Though it is now widely regarded as a masterpiece, Orson Welles'”Citizen Kane” met quite a different reception in 1941, and was nearly destroyed before it could be released. Weaving a compelling drama of outsize proportions, “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” chronicles a dark chapter in American cinema history with an absorbing mix of outstanding archival material and interviews. The documentary is a provocative account of events that deserve attention beyond academic and cinephile circles. Airing Jan. 29 on PBS, pic is certain to have a long life in pubcaster, cable and educational slots, and may do well in limited theatrical situations.
Filmmakers Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein demonstrate particular resourcefulness in their selections from archives, including seldom-seen footage , and their choice of interview subjects strikes a pleasing balance between scholars, filmmakers, actors, journalists, theater colleagues of Welles and the director himself, filmed in 1982.
The young Welles had taken on one of the most powerful — and ruthless — men of his time when he and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz modeled Charles Foster Kane after media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Docu shows that their greatest mistake, however, was portraying Marion Davies asa shrill, charmless alcoholic. Ample home-movie footage from San Simeon testifies to her vivaciousness, in stark contrast to “Citizen Kane’s” Susan Alexander. The film depiction was “something of a dirty trick,” Welles confessed, and one for which he paid dearly.
Lennon and co-writer Richard Ben Cramer, who also narrates, propose parallels between Welles and Hearst that lend their tragic collision an aura of inevitability. Docu’s first hour establishes the extraordinary personalities and careers of both men. Hubris was their strength and their undoing; raised to believe the world was theirs to conquer –“I never heard a discouraging word for years,” Welles said — as adults they shared a flair for melodrama and a taste for controversy.
After a public backlash destroyed his dreams of a political career, Hearst maintained his media holdings as instruments of power –“You can crush a man with journalism,” he told Douglas Fairbanks; and, docu postulates, that’s precisely what he did to Welles.
Not yet 21 when he shook the New York theater scene with his Haitian-set “Macbeth” for the WPA’s Federal Theater Project (the film includes rare footage of the play’s closing scene and curtain calls), Welles began to regard controversy as beneficial, if not essential, to his work. Indeed, it was the flap over “War of the Worlds” that brought him to Hollywood. A 24-year-old outsider, he rode into town with an RKO deal that offered unprecedented artistic freedom; “They hated him,” Peter Bogdanovich remarks of the movie establishment.
Pic’s second hour finds both mavericks in California: Welles ready to take on the world, and Hearst, 52 years his senior, holding court with Davies at his Central Coast duchy, San Simeon, his empire increasingly embattled. While the populist New Deal had afforded Welles his first professional break, FDR’s economic policy was eroding Hearst’s fortune. His papers losing prestige, heturned to Hollywood gossip to keep them alive — and to secure his power with the burgeoning industry. It was Hearst columnist Louella Parsons who hailed Welles as “the would-be genius”– and, later, who served as her boss’s mouthpiece when he wanted “Citizen Kane” destroyed.
The most lamentable aspect of the saga is the way Hollywood closed ranks against Welles. Louis B. Mayer offered $ 800,000 for “Citizen Kane” so he could burn it; RKO balked over releasing it, prompting Welles to sue, and many exhibitors refused to show the film, which inspired the indefatigable Welles to propose an unorthodox marketing strategy to the studio.
The film was met with a smear campaign by Hearst, which provoked the FBI to start a file on Welles, branding him a threat to national security. After “Kane” was booed at the Academy Awards dinner (it picked up one prize), RKO retired it — and, Welles relates with humor, changed the company’s corporate slogan to distance itself from him:”Showmanship instead of genius.”
Intercutting the story with clips from “Kane,” docu builds a double portrait of arrogance, excess and self-destruction. But the filmmakers may be overdoing the sense of personal tragedy for Welles by unquestioningly accepting the industry assessment that he did nothing of significance after “Kane.” Of his subsequent films, only “The Magnificent Ambersons” is mentioned, briefly.
Overall, “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” presents a rich, many-layered slice of history with polish and insight. Although Welles misjudged the trouble he would face with Hearst as just another career-boosting controversy, “Citizen Kane,” the documentary points out, has become the last word on the newspaper czar. Docu’s most poignant revelation, however, concerns the film’s theme of childhood loss, which came straight from the life of Welles, not Hearst.