The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)

directed by Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon

Plot Summary
This documentary compares the careers of Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, centering on the controversy surrounding Citizen Kane. Their lives are chronicled using stills, newsreel footage, and various interviews. Clips from Citizen Kane are also sprinkled throughout the film.

Commentary


The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a documentary that focuses on the similarities between Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, and Charles Foster Kane. It doesnít present a very admirable picture of either of the two real men but evokes more sympathy for Welles, particularly by showing some later footage of him talking about his past career. It does erase any doubt regarding whether Charlie Kane was based directly on Hearst, as evidenced by the numerous shared experiences between the real and fictional newspaper tycoons. If Kane was taken to fully represent Hearst and one knew nothing about the real person, he might be a more pitiable historical figure. Yet, the more one learns about the real Hearst from this documentary, the more he resembles a manipulative tyrant. Of course, Kane is shown to be this too, but the psychological insight we are given about him renders him more sympathetic.

After being kicked out of college, Hearstís rich father gave him a small newspaper with which to toy. He began taking on the competition in a ferocious manner, and he would shape stories into sensational forms to meet his needs. Hearst bought newspapers at strategic locations, and a series of "newspaper wars" began between rival papers, even resulting in some people being killed. Even more incredible is the documentaryís statement that Hearst papers called for President McKinleyís assassination soon before he was murdered. Hearst was a skillful politician who ran for top offices but never succeeded in winning them. He fell in love with an actress named Marion Davies who he began shoving down the publicís throat with too much promotion. They began having Hollywood parties at Hearstís lavish private estate that covered a huge area and included a zoo and a priceless art collection. The wealthy tycoon bought incredible amounts of everything and became a symbol of the hated rich as the country slipped into depression. Hearst said that he never got into motion pictures because you can more easily crush a person in journalism. Perhaps Orson Welles heard this statement and decided he would try to prove differently.

Welles was a born showman and loved sensationalism; controversy had always proved beneficial to his career until he made his first feature film. Welles was declared a genius early in his life, and both of his parents died when he was 15 years old. His early interest was drama, and he wanted to revolutionize theater. At about the age of 21, he staged a controversial all-black production of "MacBeth" that proved to be somewhat of a sensation. Around this time Hearst newspapers began attacking Welles and his stage productions for reasons that were not made clear in the film. Welles formed the Mercury Theater as a sort of experimental group against the established traditions, and many of the principal players in Citizen Kane came from this troupe. Wellesí production of "Julius Caesar" flopped on its first evening, after which its young director went into a rage and reworked the production, turning it into a huge success. He was a tyrant on the set and in the radio studio when he began speaking over the airwaves. His infamous "War of the Worlds" production fooled many people into believing aliens really had landed and almost led to mass panic. In subsequent interviews, Welles claimed he had no idea people would mistake his ruse for fact, but it seems clear he intended to trick people and merely disregarded any consequences that might arise. This stunt led to the RKO movie deal that would eventually give birth to Citizen Kane.

Initially, Welles first project was going to be an adaptation of Heart of Darkness with the camera being the main character, but this proved impossible logistically. After hanging around in Hollywood for a while, Welles somehow got together with Herman Mankiewicz, a seasoned Hollywood writer who shared Wellesí contempt for Hollywood but knew the town from the inside. Mankiewicz had often been to Hearstís parties and came up with the idea to base the film on the old newspaper tycoon; Hearst was 76 years old at the time, and Welles was only 24. When production finally began, Welles focused completely on the filmmaking process and worked easily with cinematographer Gregg Toland; one of the interviewees claimed the two men were "on the same wavelength". Marion Davies was represented in the film by Susan Alexander, and Welles later admits that this portrayal was cruel to Davies and that the actress was nothing like the fictional Mrs. Kane. Clearly, the filmmakers took what they knew about Hearst, embellished those events, and filled in the rest. Itís as if they were doing to Hearst personally what his papers had done to many news stories over the years in the practice of yellow journalism. But the documentary suggests that Welles also saw himself in the role of Charles Foster Kane and, consequently, gives the character a bit of humanity and plays himself in some ways. When the film came out, Hearst threatened the studios by every means imaginable, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons, working for him, spearheaded the charge. Attacks on Welles were widespread, and he had to fight to even get the picture released.

This informational documentary alternates its tales of Hearst and Welles at certain intervals, perhaps attempting to solidify the link between their personalities and lives. Unfortunately, since many of the people involved in these stories have passed away, the film relies on the standard documentary procedure of slowly zooming into still pictures of the events or people being discussed. Interspersed with these shots are certain interviewees, newsreel footage, and clips from Citizen Kane. The documentary discusses and shows how Hearst was not a stooped, unhappy man in his later years as the film suggests. However, it makes the point that his reputation suffered as a result of the film and has continued to suffer over the years. As for Welles he never got an opportunity to direct a film like Citizen Kane again, although he has several other great films to his credit. In some interview footage from later in his life, Welles comments about how he spent many years after his initial success trying to raise money to finance other film projects. He admits that he could have had greater success in another field but fell in love with filmmaking and made it his lifeís pursuit. He says only about 2% of these years involved making movies, while the other 98% involved scrounging for financial support and adds, "Thatís no way to spend a life." Itís a sad epitaph for someone now considered one of the greatest geniuses of not only American film, but of the entire mediumís history.

5 of 10


Please send me any comments you have about this review by clicking here.
© 1999

Back to the index of films.