For many, it’s the greatest of all time. But when it was released 80 years ago, Citizen Kane was a death sentence. The movie’s director and star, Orson Welles, came to Hollywood by way of the stage and radio with a contract that made headlines: Total control and final cut over a project of his choosing. If he hadn’t, no studio would have let him set publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst in his sights. Hearst was 78 when Citizen Kane came out in 1941 and was very much in power. Hollywood usually waits until someone is disarmed or dead before they start sharpening their knives. Welles was 25 at the time, and not only was Hearst and his multitude of papers ready to lambast the leftist wunderkind, so were the Hollywood moguls. There’s nothing America likes to take down a peg than a proclaimed genius.
Did you catch that Welles was 25 when he made the movie many count as the greatest of all time? That’s one of the many reasons why young progressives have held Kane up over the year. They’re attracted to the film’s audacity. It’s exuberant energy, and it’s blunt politics. Power corrupts, and Charles Foster Kane (Welles) is corrupted absolutely. But wealthy conservatives you’d think would despise such a film also covet Kane. Case in point, former President Donald Trump. He counts Kane as his favorite. I’d wager that he sees the movie as a story about a boy and his sled and the little people who stood in the way.
I can’t think of an American-made film that stands up to multiple viewings quite like Kane. Its technical audacity—Gregg Toland’s cinematography, Van Nest Polglase’s art direction, and Robert Wise’s editing—is more vivid than half of the stuff made today. But it never feels like Welles and company are showing off, just showing what a movie can do. Watching it makes you want to reinvent the wheel. It’s no wonder French director Jean-Luc Godard once said of Welles, “All of us will owe him everything.”
Yet, Kane is not just about the young dreamers and their principals, but the old has-bens and their reality. This is where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz comes in. Mank, as his friends called him, was in his 40s when he wrote the script American about the rise and fall of a mogul who spent his entire life trying to get the one thing he lost as a child. Rosebud. In the movie, it’s a sled Kane owned as a boy (Buddy Swan) while living in Colorado. In real life, the nickname “Rosebud” hit Hearst where it counted.
Mankiewicz was a member of Hearst’s social circle. He was also a drunk and wrote like his time was up. In one of Kane’s signature scenes, he gives Bernstein (Everett Sloane) the monologue of a lifetime: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on—and she was carrying a white parasol—and I only saw her for one second, and she didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
It’s been 80 years since Citizen Kane graced the silver screen, and I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by without someone sitting down somewhere and discovering it. When The Criterion Collection launched in 1984 as a manufacture of Laserdiscs for home viewing, it was only fitting that Kane launched the line. Now the seminal film returns to the collection under the newest format, 4K Ultra High-Definition Blu-ray, backed by three discs of special features, including Welles’ rarely seen 1934 short The Hearts of Age, BBC’s 1991 documentary The Complete “Citizen Kane,” and hours and hours of Kane goodies.
Most movies evaporate the second the screen goes dark. The best ones linger for a lifetime. But the greatest continue to shape the world no matter how long time marches on.