Citizen Kane was rated, in 1998, as the number ONE movie of all-time. That's quite an achievement. On many lists produced since the first AFI rankings came out, you will still find it at or near the top. Here's one. On the AFI revised list from 2007? Yup, Numero uno. Out of nearly 400,000 rankings on IMDB, it has 8.3 out of 10 stars and is at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes' audience scale as of this writing. Don't expect these rankings to ever change very much.
I've now seen the movie twice. I remember it being brooding and dark and serious the first time around, and I think if I'm honest I didn't quite get it. I often don't like things the first time. They have to grow on me. So I watched it again this past week, and have been thinking about how to portray it here ever since.
The main thing I wanted to discover, somehow, is WHY it is so darn famous. Why was it a big deal in 1941, why was it #1 on the AFI list almost 60 years later and why is it still at or near the top of almost every list I can find. Older movies are tricky; they often don't seem relevant anymore. I think the great ones that we still watch today can be at once crudely-made (comparative to modern cinematographic methods) and also revolutionary for their time. I find that intriguing. I also love a great story.
In reading a few contemporary reviews, as well as some newer ones, I learned that this film shook a lot of feathers in its time and was highly anticipated. That seems to owe to at least two major things: the force of nature that was the young Orson Welles, and the story he and Herman Mankiewicz put together that managed to piss off a very important real-life newspaperman, William Randolph Hearst.
Firstly, there is Welles. I have only seen a couple of his movies and know little of his fame. But it is clear that he was larger than life, much as his character Charles Foster Kane was. For over 80 years now, the stories both factual and exaggerated, of how he single-handedly managed to scare a large number of pre-World War II Americans into thinking the world had been invaded by Martians using a radio broadcast, is iconic. Can you imagine such a thing today? Maybe a similar phenomenon happens today via the internet, but it certainly wouldn't be the same. People are much more world-aware than back then. It is certainly easier to reach more people now than then. I think it's darn impressive the furor he caused back in 1938.
I don't know how good a comparison it actually is, but William Randolph Heart seems to have been akin to someone like Rupert Murdoch in modern times. Mega-media mogul. A man who held a LOT of sway over his readers. So much sway that apparently he tried to stop RKO from putting Citizen Kane in theatres. And barring that blocked all coverage of the movie in his massive newspaper empire. Imagine Fox blocking the latest Star Wars movie from its website and all the TV stations it owns. And yet, Citizen Kane became what it is. Maybe that notoriety helped it along.
And if you are still with me, maybe you are wanting to know about the actual movie and what I think of it. As always, I was looking for meaning in it. What was the key takeaway?
For me, I see a monumental change thrust upon a young, impressionable boy, and the consequences of that change. I think when Kane was sent away by his parents, in many ways he stopped growing emotionally right then and there, as frozen in time as the footprints left in the snow on the cold winter day when he left for bigger things and a coming fortune that both fueled and consumed him and those around him.
We see this in the beginning, as the mystery is set: what does he MEAN by the single word "rosebud" as he passes away? And once the mystery is finally revealed in the end, we can realize why he was as he was. We all know we have moments that define us. Singular moments that resonate until the day we die and even beyond for those who are touched by the existence we leave behind. The money shot for me was when the camera peers down from an upper level to the lower floor of the Xanadu mansion, and you see boxes upon boxes from when items had been shipped there, and the items themselves. In the end, it all meant nothing. All that had mattered was Rosebud.
Kane, like Welles himself, revels in the grandiose. He takes the newspaper he buys on a lark from small-time and creates the biggest chain around. He gets on a political path to the presidency until scandal takes that away (a timeless concept we can certainly relate to in modern times). He collects and collects and collects so much art of all kinds and we wonder why he does it. He creates, and yet does not complete, a massive complex that he ends up alone in. It's as if Walt Disney built Disneyland and then no one came there to visit, leaving him to die there all alone. It could've happened. To me, Kane's Xanadu foreshadows these massive parks and compounds that we see today that only the richest of the rich can achieve, of course in much more of a somber and even macabre way. Kane was this in a fictional form.
To the modern person who hasn't seen Citizen Kane: you should see it. Whatever might have kept you from seeing it before, whether its "just old" or in black and white or you've seen clips and it seems too dark, there is no CGI, no humor, no violence, no gore, see it. Try to imagine the early 1940s. This movie was a game-changer. I'm at a loss to compare it to a newer movie; I'm sure there are comparables in terms of importance, of scope, and moving the needle on how movies are made. The fact I can't readily draw such a comparison might be the biggest point I can make here: Citizen Kane might just be incomparable. See for yourself.
If you don't believe me, check out these sources that helped me with expanding my knowledge of, and appreciation for, this film:
New York Times review from 1941
New Yorker magazine review, May 1941
Vanity Fair 1941 review
Medium.com article from 2018