Power, Politics, & Poetry: The Response of the Film Industry and the Press to Citizen Kane.
By Rick Segreda
Art, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows. Particularly when married to a populist medium. One of the most striking examples of such strangeness happened in 1940 and 1941, during the production and distribution of the film Citizen Kane, and the controversy it created both in the press and the motion picture industry. It is a striking illumination of a historical friction in American culture between high brow and low brow, and elitism versus populism.
Citizen Kane, a film a clef on the life of William Randolph Hearst, was an uncommonly audacious project for a Hollywood movie studio for its time. Not only did it court controversy but it was willing to put the film industry at risk.
Then as well as now, Hollywood film studios were averse to creating controversy or ill will of any kind. The focus on bottom line profits from a mass audience demanded it. Not that Hollywood was unwilling to tackle social or political issues, as in films like The Grapes of Wrath, but only if the message conveyed was populist, sentimental, and didn’t call for an upset of the status quo.1
American print media was no different in this regard in its kowtowing to profit margins. As Gerald J. Baldasty points out in The Commercialization of the News in the Nineteenth Century, print media’s dependence on advertisers virtually sealed the fate of popular American journalism as a thought-provoking catalyst for the advancement of "public debate and knowledge."2In this context it was inevitable that the press and the motion picture industry developed an incestuous relationship with each other early on. Films yielded huge profits. Publishers wanted Hollywood studios to advertise in their papers, and quickly discovered that film industry stories -- especially regarding "movie stars" -- sold copy. Conversely movie studios began to depend both on advertising to promote films, and, after the convulsive impact of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, for good public relations.
Indeed, the 1921 scandal, which, despite his acquittal, destroyed Arbuckle’s career through press notoriety, led to the establishment of the puritanical (and, it could be argued, tyrannical) Hays Commission, and conclusively defined which medium had the upper hand over the other. Wanda Felix indicates that Hearst himself had a double-fold and mercenary purpose in destroying Arbuckle: 1) to punish the film industry for not going with his wish to move its base of operations to San Francisco and 2) profit. Voila Dana, a colleague of Arbuckle is quoted thus: "Hearst crucified Arbuckle for another reason -- circulation -- Hearst was gratified by the Arbuckle scandal; he said later that it had ‘sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania.’"3
In this context, the risk that George Schaefer, president of RKO took in allowing Orson Welles and his co-scenarist Herman J. Mankiewicz, to take on Hearst and, with even greater temerity, slander Hearst’s beloved mistress, Marion Davies, was considerable. But Schaefer had faith that Welles, having scored brilliantly with the critics and the public in the realm of theatre and radio, would create a film that could both restore RKO recent financial losses and enhance its prestige.4
Welles maintained a tight control of the production of Citizen Kane, not even letting cast members read the script en toto. 5However, in post-production word eventually leaked out.6 In a pre-emptive move that backfired, Welles offered invitations to the film industry's two rival and reigning gossip columnists, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, to separate, private screenings. They were not amused.7 Parsons, Hearst's official and nationally syndicated Hollywood columnist, out of loyalty to her employer and Davies, she exploited all the authority and influence she had acquired as the film industry’s most feared power broker to stop Citizen Kane and destroy Welles. 8 She threatened to publish scandals, albeit invented ones, about the lives of the major studio executives, as well as stories on Welles.9
For his part, Hearst stopped all advertising in Hearst media for RKO productions and did not print any reviews of RKO films.10 He insinuated to the FBI that Welles was a communist, triggering an investigation.11 Furthermore, in order to get other studios to put pressure on RKO, he threatened to publish stories about the film studio's hiring of illegal aliens.12 In addition, Hearst would use an anti-Semitic angle to the latter story by relating it to how all the major studios were managed by Jewish immigrants.13
The other studios, ever fearful of their image, not to mention congressional investigations, responded on Hearst's behalf.14 They refused to book Citizen Kane in their own theatres, and pressured independent theatre chains to follow by not showing Kane.15 MGM president Louis B. Mayer even offered Schaefer one million dollars to buy and destroy the negative of the film.16
Schaefer refused Mayer's offer and was determined to protect his investment.17 Indeed, Schaefer even felt as word leaked out to the press about the war between Hearst and the "boy wonder," that the publicity might help the film turn a profit.18Schaefer, encouraged by the highly positive responses -- apart from Hopper and Parsons --that the film generated at private screenings, began a clever counter-campaign for the film by hosting more "private" screenings of the film for select journalists, producers, directors, and celebrities, in order to generate a suspenseful word of mouth about the film being a masterpiece.19
The response of the press to the Hearst/Welles struggle varied. Frank Brady, in his Welles biography notes that both "the major wire services, AP and UPI, which might have lost a number of important clients if Hearst cut off using their services, stopped mentioning the film altogether."20In addition, Brady writes:
Many other newspaper editors throughout the country, even those who could be counted on as traditional Hearst-baiters and haters were more sympathetic to Hearst than to Welles as they considered whether Citizen Kane should be released; it was something akin to male chauvinism: when one of the herd is attacked, publishers, like many other groups, stick together. Although some did not go so far as to support Hearst in their columns, neither did most editorialize on Welles' behalf even if they agreed with his ethical and constitutional right to make such a film.21
However, the story was reported, albeit in a "neutral" manner, in such non-Hearst media as the New York Times and Time Magazine.22 There has even been a long-standing rumor that Time's Henry Luce, a Hearst rival, offered to buy Citizen Kane in order to ensure its release.23 On the elitist fringes of the American reading public, left-wing newsmagazines such as The New Republic not only reported Hearst/Kane story, but also provided critical and condemning commentary on Hearst.24
Brady writes that novelist and short story writer John O'Hara "supposedly lost his job at pro-Hearst Newsweek after the following review/feature/editorial appeared under his name: 'It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.'"25
When the film, after months of postponements and delays, did finally open in New York and other large cities, it was showered with encomiums by film critics –except for those in Hearst papers, which made no mention of the film.26It was hailed for its both it thematic and aesthetic audacity, its uncommonly mature dialogue, and, above all, its creative use of deep focus photography and montage editing.27 The strong notices seemed to have made for strong box office during the first week's run,28at least in alerting that portion of the public curious about Kane. It appeared that Welles' David had triumphed over Hearst's Goliath.
However, even amidst the praise and enthusiasm, many of their reviewers expressed some degree of reservation about what Welles was trying to "say," or more specifically, the lack thereof. A common complaint was that the answer to the "Rosebud" mystery was unsatisfying and/or incomplete and/or sentimental (in film scholarship, the debate continues till this very day).29Moreover, the very element of the film that they admired --its narrative and stylistic form-- also made for their greatest ambivalence. Otis Ferguson of the New Republic spoke for many critics when he wrote:
Orson Welles was naturally entranced with the marvelous things the moving camera could do for him; and while much has resulted from this preoccupation, I think neglect of what the camera could do to him is the main reason why the picture somehow leaves you cold even while your mouth still open at its excitements.30
In the Stanley Kauffman's anthology, American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane, Kauffman includes a review from Joy Davidman of The New Masses, representing what could be described as an American Stalinist aesthetic in her criticism of the film:
Not one glimpse of actual political content of his newspapers is afforded us. One or two advertised scenes of political relevance, indeed, appear to have been cut out of the picture. As a result the audience is left with a vast confusion as to what Kane really stands for in public life.31
Davidman, of course, represented a minority of film critics in terms of criticizing the film for not being more explicitly a criticism of capitalism. The majority of reviewers, whatever their reservations, honored Welles and Citizen Kane at the year's end with Best Picture awards.32
As mentioned previously, Welles shared Hearst's talent flair for exploiting popular media, for making spectacle, and for generating publicity. Epstein and Lennon point out in their documentary, The Battle over Citizen Kane, that Welles saw himself in Hearst and possibly even believed that Hearst might consider Citizen Kane as a left handed tribute from one megalomaniac to another.33Louis Pizzitola, in Hearst over Hollywood, provides a provocative insight into the parallels, both professional and personal, between the two men and their mediums:
But what makes the connection still [between C.F. Kane and W.R. Hearst] is how the filmmakers treat their subject with many of the same methods of yellow journalism employed by their subject. Like Hearst's journalism, Kane uses methods of inquiry that alternate between superficiality and penetration, between psychobabble and psychoanalysis. Even the optical illusions in Kane owe a debt to composite illustrations and other trickery perfected by yellow journals over the half-century...The film's staying power is closely related to an understanding that Hearst had come to before the turn of the twentieth century: yellow journalism and cinema are intrinsically connected. It was the genius of Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz to make not only a psychological study that captures Hearst better that many non-fiction studies, but to absorb Hearst's own vision of communication into the making of their film. In the end, Citizen Kane endures as a reluctant homage to Hearst's significance, done so well that it has become both a reflection and a reflector of a man and his meaning.34
There is a crucial difference, though, between Welles and Hearst is that Welles, despite his own egotism and publicity coups, ultimately employed his talent in the service of art, specifically highbrow art, which made Citizen Kane a winner with the critics and a loser with the general public. Hearst employed his talent, his skills, his intelligence in the service of nothing more than power. For Hearst it mattered little whether a story was true or untrue, whether a cause was just or unjust, as long as it sold papers.
Thus the biggest irony, however, was that for all of Hearst's efforts to stop Kane, the film ultimately failed at the box office for reasons that had nothing to do with Hearst, but had everything to do with a discord in American culture between urban elitism and rural populism. Indeed it is an identity conflict that extends back to Hamilton versus Jefferson, DeTocqueville’s tyrannical majority versus the imperiled minority, north versus south, and western expansion versus urban growth. As film scholar Andrew Sarris so wittily asked: "Which pair of James brothers were more authentically American, Frank and Jesse, or William and Henry?"35
Citizen Kane was a limited success in large cities, but it did poorly outside of urban markets, and quickly acquired the reputation of being "box-office poison."36As many film historians have observed, for the general American public, Kane was considered disconcertingly cold, dark, strange, gloomy, and, perhaps most fatal for a mass audience, cerebral.37
Debates as to whether Kane should be faulted for not adequately advancing the demise of capitalism, or, more generally among reviewers, if it represented a triumph of form over content were notable only in evincing the highbrow preoccupations of film critics. These disputes, however provocative, seemed to have mattered very little to except to that small, and from what Brady and others indicate, mostly urban segment of the American public that actually saw Citizen Kane and had the time as well as inclination to ponder such questions.
Ultimately the unique drama surrounding a drama entitled Citizen Kane pointed up how strongly an American civil war prevailed in two closely allied populist mediums suddenly, though briefly, at cross purposes. But it wasn’t merely a struggle of the press versus the film industry, but rather of the press versus itself (i.e.; Hearst against a John O’Hara) and the film industry, and similarly, the film industry versus itself (Louis B. Mayer versus Welles), as well the press. Or, from a different perspective, the struggle of isolated mandarins (film critics and filmmakers such as Welles) in popular forms of communication struggling to connect over the din of screaming masses.
1Andrew Sarris, Politics and Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978) p. 11"The enemy could be designated by the left as ‘fascism,’ but the alternative was never designated as ‘communism’ or even ‘Marxism.’ Rather, it was the People, Yes as they sought justice, liberty, freedom, equality, and true democracy, which had little to do with the electoral process."
2Gerald Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) p. 143.
3Wanda Felix, http://www.ralphmag.org/fatty.html
5Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989) p. 263
6Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1995), p. 542
7Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 273.
8Ibid. pp. 273-274, David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 263.
9Brady, Citizen Welles, pp. 274-275. Nasaw, The Chief, p. 264.
12Thomas Lennon & Michael Epstein. The Battle over Citizen Kane ( PBS, 1996)
13Nasaw, The Chief, pp. 568-569.
16Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 272
17Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 303
18Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 286
20Nasaw, The Chief, p. 268
21Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 300
22Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 288
23Michael Sage, "Mr. Hearst can’t take it," The New Republic. 104:68 January 20, 1941
24Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 303, pp. 309-310.
25Brady, Citizen Welles, p. 278.
26Kauffmann, Stanley (Ed). American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane. Liveright, (New York: Liveright, 1971), pp. 409-420.
27Callow, Orson Welles, p. 575
28Andrew Sarris, "Citizen Kael Vs Citizen Kane," The Primal Screen: Essays on Film (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973). Callow, Orson Welles, p. 567
29Otis Ferguson, The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971) pp. 368-371.
30Kauffmann, American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane. pp. 411-413.
31Brady, Citizen Welles, pp. 310.
32Lennon & Espstein, The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
33Louis Pizzitola, Hearst Over Hollywood (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001) pp. 394-395.
34Andrew Sarris, "The Wind & The Lion," Film Review Digest Annual 1976 (New York: Kraus-Thompson) p. 346
35Nasaw, The Chief, pp. 572-573.
Gerald Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1992 p. 143.
Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1989
Callow, Simon Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu Penguin Books USA, New York 1995.
Ferguson, Otis. The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson. Temple Univ. Press., Philadelphia, 1971.
Kauffmann, Stanley (Ed). American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane. Liveright, New York, 1971.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles, a Biography. Limelight, New York, 1995.
Lorentz, Pare. Lorentz on Film. Hopkins & Blake. New York, 1975.
Nasaw, David. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. Houghton Mifflin Co. New York, 2000.
Pizzitola, Louis. Hearst over Hollywood : Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies. Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 2001.
Sarris, Andrew. The Primal Screen: Essays on Film. Simon & Schuster. New York, 1973.
Sarris, Andrew. Politics and Cinema, Columbia University Press, New York, 1978
Sarris, Andrew. "The Wind & The Lion," Film Review Digest Annual 1976 (New York: Kraus-Thompson)
Swanberg, W.A. Citizen Hearst. Scribner. New York, 1961.
Crowther, Bosley. "Citizen Kane," The New York Times, May 2, 1941.
Sage, Michael. "Mr. Hearst can’t take it," The New Republic. 104:68 January 20, 1941
Lennon,Thomas & Epstein, Michael. The Battle over Citizen Kane. PBS, 1996.
Felix, Wanda. "The Trial of Fatty Arbuckle," R A L P H-The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities,