Citizen Kane

Catherine L. Benamou

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Citizen Kane

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Citizen Kane (directed, produced, and co-written by Orson Welles, Mercury Productions/RKO Radio Pictures, 1941) is undoubtedly the best-known and most critically celebrated narrative fiction film of the 20th century. It was a landmark achievement in the artistic career of Orson Welles, as he made the leap from broadcast radio and off-Broadway theatrical production into industrial cinema; it also transformed the careers of those who collaborated in its making, from seasoned studio professionals such as Gregg Toland, Bailey Fester, and Perry Ferguson, to transplanted Mercury Theatre talent, as expressed in their own essays and interviews. Unfortunately, during Welles’s lifetime the film became better known for the controversies it generated than for its intrinsic thematic or aesthetic qualities. A tempest brewed over its theatrical release, which was delayed and nearly canceled due to a press (and effectively theatrical) boycott by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Recent histories and biographies have argued that Hearst’s ire could just as easily have been ignited by Welles’s off-screen activities in theater (Native Son, 1941) and in support of civil and labor rights, as by the perceived cinematic satire of Hearst and his paramour Marion Davies (allegedly portrayed in the characters Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander, respectively). Regardless, lackluster theatrical bookings, compounded by syncopated publicity efforts, yielded a modest box-office loss for RKO Radio Pictures. This, in turn, fueled mounting tensions between Welles and his Mercury Productions and the studio over production budgets and creative control, providing the grist for later reflection on industrial self-regulation and artistic freedom. Meanwhile, Welles’s and studio chief Schaefer’s steadfastness in the face of the Hearst barricade, coupled with Kane’s technical virtuosity and baroque style brought hearty accolades from critics around the world, paving the way in 1946 for the first Welles biography and decades of top rankings by Sight and Sound and the American Film Institute. As Kane reached formerly Nazi-occupied western European territories, a thoroughgoing reassessment spearheaded by André Bazin and Cahiers du Cinéma stressed the signature attributes that would inscribe Welles within the “politics of the author” and feed postwar fascination with screen realism. Another round of US-based controversy was sparked, this time between auteur-advocate Andrew Sarris and New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who, championing Herman J. Mankiewicz’s contributions to the screenplay, called into question Welles’s entitlement to authorship. A healthy spate of posthumous Wellesian scholarship, informed by narratological, psychoanalytic, and formalist film studies, has effectively bracketed this dispute, exploring Kane’s lasting contributions to film noir, modernist narrative strategies, documentary discourse, broadcast television, sound design, and philosophical inquiry, as well as to our grasp of wartime politics and media reflexivity.

Article.  17191 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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