The ads described it as "The love story that "dared not be made.' " Louella Parsons thought it trash. John O'Hara wrote that it was the best film he had ever seen. William Randolph Hearst tried to have it destroyed. D.
W. Griffith admired it, particularly, he said, for the ideas that had been taken from him. The early draft carried the title John Citizen, U.S.A., which was later changed to American. As Citizen Kane, it opened in New York at the Palace Theater 50 years ago, becoming, in time, the film most often put at the top of any list of the 10 best films ever made.
In honor of the anniversary, Turner Entertainment Company and Paramount Pictures are sponsoring a full-scale theatrical re-release of the film, though it has been available over the years, not in mint condition. Too many people have seen Citizen Kane only on television, which is not to see it all.
On the small screen, the film's majestic proportions are scaled down to those of a serving tray, its high-contrast black-and-white photography dimmed to the mortician grays of Leave It to Beaver.
With fine new prints struck for the occasion, the Orson Welles masterwork opens Saturday for a six-day run at the Tampa Theater and then moves to Movies at Largo. (See accompanying box.)
Be prepared. This is the movie event of the year, a chance to rediscover the verve of one of the two most glorious achievements of American black-and-white cinema.
As Griffith's Birth of a Nation opened the era, the rambunctious Citizen Kane marked the beginning of the end. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, though, Citizen Kane remains as surprising an entertainment in today's context as it did when it was first seen May 1, 1941. The spell still binds.
Welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane. His astonishing vigor remains fixed in every frame. It is there in the screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles, in the nervy way they take on the legend of Hearst, the publishing giant who was very much alive at the time. On the surface, Citizen Kane is a cautionary tale of power, greed and spiritual loss. One 1941 critic thought Welles' portrait of Kane fuzzy but praised the film for its "deeply moral thought," which the critic related to the biblical admonition about gaining the world at the expense of the soul.
Yet to reduce Citizen Kane to its moral dimensions is like looking at Guernica and being most impressed by the light bulb. As with The Birth of a Nation, morality has nothing to do with the stature of Citizen Kane as a work of art. The film possesses something far more rare and elusive.
Its subtext: the high spirits of the men who made it.
As Welles and his principal collaborators were putting Citizen Kane together, they were learning about an art that, after the fact, they seem to have invented. They hadn't. Mostly they rearranged conventions.
They put the camera where it was not supposed to be, often on the floor to be towered over by Welles as the publisher Charles Foster Kane. Thus interior sets required ceilings, which were then not often seen in movies. When people talk, they often step on one another's lines.
The result dazzles eye, ear and mind. Even now, Citizen Kane is 3-D without glasses, stereo sound from a single speaker. It envelops the viewer.
Cameraman Gregg Toland already had shot deep-focus scenes for The Long Voyage Home (1940) and would do so again for The Little Foxes (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Stanley Cortez's deep-focus work in Welles' great if mutilated Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is even more spectacular than Toland's for Citizen Kane.
Yet this technique, which allows the audience to see objects near and far with equal clarity within the same frame, appears to be unique to Citizen Kane, if only because everything in the film, from Welles' performance (and voice) to its structure, seems to resonate with the enthusiasm of the collaborators.
This story of the megalomaniacal, politically ambitious newspaper publisher, custodian of the world's sixth-largest fortune, perfectly suited Welles' gift for high-order Gothic cinema.
In Kane, the first of the series of gargantuan figures to be played by Welles on the screen, Mankiewicz and Welles created a central character who could be revealed by the film's technical exuberance, rather than overwhelmed.
As Kane's flamboyance showed off Welles as an actor, Citizen Kane demonstrated the range of long-dormant possibilities of black-and-white cinema, just before the arrival of the Age of Color.
Color was as inevitable as the advent of sound. There's no way to go back to a pre-color era, and no reason to. Yet one of the joys in watching Citizen Kane is to experience the kind of emotional and aesthetic charge that is special to the best black-and-white films.
There is a most witty and lordly doom to Citizen Kane that would not have been possible to define in color, certainly not in the kind of brilliant Technicolor that was available in 1941.
The velvety smooth look of Woody Allen's black-and-white Manhattan recalls the romantic visions of Manhattan as imagined by MGM movies of the 1940s and 1950s. In moving to color we have gained a lot, but we've lost a means of cinema expression.
Also lost, or so I'm told by technicians, are those deep-focus techniques that open up the screen to narrative subtleties not otherwise possible. Deep focus permits the film maker to fill a frame with a variety of information, which is then processed by the viewer as he looks where he wants.
Most contemporary movies seem to be photographed with an eye for how they'll look in their eventual release on the small screen, which can carry only a limited amount of information. Thus each scene begins with the establishing master shot, followed by back-and-forth-and-back close-ups. It's like watching a tennis match from which all suspense has been removed.
Citizen Kane was re-released once before, in 1956. It may now be easier to see it for what it is than in 1956 or 1941. The shadow of the man who made it, and whose career as a major artist was then ongoing, hovered over the film and possibly distorted our reactions.
People looked and said, "Fine, but what has he done lately?" The presence of Welles, who died in 1985, became a niggling footnote to all considerations of the film's brilliant effrontery.
Welles went on to make other remarkable films, though nothing in the league with Citizen Kane. Because he had brought forth one undisputed masterwork, we attended him in expectation of another, as if waiting for the second shoe to drop, as if, indeed, great movies were shoes.
Don't go to see Citizen Kane prepared to be instructed. Among other things, it's too much fun.
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, George Coulouris
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Running time: 119 minutes
Showtimes: Tampa Theater, 711 N Franklin Street Mall, Tampa, at 2:30, 5, 7:30 and 10 p.m. Sat., at 2:30, 5 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. and at 7:30 p.m. Mon.-Thur. Tickets $4.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and $1.75 children. Call 223-8981 (Tampa). Citizen Kane opens June 14 at the Movies at Largo, corner of Ulmerton and Starkey Roads, Largo. Showtimes at 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. for its week-long run. Tickets $2.50 until 6 p.m. and $5 evenings. Children and seniors $2.50. Call 581-7276 (Largo).