The past and present collided Friday night at Hearst Castle, where Orson Welles’ iconic “Citizen Kane” screened for the first time — 74 years after its initial release.
The movie screened at the private theater at the massive hilltop estate — the inspiration for Xanadu in “Citizen Kane” — for about 60 people, most of whom paid $1,000 per ticket to benefit the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival and the Friends of Hearst Castle preservation group.
“I felt the spirit of William Randolph Hearst,” said producer Lincoln Phipps, whose “Hollywood Don’t Surf” documentary had screened Thursday at the fest.
The Hearst family became a part of the festival in 2012 when William Randolph Hearst’s grandson Steven Hearst agreed to a first-ever screening of “Citizen Kane” at the Hearst Castle visitor center — two miles away from Hearst Castle — even though his grandfather had tried unsuccessfully to suppress the 1941 film due to its unflattering portrayal of aspects of his life, particularly his mistress Marion Davies.
Steven Hearst said then that enough time has passed for the family to acknowledge the artistic achievement of the film, while attempting to set the record straight about Hearst. Festival director Wendy Eidson came up with the idea of approaching the Hearsts four years ago.
“I never really expected the family to say yes,” she said Friday, adding, “I don’t know how we’ll top this.”
The film was introduced by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz — grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who teamed with Welles to write the screenplay. That script received the film’s only Oscar.
Museum director Mary Levkoff noted that Hearst usually screened films at 11 p.m. and opted mostly to feature films that starred guests staying at the Castle. “There’s also a good possibility that he showed ‘Gone with The Wind’ before it opened,” she added.
Mankiewicz noted that his grandfather — a well-known inebriate — had behaved poorly on a visit to Hearst Castle during the late 1930s and was not invited again. After breaking his leg in an auto accident and being kicked off the MGM lot, he was reduced to writing radio screenplays for Welles at $200 per script.
“If all that hadn’t happened, we might not have gotten ‘Citizen Kane,'” Mankiewicz added, noting that the first draft came in at 325 pages and was called “American.”
Mankiewicz noted that his grandfather’s disdain for Hollywood was so profound that he shunned the Oscars in 1941 along with Welles. “My father said that when he won, it was the only time he ever saw my grandfather dance.”
He noted that disagreements remain to this day over how much Welles and Mankiewicz each contributed to the script, adding, “My grandfather said that if he had been present at the ceremonies, he would have said, ‘I’m very happy to accept in Mr. Welles’ absence because the screenplay was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.'”
David Clover, who journeyed from Oakland, said that he first saw “Citizen Kane” on a double bill with “The Third Man” in 1948 soon after Hearst died. “It’s still a wonderful film every time I see it,” he said after the screening.
Maria Kelly, a festival volunteer, was one of only two attendees at the event who had not seen the film previously. “My first impression is that the black-and-white cinematography is so remarkable and memorable,” she noted.
The event also included live auctions of a pair of Hearst Castle party packages — a movie night for 10 and a pool party for 10 at the indoor Roman Pool — with both going for $10,000.
The festival is now in its 21st year.