Film And Movies

What Went Wrong With… Citizen Kane (1941)?

A parody of the Citizen Kane poster with added text "It's Not Terrific!"From The Vaults Of

Citizen Kane, despite being a flop when it was first released, has gone on to become one hell of an overrated movie, in fact it’s arguably the most overrated movie of all time. Thanks to groupthink, lickspittle critics, Kane has been declared not only the “greatest film ever made”, but a “perfect picture” in every way, the archetypal “masterpiece”, everyone’s go-to example of filmic perfection that all other films are subsequently compared to. You’ll routinely hear or read critics say “it’s no Citizen Kane” when reviewing or describing mediocre flicks, although the irony is that Citizen Kane is one of the dullest, most boring motion pictures in motion picture history. Okay, so I’ll admit that there’s lots of positives in terms of aesthetics. Take the wide-angled, fisheyed shot of the snow globe during the opening. Yes, it looks impressive. And so too does the deep focus, the low camera angles, along with the noir-ish lighting. But direction and cinematography alone does not maketh a movie. A film has to be more than visual magnificence. Unfortunately, Citizen Kane doesn’t have much else going for it.

Citizen Kane is a drama about a fictional character named “Charles Foster Kane”, a rich newspaper publisher who on his deathbed utters the word “Rosebud” as he’s clutching a snowglobe. What did this mean and what significance did it have on Kane’s life? A reporter is tasked to find out.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say what “Rosebud” actually is, and unless you live under a rock, you’ll know what this story is all about. “Rosebud” is of course, Charles Kane’s sled which he played with as a child. It turns out that Kane right before kicking the gold and platinum, jewel-encrusted bucket, was reminiscing over his childhood, a time in which he played in the snow and didn’t have the worries of old age. This in of itself is a timeless idea; someone’s youth is, at least for most people, less fraught with worry and regret. But is that a satisfying enough finale? Not really, and if you take this explanation literally, we’re offered a character more concerned about a sledge than his mother. Whether a representation of times gone by or a literal sleigh, by the time we get to this supposed reveal via interviews charting a rather dull life story, I personally couldn’t care less.

The fact that the plot is inspired, at least in part, by real-life publisher William Randolph Hearst, makes this ending much less poignant than people make it out to be. As a quasi-biography, the regret could have worked as satire of the rich and the powerful, and the interviewing narrative, if told from four or five different perspectives, each recanting four or five contrasting stories, Citizen Kane could have been about perception, differing perspectives, and what really is the “true” story of someone if told by those who say they “know” them, especially postmortem. Kane is neither of these things.

Back to the topic of “Rosebud”, the fact that the reporter character is told Kane mentioned the name at other junctures of his life, makes the ending much less touching. I mean, when your wife leaves you, you don’t remember your childhood, your family, or your frigging sled! I might as well add that it snows in New York too, so looking at a snow globe whilst located in Florida might just remind you of your time in New York as an adult but no, it’s a very specific memory that’s conjured-up despite the object in question not being a very realistic depiction of a shack in snow. The fact that in the end, we know Charles Kane somehow got his hands on his original sled before popping his crocodile leathered clogs, he might as well have asked his nurse or butler or slave to hand him the actual object of his memories rather than a sham spherical rendering of his past, but whatever.

“Rosebud”, according to rumour, was a nickname for Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, more specifically her genitalia (I suppose in a Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” kind of way). Of course, this is mere speculation, similar to Courtney Love’s interpretation of Kurt Cobain’s aforementioned song. If this detail is true however, then our lead character taking a trip down mingey lane rather than recollecting the innocence of his youth makes little to no sense and just adds to the aimless plot.

I mean, if you’re making a movie about William Randolph Hearst just do it for fuck’s sake! Instead we have a fictitious yet very Willian Hearst-ish (or Howard Hawks-esque) narrative that doesn’t have much to say about either the man who’s supposedly its inspiration or the invented character. Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, we have an unfocussed and not very scathing film about someone who most definitely isn’t real… nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Everyone has regrets, things they’ve done or haven’t done, it’s not the sole domain of the rich. So why make a movie concerning regret all about a wealthy man? A rich man who, don’t forget, is partly based on a real person who nobody knows whether he harked back to his uncomplicated and fun-filled childhood.

A fake biography of a made-up character is meaningless without an overriding point. So is Citizen Kane about selling out, money, power, corruption, megalomania, love, buying political power, buying happiness, buying love, buying fame? Watching a film fanny about outlining the life and loves of an imaginary media mogul, going from his not-that-harsh upbringing, outlining his drab-arsed career, and even documenting his non-philandering, is like watching shit dry. Kane isn’t likeable enough or an object of ridicule or hatred, so what’s the effing point of it all? I’d rather listen to that shite “Xanadu” song by Olivia Newton-John, or maybe even the musical it was from… second thoughts, maybe not.

Citizen Kane is almost one endless flashback but that being said, there’s not much journalism going on by reporter character Jerry Thompson. It’s strange how the people he’s interviewing know the intricacies of Kane’s life, even parts they weren’t personally involved in. Take Mr. Leland for instance, in his flashback, there’s a scene where his character isn’t even present. 🧐 And how did anyone other than Charles’ nurse hear his final words? I mean he whispered “Rosebud” didn’t he? Regardless, all this pratting around with someone’s dull life translates into a dull viewing experience. I didn’t feel any sympathy for any character (or any interest for that matter) making this flick a slog to get through. Citizen Kane is around the two-hour mark but considering the shear boredom I felt whilst watching it, the runtime felt more like three or four hours.

Opening like a parody of a Pathé News newsreel, given the over-the-top voice-over, even this mockumentary portion doesn’t work. The fast zoom toward the closed shutters for example, is too film-like for news footage. Hey, maybe just show us the finished reel and we could save ourselves two hours.

Back to the plot, this kind of story arc will generally happen to millionaires and billionaires. Recently, Michael Jackson died alone and relatively isolated. It goes without saying that richness doesn’t buy happiness. Amassing goods doesn’t bring fulfillment… “you can’t take it with you” blah blah blah. We know this, in fact there’s many idioms and expressions that predate Citizen Kane. Even the quote “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is more concise and preferable to read out aloud than watching this movie.

In addition, rich pricks can and always will buy their way into industries they have no talent in, just look at Florence Foster Jenkins, Donald Trump, and all the assorted rich stars’ offspring in Hollywood. But with an ever-so-slightly sympathetic tone, Citizen Kane falls short of being critical of the rich, after all, a major studio picture penned by two popular creatives is hardly the antithesis of the lead character. Hell, co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz was a one-time friend of William Randolph Hearst, and according to Citizen Kane‘s Wikipedia page, it wasn’t until he had a falling-out with him that he started writing this screenplay. Sour grapes however, don’t make a fine wine.

Citizen Kane is not humorous or poignant. There’s a lot of posturing and smirking but the apparent quips and jibes don’t land, at least not decades after the fact. This is the kind of thing some pompous twat in Fleet Street probably thinks is witty but regular people couldn’t give a toss about. All I saw was a smug, rich character smarming his way through a self-satisfied script (penned by another cocky rich bloke or two).

There are other issues too. Firstly, there’s the incessant strings playing in the background like an episode of Desperate Housewives. There’s also some very noticeable makeup (even for the 1940’s) and that’s on top of the heightened, exaggerated acting (even for the 1940’s). I’ve seen enough interviews with Orson Welles to know he was a likeable, cocky, and funny chap, kinda like Kane. This means the lead role wasn’t challenging, in fact it was just Welles being his regular self as far as I can tell.

This film was made in 1941, the start of a decade consisting mainly of drab trash courtesy of Hollywoodland. There’s what can only be described as a “drought of fun” during times of war, similar to the post-9/11 wankfest we endured. After the entertaining ’30s it was the pretentious ’40s. We went from the impressive and captivating Frankenstein, Invisible Man, and The Wizard Of Oz to overrated mediocrity such as It’s A Wonderful Life, Casablanca, and Fantasia. Thankfully, the ’50s took us back to Tinseltown pleasure with the likes of Rear Window, The Day The Earth Stood Still, 12 Angry Men, and The Ladykillers. But I digress.

Back to the film in question, showing the end at the beginning predated films such as Serpico and Carlito’s Way. Showing clips of the movie during the end credits also predates the likes of Coming To America. Citizen Kane has also been referenced by everyone and everything from direct copies in various episodes of The Simpsons to an indirect influence such as Biff’s alternate life in Back To The Future Part II. In my opinion, the creations influenced by Kane are more entertaining, and when it comes to the Back To The Future 2‘s and Carlito’s Way‘s of the world, they’re superior films in every way possible.

Citizen Kane posterDespite the “It’s terrific!” plastered all over the posters, Citizen Kane was a box office failure, which was apparently down (at least partially) to Hearst’s campaign against it including preventing ads running in his newspapers. Given that the only people who sang Citizen‘s praises were critics, I doubt that audiences would have taken to it, with or without the media suppression. Although judging by the 100% rating on various sites today, and most people avoiding criticising the picture based solely on its accumulated infallibility, maybe without Hearst’s interference, a large portion of the public would have gone along with what the media told them to think. Hey, it was the 1940’s after all.

As I said in the opening, yes, there’s great direction here but everything else is average. Just because it visually impresses it doesn’t equate to “the greatest movie of all time”. For me, Citizen Kane is in the same overrated club as Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner or David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia. These film’s only genuine fans are critics or film students. Like Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic, Citizen Kane is preserved at the Library Of Congress but in my opinion if either of these works were somehow destroyed, the public wouldn’t be pining the loss of these two so-called masterpieces. The only people sobbing would be mainstream critics who work for dodgy but popular publications who promote certain works whilst under-promoting and undervaluing other classics. And on that note, are review aggregate sites not the contemporary equivalent to The Inquirer of the film, including only certain points of view from certain people so to skew opinion for lacklustre writing, performance or direction? As a contemporary counterpart to “yellow journalism” we now have “yellow criticism” and “yellow reviewing”; these people are simultaneously Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander, all of ’em! To quote Kane: “In the opinion of this reviewer it represents a new low.”


Writing: 4/10

Directing: 8/10

Acting: 4/10

Overall: 4/10

From The Vaults Of

This is an unpublished article from 2020. It was written to coincide with the review of Mank but missed the deadline.

2 replies »

  1. “Citizen Kane” isn’t a bad movie but it isn’t the best movie ever made. Hell, there were a lot of other movies that were able to do things better than it ever did! Then again, it did come out in 1941. Other writers and directors had plenty of time to improve things! 😆

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