THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE
Review by Michael Jacobson
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
The disc only boasts an Orson Welles filmography, plus
access to the movie’s website.
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.