed the eventful life of a man named Mick Travis. Malcolm McDowell – soon to be the famous in CLOCKWORK ORANGE - made his debut as Michael Travis in IF…, which tells the story of three students leading a violent rebellion at a repressive British boys boarding school. The year it was made is important. IF was filmed while the May 1968 riots in Paris were in full force and it carries that anti-establishment fury in every frame. The director, Lindsay Anderson co-founded the British Free Cinema movement of the 1950s and succeeded here in creating a scathing satire of the British class system and conservative institutions with this heavily allegorical drama.
The basic story finds Mick returning to his unnamed school for his second-last year – year 11 for us in Australia. He and best friends Knightley and Wallace are idealists and dreamers who don’t fit in to the school’s system of discipline and strict hierarchy. Seniors, or whips as they’re known, have special privileges including “ownership” of scum – junior boys who serve them basically as slaves. The headmaster, school chaplain and most teachers represent British conservatism and authority. As the term progresses Mick and his friends run deeper and deeper into trouble and are eventually given a brutal caning by the whips. That’s when they decide to REALLY rebel. Where it goes from there is something to behold. At one moment IF is gritty British realism. The next moment it becomes surreal, even dream-like – especially when Mick and Knightley steal a motorbike and drive to a roadside café where Mick has an unforgettable encounter with an unnamed waitress played by the incredible Christine Noonan. You’ll never forget her once you’ve seen this. There’s one particular look she gives to Mick from across the counter that is simply incredible and gives me goosebumps just mentioning it now.
I first saw IF when I was a rebellious teenage schoolboy and it spoke to me very loudly. It’s one of those films that changed my life and inspired me to think about the institutions that govern our lives. I must have seen it at least 10 times on the big screen in the 70s and early 80s and even wagged school when Channel 7 broadcast it as a midday movie. I watched it for the first time in about 15 years just recently. Always a risk with movies, music, books – anything you’ve loved from childhood and early adulthood in case it doesn’t stand up anymore. All these years later it still packs a huge punch and has lost none of its edge. It’s a timeless, dateless film that’s still radical in form and content and still has the power to make us challenge the status quo and question authority. As surreal as it sometimes is, IF always rings true – the screenplay by David Sherwin was based largely on his memories of attending Tonbridge School in Kent (founded in 1553 would you believe), and it was filmed at Lindsay Anderson’s old school, Cheltenham College. It has a wonderful cast including Arthur Lowe as the house master, Peter Jeffrey as the headmaster and Mona Washbourne as the school nurse. You can find IF on Prime Video.
Malcolm Mcdowell played the character of Mick Travis in 2 more films directed by Linday Anderson written by David Sherwin. O LUCKY MAN in 1973 and BRITTANIA HOSPITAL in 1982. Though not strictly sequels they followed Travis as an English everyman, negotiating his way through a country that is sometimes cruel, sometimes glorious and always fascinating. Many people, myself included, regard O LUCKY MAN as at least the equal of IF and also one of the greatest British films of all time. It’s a magnificent unforgettable three-hour odyssey which also features Helen Mirren, Arthur Lowe, Sir Ralph Richardson and many cast members from IF, including Christine Noonan.
Finally to my trash and treasure corner where we highlight the very best in B-movies, exploitation films and trashy delights. Never feel guilty about your guilty movie pleasures is my motto. Today I’d like to introduce you to a great little horror-thriller from 1985 called THE STUFF. The premise is fantastic: A new dessert ice cream called THE STUFF is launched onto the market. It’s a smash hit and everyone just can’t get enough of The Stuff. But naturally nothing that good could be good for you and there’s a sinister secret to its success. The stuff was directed by Larry Cohen, one of the great exploitation filmmakers of the 70’s 80s and 90s. He cranked out gems like the demonic cop thriller GOD TOLD ME TO and Q, THE WINGED SEPENT, which is one of the best monster movies of the 80s. Like all of Cohen’s finest films THE STUFF is very witty and clever. Beneath the crazy story of a killer ice-cream is a sharp critique of corporate ethics and political corruption. It has a great cast, with Cohen regular Michael Moriarty (Cathy’s brother) playing an industrial saboteur who gets in way over his head. Paul Sorvino (Mira’s dad) also appears as a scary military type. You can find THE STUFF on Prime - It’s great fun, a real drive-in movie treat that might just send you down the rabbit hole of discovering more of Larry Cohen’s terrific work. And on that note I’m about to sign off but not before thanking you all for listening, I hope you’ve enjoyed this meeting of The Classic Film Club. I’m looking forward to out next cinematic adventure, bye for now.