Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Xanadu in Review: Citizen Kane Turns 60

by George Turner

Nearly sixty years ago, on May 1, 1941, RKO Radio unleashed its much publicized and very controversial Citizen Kane on an expectant show world. It was the first feature film produced by a multi-talented young man from radio and the stage, Orson Welles, who celebrated his 26th birthday five days after the New York premiere. Most of the critics loved it, some panned it. The Hearst newspapers pointedly ignored it, then attacked it because of the widely held opinion that it was based on the life of William Randolph Hearst.

The general public hated it, with theater men reporting more walkouts and demands for refunds than they could remember. Some exhibitors declared Kane an illustration of why block-booking by film distributors should be outlawed. (Which it was, years later. RKO at the time would allow theaters to book programs only in blocks of five features of RKO's choice, plus selected short subjects.)

Within the industry there was a great deal of resentment against the "boy-wonder" producer/director/star/co-author. He was, many complained, too self assured, too inexperienced and had been given too much power. His chubby, mischievous face reminded everybody of that smartass kid who received all the straight A report cards in high school. The word "genius" took on an ugly connotation. The most popular gag in town was attributed to the hard drinking and sharp-witted author of the screenplay, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Glancing up as Welles walked past, he is alleged to have remarked, "There, but for the grace of God, goes God."

It is said that Louis B. Mayer offered RKO president George J. Schaefer $842,000 - the combined negative and post production costs - to destroy the negative and all prints. Mayer had done this before on a couple of occasions when he considered a picture to be un-American or anti-Hollywood.

At the 1941 Academy Awards ceremony (February 26, 1942), Citizen Kane received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Welles), Best Direction, Original Screenplay (Mankiewicz and Welles), Cinematography (Gregg Toland, ASC), Art Direction (Perry Ferguson and Van Nest Polglase), Interior Decoration (AI Fields and Darrell Silvera), Sound Recording (John Aalberg), Film Editing (Robert Wise), and Music - Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Bernard Herrmann). Boos from the audience greeted each announcement. Miraculously, Citizen Kane did receive an award for its screenplay and also was named Best Picture by both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics.

The picture was a box office flop, going some $150,000 into the red, and Welles had become as popular as the pox among the RKO executives. Most of the craftsmen who worked on the picture saw Welles in quite a different light. Cinematographer Toland wrote (in the June, 1941 issue of Popular Photography: "How I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane"): "Welles' use of the cinematographer as a real aid to him in telling the story, and his appreciation of the camera's storytelling potentialities, helped me immeasurably. He was willing - and this is very rare in Hollywood - that I take weeks to achieve a desired photographic effect. The photographic approach to Citizen Kane was planned and considered long before the first camera turned. That is also unconventional in Hollywood, where most cinematographers learn of their next assignments only a few days before the scheduled shooting starts."

Linwood Dunn, ASC, who was in charge of the numerous optical effects necessary to the unique visual style of Citizen Kane, has said that "None of us who worked on that picture had the slightest doubt that Welles knew what he was doing. Once I showed him what could be done on the optical effects printer, he used the printer the way an artist uses a brush."

One hardly thinks of Kane as a special effects picture, but its reliance on optical compositing may be judged by something said long ago by Vernon 1. Walker, ASC, head of the RKO camera effects department: "Citizen Kane was heavier in special effects than any RKO picture since King Kong." In fact, some of the famed deep focus shots had to be achieved through opticals or projection process.

Welles loved the movies of the past, not only the acknowledged classics (he especially admired the work of John Ford) but horror pictures, serials and low budget mysteries. Interviewed in the April, 1940 issue of Modern Screen, he spoke of possible projects: " ... Macbeth and its gloomy moors might be grand. A perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and The Bride of Frankenstein." The "look" of Kane is an amalgamation of things that impressed him in such films. For example, "shock" opening scenes are common to many mystery and horror pictures, although none can equal the opening of Kane: a mysterious mansion, a dying man, an extreme closeup of his lips muttering the crucial "Rosebud," a crystal sphere falling from his hand and shattering, a distorted view of an approaching nurse seen through a shard of broken glass. This sequence cuts to "News on the March," pompous announcer and all, which depicts the life of the late Charles Foster Kane. Republic's 1939 serial, Dick Tracy's G-Men, opens with a similar "Parade of Events" capsulizing the career of a notorious international spy who has just been brought to book. Again, Welles didn't do it first, but he did it better.

The celebrated ceilinged sets had their precedents in earlier pictures, such as Bulldog Drummond, photographed by George Barnes, ASC and Toland in 1929; Dracula's Daughter, photographed by George Robinson, ASC in 1936; and Stagecoach, photographed by Bert Glennon, ASC in 1938. Toland spoke of celled sets in an interview in Minicam for October 1940 ("Behind the Scenes as Gregg Toland Produces The Long Voyage Home" by Harry Champlin): "One thing is at once apparent. This set has a ceiling! This is truly a new departure. Gregg smiles. 'What do you think of the ceiling idea? I've been using them for quite some time. It's all a part of an attempt to inject realism into our pictures.'”.

Deep focus photography had been utilized from time to time, most notably in 1931 by James Wong Howe, ASC in Transatlantic; by John Mescall, ASC in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, and by Toland in 1940 in both The Westerner and The Long Voyage Home. After Citizen Kane its use became widespread, especially in the so-called film nair films of the following decade.

Welles' audaciously effective idea of combining miniatures with full scale settings in sweeping camera moves harkens back to 1930's The Bat Whispers, photographed by Ray June,ASC for Roland West. The Kane visuals also have much in common with those of Mad Love (1935), directed by German-born cinematographer Karl Freund, ASC and photographed by Chester Lyons, ASC (who died part-way through production) and Toland.

It is evident that Toland originated some of the ideas that Welles utilized so perfectly, and that Walker and Dunn also influenced Welles. The collaboration of unit art director Perry Ferguson was even stronger than is usual between director, cinematographer and designer. Ferguson worked closely throughout with Welles (who was no mean set designer) in making hundreds of idea sketches to fit the evolving concepts of the film.

Strangely enough, the visual style of the film was employed - as Welles, Toland and Wise all have noted - with a view toward heightening realism. The deep focus, wide-angle shots were more akin to what the eye is accustomed to seeing in life than are the customary views made in variable focus with longer lenses. Ironically, theatergoers had become so accustomed to prevailing cinematic styles that many of them found Kane freakish and were alienated. Movies create their own illusion of reality. In utilizing ideas that were not in the mode of the day, Welles and company had violated the smoothly flowing evolution of motion picture techniques.

The fact that the all the principal players (however excellent) were strangers to the screen also mitigated against audience acceptance. Today it's hard to imagine that Welles, Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, Ruth Warrick, Paul Stewart and Erskine Sanford were completely unknown to moviegoers.

Today, as seen in the beautiful new theatrical prints released by Paramount and on the Criterion Collection laserdiscs and the Turner videotapes, Citizen Kane remains an exciting work of art. It is no longer shocking because its ideas have been absorbed into the mainstream of motion picture making. Film students treat it as Holy Writ. The "new faces" are now old friends. Nobody gives a damn anymore whether it was really about Hearst (Welles maintained to the last that it wasn't intended to be).

Amazingly, even after half a century, Citizen Kane seems to be anything but a museum piece; it impresses as being fresh, exciting and full of ideas. What is most remarkable is that the ideas all work. ....

reprinted American Cinematographer, August 1991

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