Thursday, November 18, 2010

Welles, Hearst, and Kane

It has been nearly 70 years since the release of CITZEN KANE, and the topic remains fresh, vibrant, and alive.  It continues to top the “best of” lists of most filmmakers and critics alike.  Its power and influence can be felt most everywhere, including in the most unlikely of places, i.e. The Simpsons.  It has become a standard by which the term “classic” can be defined.  So the questions that beg to be asked are these, “How did all this happen, and what almost prevented it from happening at all?

Logo for an RKO Release

In the spring of 1939 RKO was in desperate need of help.  The studio was financially unstable and was looking for a creative boost to its film library.  Then president, George Schaeffer looked to New York for his answer and found an upstart young artist named Orson Welles.  Welles was already making a big splash on the Broadway Stage with sensational productions of JULIUS CAESAR, MABETH, and HEARTBREAK HOUSE.  However, what really brought him into the minds of the West Coast was his radio production of H. G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS in October of 1938.  Welles’ dynamic production of a Martian invasion literally sent the entire nation into a panic.  Police stations were bombarded with calls most of night, and if it wasn’t for the fact that the broadcast constantly reminded everyone that this was fiction, Welles would have gotten himself into a great deal of trouble.  With that kind of talent, Schaeffer saw a chance to bring RKO out of its doldrums and began courting Welles in an attempt to bring him to Hollywood.  Ultimately the efforts paid off and Welles agreed to an incredibly generous contract.  Under the contract Welles would make two films and after script approval from the studio he exercised complete artistic control over the films, including final edit.  At the time such power was rare, especially for someone new.  In fact, only the likes of Charlie Chaplin had such control in those days.

Orson Welles in his prime

Though Welles had a great deal on his plate at the time, including some prior commitments which brought him back to New York every weekend, he immediately began work for RKO.  His initial plan was a film adaptation of the Joseph Conrad story Heart of Darkness.  The story had always been a popular one, but for many years it was considered dark, brooding, and unfilmable.  Welles convinced the studio heads to see things his way by telling them about inventive and unique filming techniques that he planned to implement into the production.  Ultimately they greenlit his proposal and production began.  Almost as soon as production was underway, trouble began.  In addition to Welles’ New York commitments tensions were escalating in Europe, and before too long all out war had begun.  Would a dark wartime tale attract a mass audience who already had the concerns of real war on their minds?  The answer was an emphatic, “NO!” and the plug was pulled.

Welles with Mankiewicz

With Heart of Darkness out of the question, Welles began to turn his attention in different directions, always seeming to come up empty.  A reunion with an old acquaintance from his New York days, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz ultimately sowed the seeds that would one day become CITIZEN KANE.  Mank, (as his friends called him) had been around Hollywood for years.  He was a talented writer, but a tragic flaw always kept him from reaching his potential, (booze.)  He was actually on his way to New York to find new work when an automobile crash brought him back to L. A.  While recovering from his accident, Welles approached him to aid in the writing duties of his weekly radio broadcast for the Campbell Soup Company.  Mank agreed and sometime during these collaborative efforts the idea for Kane was born.  The exact nature of the starting point is unknown, but it seemed to revolve around a new novel by celebrated novelist and noted socialist Aldous Huxley.  Huxley, popular writer of the science fiction novel, Brave New World, among others arrived in Los Angeles in the late 30s and found himself in the favor of noted publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.  Huxley was so turned off by this meeting that he decided to write a novel that thinly resembled his experiences with Hearst and some of Hearst’s questionable activities, most notably the mysterious death of film producer Thomas Ince while attending a party on Hearst’s luxury yacht.  The novel, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, made the rounds, but the generally ruthless Hearst decided to ignore it in the hopes that it would go away.  It did, and all seemed well, at least at the time.  However, Welles, having been invited to a party at the Huxleys' home to commemorate the completion of the novel was intrigued by Huxley’s story and its link to Hearst.  An idea was already beginning to take shape, and the muses were starting to sing.

William Randolph Hearst with Marion Davies

I guess the questions that beg to be asked at this time are two-fold, “Who was William Randolph Hearst and why did anyone really care about mysterious events from his life?”  Well by the 1930s William Randolph Hearst, owner of 29 newspapers plus countless other publications, had become one of the wealthiest individuals in the world.  With wealth came power, powerful friends, and enemies waiting for a crack in the armor to open wide enough to strike.  You see, Hearst began his days in the newspaper business when his wealthy father gave him the San Francisco Examiner as a gift.  He quickly improved circulation and started making a tidy profit by converting the legitimate news venue into a sensationalistic tabloid-like rag.  He adopted every low brow technique of “yellow journalism” at his disposal to increase the bottom line and pad his own pockets.  At this he was extremely successful, and became incredibly wealthy and influential.  Rumor even has it that his exaggerated reporting of Spanish and American tensions led to the Spanish American War.  On his rise to the top he devastated many underneath his thunderous wake and spent little if any time apologizing.  With time he built San Simeon, a huge castle on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as a testament to his wealth and power.  In its echoing halls he entertained many of the most influential people of the time, including much of the Hollywood elite.  In addition, he took a mistress, Marion Davies, under his intimate and wealthy wing.  At the time she was a second rate actress whom he tried to buy into the business by creating his own production studio with her as the star.  Needless to say this, among many other things attempted to be accomplished by Hearst through the use of his ludicrous wealth, never came to fruition.  With this in mind, it is easy to see why Hearst would be a tempting target for a man like Welles.

Publicity Poster for CITIZEN KANE

Still recovering from the crash that left his leg fractured in three places Mank traveled to the countryside to concentrate on the script and avoid the temptations of the big city, namely booze.  After several months of round the clock work he returned to L. A. with first draft in hand.  The idea to follow the narrative of the Huxley novel, including his fictional version of Thomas Ince’s mysterious death had been scrapped.  Instead the screenplay focused on the final words of a sickly tycoon and a series of flashbacks created in order to learn their meaning.  Welles was thrilled.  He loved the final utterance, “Rosebud.”  It was simple and memorable.  Where did Mank get the idea?  According to Mank he had heard from a reliable source that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s pet name for Marion Davies’ “nether regions.”  Welles loved the inside joke, and work began securing the greenlight from RKO.  After script approval was received production began, and, believe it or not, it was completed with few if any delays.  In January of 1941, with a proposed release date of February 14, 1941, Welles screened the not quite finished product for a small handpicked group of people.  All but one member of this exclusive press screening were completely blown away.  Many thinking it was possibly the best film they had seen in a long time.  The one dissenting viewpoint belonged to Hedda Hopper, local gossip columnist and long time friend of William Randolph Hearst.  She left infuriated with Welles and immediately called Hearst.  What Hopper didn’t know was that this was part of Welles’ plan.  Angered by the audacity of this young filmmaker’s attempt to splash his private life across the silver screen, Hearst immediately went to work with plans to ensure this production never saw the light of day.  Never one for getting his own hands dirty, he put his minions on the project of being his mediators in this crusade.  Flexing his power and muscle through them he convinced the other studio heads to refuse to screen the film in their own theater chains.  (At the time many of the larger studios owned their own chains of theaters throughout the nation, and it was through mutual cooperation that many films were able to be released on a more widespread scale.)  He put a ban on any RKO advertisements in any of his newspapers.  He tried to get Welles and his friends branded as communists.  He even went as far as convincing MGM head Louis B. Mayer to ask George Schaeffer to sell the film and all its negatives to him for $800,000, (the reported budget of the film,) so that he may destroy them.  The biggest and most effective threat from the Hearst campaign came from potential exposure of an underhanded practice that had been currently going on in Hollywood.  The raging war in Europe had resulted in an influx of immigrants to the United States, many of them Jewish.  Rumor had it that the predominantly Jewish heads of the studios had been favoring many of these unfortunate souls for work over their American counterparts.  Needless to say, the initial plot worked, and the February 14, 1941, premiere of CITIZEN KANE was canceled.
Grand Premier at The Palace Theater (May 1, 1941)

Despite this setback RKO president, George Schaeffer truly felt he had a masterpiece on his hands and began a grass roots campaign to get the film into theaters.  He traveled the nation privately screening the film for critics and film professionals alike looking for support.  After the movement picked up steam he finally convinced the RKO board of directors that publicity and strong word of mouth would make CITIZEN KANE a hit, and they agreed to release the film.  CITIZEN KANE finally saw its grand premiere at New York’s Palace Theatre on May 1, 1941.  The film proved to be everything that people were saying, an instant masterpiece, the best film of our time, etc, etc.  Critics wrote rave reviews, and the air was buzzing with excitement.  However, as we have come to learn over all these years, critical praise doesn’t always translate into mass audience appeal.  Its dark and bleak subject matter did not translate well for average filmgoers who know nothing and care nothing for the art of actual filmmaking.  As a result, enormous fanfare aside, CITIZEN KANE was a box office flop, and its receipts fell about $150,000 short of its budget.  In addition, the Hearst attack on KANE did not end with its release.  His influence still kept the film out of smaller theater chains nationwide, narrowing its availability for screenings and probably contributing to the shrinking bottom line.  Despite his best efforts, Hearst could not take full credit for the commercial failure of CITIZEN KANE.  The reasons for this are actually three-fold.   The previously mentioned Hearst boycott and lack of mass audience appeal are two, but the third was even more devastating.  With war in Europe and uncertainty for the future in the thoughts of most Americans, many just weren’t going to the movies.  Box office receipts were down across the board, not just for CITIZEN KANE.

KANE's competition at the 1941 Academy Awards

Despite early failures, Orson Welles had one last chance to drum up support for KANE and make it into a success, the Annual Academy Awards.  When the nominations were announced in early 1942 KANE topped the list, and many industry insiders felt it was the film to beat that year.  A successful run on Oscar night wasn’t any guarantee, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.  The publicity just might be enough to get KANE back out into wider release and maybe turn a modest profit.  Well, as they say about the best laid plans of mice and men, they often go astray, and Welles’ most certainly did.  CITIZEN KANE was a surprise loser in all categories except “Best Original Screenplay.”  Welles himself lost the best director Oscar to John Ford, and KANE lost the best picture Oscar to HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.  Many think Hearst had his hand in this as well.  Some reported that KANE was booed by the audience every time it was announced.  In addition, a new rule for that year’s ceremony allowed extras to vote in certain select categories.  Many felt Hearst used his influence with the industry to steer the 6,000 votes away from CITIZEN KANE.  However, none of this has been verified.  With the losses on Oscar night no new campaign to save KANE ever got off the drawing room floor, and the film disappeared into RKO’s vaults.  Even with the film out of the picture for the time being the relentless Hearst did not call off his attacks.  It is implied that Hearst had a hand in the failure of Dorothy Commingore’s acting career.  Despite rave reviews as Kane’s trophy wife Susan, (the supposed Marion Davies character,) Commingore mysteriously found it difficult to find legitimate work in Hollywood again.  In addition, when the alcoholic Mankiewicz found himself on the wrong end of a D.U.I. case, Hearst papers relentlessly and excessively reported the news for nearly two weeks.  Welles himself never quite achieved the same greatness as he did with KANE, and most of his films were not commercially successful.

With Hearst himself dead in 1951 and most of the fanfare around CITIZEN KANE gone as well, little was heard of the film until 1962.  At that time CITIZEN KANE made its first appearance in the number one spot of the British Film Institute’s “Greatest Films of All Time” list.  It repeated this monumental feat in 1972, 82, 92, and 2002.  In 1998 it appeared number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the best 100 films of all time.  It would appear that despite its hardships CITIZEN KANE had cemented itself in the annals of film history, never to be replaced.  If only Orson Welles had lived long enough to see it to completion.  He did witness early successes, but unfortunately he died, alone, of natural causes in 1985 at the age of 70.  Did he leave this earth with one final cryptic remark?  We will never know.  What we do know is that he left us with a masterpiece that we can treasure for now and for many endless years to come.

That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.