How Variety Covered the Era of ‘Citizen Kane’ and Herman J. Mankiewicz

How Variety Covered Herman J Mankiewicz

David Fincher’s “Mank” isn’t a work of history. It’s a film first and foremost.

“If you’re talking about the truth, you have to circumnavigate some of the fact,” Fincher tells Variety in this week’s cover story.

And yet, “Mank” sticks much closer to the truth than most fact-based films, if the Variety Archives are any indication.

Variety in the 1930s and ’40s was like a community bulletin board: Aside from covering the business, reporters wrote about daily life in a company town. Reading the archives is like a “Mank Study Guide,” with support for virtually every plot point and detail in the new movie.

For example, the Netflix film features a circus-themed party thrown by Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, who in fact threw a similar event for 400 guests:

“W.R. Hearst in gold cloth bolero, and big red bow tie, cut a gigantic birthday cake … Bette Davis, a bearded woman in formal brown and white striped gown. Marion Davies in modified clown costume of periwinkle blue. Leslie Howard, with Mrs. Howard wearing a merry-go-round on her head…” (Variety, May 3, 1937)

Variety covered Herman J. Mankiewicz regularly, including New York rehearsals for his 1924 play “Love ’Em and Leave ’Em” and his later play “The Wild Man of Borneo,” which was described as “a floppo.”

In a recap of hot new Hollywood writers of 1927, Variety said: “[Mank] sold himself fast and was made head of Authors’ Council [and] brought out many prominent writers from the east, including Ben Hecht.” (Jan. 4, 1928)

While Hollywood scripters were pushed around, Mankiewicz pushed back. As organizations like the Screen Writers Guild were getting established, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had a hand in such key battles as script arbitration.

“Academy’s second writers’ bulletin, carrying scribbling credits on pictures produced the previous month, was issued yesterday and carries a letter from Herman Mankiewicz pointing out ‘the extreme absurdity of your publication.’ Mank’s [anger] is over the multiple credits assigned to ‘Stamboul Quest’ in the last bulletin, whereby the screen credit gave Mank 50-50 with another writer.” (Sept. 12, 1934)
Fincher’s film shows MGM topper Louis B. Mayer weeping with fake joy after employees agree to pay cuts. Variety augments that with a report on salaries:

“Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and [MGM banker] J. Robert Rubin rank among the best-paid Hollywood figures. Their net receipts from MGM in 1932 amounted to $1,333,576.” (Feb. 27, 1934)

That translates to $25 million in today’s dollars, pretty hefty in the Depression.

Variety reported each step of the development and production of “Citizen Kane,” starting with the fact that Orson Welles was under pressure after six months at RKO to pick a film debut. There were also stories about Mankiewicz writing the script, turning it in and petitioning for screen credit.

The Archives covered big and small plot points in the film: the 1934 Sinclair-Merriam governor race, Hearst’s attempts to turn Davies into a “serious” actor, Thalberg’s health problems, Mank’s car accident, even the nickname “Poor Sarah” for Mank’s wife.

On March 4, 1942, there was a post-Oscar analysis of the “Kane” near-shutout, when “How Green Was My Valley” was the big winner. The reporter (with no byline) said the key factor was the 6,000 extras who voted: “The mob prefers a regular guy to a genius.”

After Mankiewicz’s 1953 death, columnist Frank Scully wrote a tribute: “In money, friendship and talent, he threw it away in buckets. He once lost $60,000 on one gambling binge.” (In 2020 dollars, that’s about $1 million.)

“Like most of Hollywood’s top earners, he had no idea of simple accounting. He recently owed Uncle Sam $80,000.”

Scully added, “Many people must have wondered why Mank took on an assignment like ‘Citizen Kane,’ despite the fact that it won him an Academy Award. … He must have known that the whole Hearst chain would give him the finger on ‘Kane.’ But he had amazing spurts of courage and this was by far the bravest of them all.”