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THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Richard Ben Cramer
Directors:  Michael Epstein, Thomas Lennon
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  WGBH Boston Video
Features:  Welles filmography, website access
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  November 14, 2000

Film ***

The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a legendary true epic of Hollywood, and one most die-hard cinema fans know about.  It even became the basis of a popular HBO move, which was good, but occasionally opted too much for the dramatic over the real.  A much better look at the story is contained within this Oscar nominated documentary, originally produced for public television as a part of its American Experience series.  It’s been available on VHS for some time, and now, at last, this compelling piece has made its way to DVD.

What a battle it was, too…in one corner, William Randolph Hearst:  newspaper mogul, father of “yellow journalism”, and one of America’s richest, most powerful, and most influential men.  His media empire spanned had spanned the nation for decades.  They had been considered largely responsible for, among others, the Spanish-American war and the fall of silent comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.  Legend has it if you were on his good side, you couldn’t ask for a better friend or more potent ally.  Being on his bad side was a dangerous and lonely place to be…you couldn’t find many who would stand by you against Hearst in any situation.

In the other corner, Orson Welles:  a “boy genius” who made his reputation as leader, actor, writer and director of the famed Mercury Theatre company.  He brought his unique vision to radio in the 1930’s, creating a nationwide panic when listeners found his broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds a little too real for their tastes.  At the tender age of 25, RKO Pictures awarded him with an unprecedented movie contract:  complete freedom to write, direct, produce and act in any project he wanted to do.  In other words, total artistic freedom.  Such a concept was practically unheard of during the cinematic era since the big studios took over and dominated film production.  It’s been said that on the basis of this contract alone, Welles became one of Hollywood’s most hated talents.

After conceiving and scrapping a few ideas for his first film, the right idea came to him from screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, a friend of W. R. Hearst and frequent visitor to his mansion at San Simeon.  Hearst’s was a tale ripe for the movies:  a simple man who rises up to great power and wealth, yet never could seem to find happiness in his life or love from the people around him.  Intrigued by the idea, Welles gave Mankiewicz the go-ahead to write the first draft, tentatively titled American.

Welles guarded his first project like it was Fort Knox.  He shot much of the film quickly, and under the guise of making simple screen tests.  Whenever executives from RKO would show up on the set, Welles would distract them with magic tricks or an impromptu baseball game.  Those who knew what Welles was up to knew that he was going to be making a powerful and dangerous enemy in Hearst, but I doubt they foresaw exactly how much hot water he was getting into.

It all started with a quiet, modest announcement of the first screening for the re-titled Citizen Kane.  So modest was the announcement, in fact, that it almost went unnoticed by even the most prying eyes of the top gossip columnists of the day.  It so happens, however, that a young up-and-comer in the world of tabloid journalism, Hedda Hopper, learned of the screening and attended.  When she reported on the movie and what its true subject matter was, the floodgates opened.

Hearst, enraged that his own Hollywood reporter Louella Parsons missed the scoop, soon organized with her help an all out assault on Citizen Kane.  Parsons became a thorn in the sides of studio magnates like Louis B. Mayer, Daryl Zanuck and others.  Hearst knew many of Hollywood’s dirtiest secrets, and he had kept some of the worst ones out of print as a gesture of friendship to the studios.  Now he wanted payback, in the form of the major studios organizing against Citizen Kane.  In trying to appease Hearst, the studio heads at one point pooled their money and offered to reimburse RKO’s entire production costs for the movie in exchange for the negative…so they could burn it.  Can you imagine?

The final appeal came from Welles himself, who may have come through just strong enough to save his pioneering project from the flames.  RKO, in a difficult position, decided to proceed with Citizen Kane.  But it would be an uphill battle all the way.  Hearst forbid any mention of the movie in his papers, and out of loyalty, many of his Hollywood friends deliberately boycotted or badmouthed the picture right out of the starting gates.  Citizen Kane would one day be hailed as the greatest and most influential film ever made, but it would actually be booed at the Oscars that year, and completely shut out save for a single award for Best Screenplay, a credit shared by Mankiewicz and Welles but was obviously more a tribute to the former than to the latter.

Welles would never recover.  His next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, would be seized by RKO, re-cut, and given a different ending.  The lost footage from that film is considered one of cinema’s most lamented casualties.  Welles would continue trying to make films as best he could for the rest of his life, but he would forever be outside the studio system looking in.  It was as though he made the greatest movie of all time, and was never forgiven for it.

Video ***

This is a decent looking presentation, one that encompasses both newer and older pieces of film and therefore exhibits varying amounts of quality, but overall, it’s a very satisfactory transfer.  The mostly black and white images are crisp and clear, and with excellent contrast and balance. 

Audio **

No complaints or praises for the stereo audio mix.  It’s perfectly fine and clear, but given the nature of the program, unspectacular and without much range.

Features *

The disc only boasts an Orson Welles filmography, plus access to the movie’s website.

Summary:

The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a smart, in-depth and detailed look at the struggle between two giants in their respective fields and the fight over a little picture whose outcome could have dramatically altered the course of cinematic history.  While we wait patiently for Citizen Kane to arrive on DVD, this terrific documentary is good enough to keep our appetites whetted in the meantime.