‘RKO 281’ revives ‘Kane’ lore

GOOD MORNING: He was there! With apologies to Red Buttons, I checked with someone who really was there, back in 1941 when “Citizen Kane” was going through final birth pains — and was threatened with extinction. Why the re-interest in and controversy over “Citizen Kane”? On Nov. 20, HBO begins airing “RKO 281,” about its making and makers. While it will fascinate most, it will revive those who always find errors in the off-screen stories of the pic. There have been a dozen books about Welles and “Kane,” with each contradicting something about the other. So I called the man who was there, the man who received an Oscar nomination for editing “Citizen Kane” (and later an Oscar-winning director of his own pix): Bob Wise. Among other things, he gave me the correct version of a meeting in N.Y. that he and Welles had with the boards of directors of other major studios, who were threatening to bury “Kane.” The majors were threatened by powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst. According to Wise, “They were concerned the release of that film (about a thinly disguised version of Hearst) would be detrimental to all of the studios, because Hearst was so powerful he could bar all of their ads from his publications — and more. That’s why I had to go to N.Y. with a print. Orson did not object to the fact (RKO topper) George Schaefer said I had to go.” RKO agreed to show it to the other studios “because, ” admitted Wise, “they were concerned the movie would end up on the shelf.” Welles addressed that multi-studio board; he could be very persuasive. “Then he left and I showed the print (in a projection room at Radio City Music Hall). Orson did not stay to watch the screening with them. The next day they gave me a list of changes, all minor! It took me five-six weeks to do it since I was in N.Y. and my assistant Mark Robson was in L.A.” This differs from HBO’s depiction. Welles aficionados may also find other scenes to comment on. F’rinstance, the scenes with Orson meeting Hearst at the castle in San Simeon — they never took place, reported Todd McCarthy in Daily Variety, Aug. 22, 1997, after reading John Logan’s “RKO 281” script. That being the case, however, the pic’s scenes in San Simeon between Welles and Hearst will give HBO viewers an inkling into the grandeur of the American palace — even though all the scenes shot by director Benjamin Ross were lensed in London! Those scenes also give younger generations an idea of Hollywood in that era, the lore of Hearst and Marion Davies (played convincingly by James Cromwell and Melanie Griffith). It also gives younger generations a picture of Hollywood gossip queens Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper played (ahem!) by Brenda Blethyn and Fiona Shaw. There are also some “reprints” of Daily Variety headlines, which I could not seem to find in our archives. Hmmm.

WHAT ACTOR COULD PLAY ORSON WELLES? Young (30) Liev Schreiber plays the 25-year-old Welles in ‘RKO 281.” He gained 20 pounds for the part. He’s a fine young actor (now rehearsing “Hamlet” on B’way), but anyone who saw or heard Welles knows he is unduplicatable. I knew Welles from 1947 until his death in 1985. I first met up with him as he was directing, starring in “Macbeth,” shooting at, of all places Republic — home of Gene Autry and other Western stars and Vera Hruba Ralston. Dan O’Herlihy (80), who played Macduff to Welles’ Macbeth, recalls that working for Orson was “more fun than later playing leading man and costarring roles” “Magnificent Ambersons,” Welles’ second film, will be remade by RKO’s current owners Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley. The latter was on hand at the DGA screening Monday and said RKO will segue back into the kinds of films that it was once known for — and make a femme-starring “Zombie” next year The versatile, Oscar-nominated James Cromwell who plays Hearst in the HBO’er, told me he studied the man thoroughly before playing the part. He returns next to theater in SanFran ACT’s launching of Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.” At the screening, Brenda Blethyn also told me she wants to return to theater and is debating between a Miami stand in “A Passionate Woman” or London’s stage in Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” The DGA was decked to look like San Simeon with ornate tapestries and banquet tables in a duplicated grand hall and Along Came Mary prepared groaning boards to resemble what may have been served at San Simeon — but buffet style. It was a lavish night. … The film was introduced by HBO Films prexy Colin Callender, who introduced the cast and crew on hand. Scripter John Logan is now writing the Howard Hughes biopic for Michael Mann, with Leonardo DeCaprio to star as Hughes. Other figures to be cast include Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn. Director Benjamin Ross, who duplicated all “Kane’s” California scenes in London, next shoots an 18th century Mafia-like movie. “Wayburn Fair” in London. He wants Harvey Keitel to play the don. … Exec producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott were also on hand; “RKO 281” is from their Scott Free Prods. Blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon signs copies of his “Hollywood Exile — or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist” tonight at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip. One of the book jacket compliments to Gordon is from Abraham Polonsky.