There’s no enjoyment in reverence. The scholar who’s forced into study, be it of War and Peace or Creamy Juggs Quarterly, is pressing upon himself an innate resistance to the material and an assumption of its superiority. Citizen Kane has held such an alienating authority for so long that the best it can hope is its viewers grudgingly admit its technical merits. At worst, it’s a cold, looming beast that inspires no love. “It’s good, but I don’t think it’s the best film ever made.” Of course not, because there is no best film ever made. Yes, it’s a technical achievement, but I’m not here to lionize Welles, I’m here to humanize him.
Welles once filled in for Jack Benny when Benny was sick. The writers based their gags around Welles’ image as the boy genius, the old knight of the radio, the idea that he was this unapproachable figure, so much so that a rubberneck stops by the studio and asks Welles to laugh menacingly, because it’ll cure the guy’s hiccups. Welles delivers an appropriate bellow and then ad libs, “Biggest laugh on the show.” The second line is more Welles. Yes, he was a very, very smart guy – a great performer, a great director and so forth, but watch any of his performances and you see that he was also playful.
Though our generation probably doesn’t know of Welles as a public figure (if they know of him at all), he was polite, friendly, and, though aware of his image, approachable. And funny, as you can easily see in this clip from his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show
Or this one from the Dean Martin Roast of Jimmy Stewart:
Cavett mentions more than a few times how Welles dislikes being regarded as “The Legend” and being spoken to as “The Orson Welles” instead of himself. I imagine most legends would feel the same way — you spend the first part of your life achieving immanence and whatever’s left retreating from it. Nevertheless Welles, whether consciously or not, couldn’t help adding depth to every syllable. In the Roast, he opens with the oft-used jab at Milton Berle of stealing material, then moves on to a more barbed poke at Barry Goldwater. Berle laughs, Goldwater’s pissed. And then on to celebrating Jimmy Stewart. Even in such an informal setting as this, there’s a structure and build-up to the speech — he opens by mocking the whole room, moves on to a specific target with a gentle ribbing, switches to another target and delivers a veiled criticism, and then comes to his actual topic. And, as a twist, the only person Welles doesn’t roast is the one person he’s supposed to. It’s a good example of a lot of Welles’ work: The base material is popular entertainment, but he elevates it to not only great entertainment, but also something thematically dense and even elegant. I have a feeling that later on into this I’m going to eat that statement, but for now, I’ll leave it in.
The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, for example, are lurid noir. Both are based on pulpy novels that not even the authors would suspect of inspiring great films (or even merely good ones). But they work as films because Welles knows what’s exciting about them and knows how to shoot the hell of an exciting scene — and if that scene happens to be in a hall of mirrors that forces each character to look into themselves while they’re blowing up the place, well, that’s an added bit of drama that makes all the more better. Like Shakespeare before him and Tarantino after, Welles throws sex, dirty jokes, and violence at you, and somehow something deeper emerges.
And revisiting Citizen Kane, I think it’s a lot more entertaining than it gets credit for. Since anyone watching the flick already knows what Rosebud is, it’s easy to forget that Kane, in its most basic form, is a mystery, specifically, “What did Kane mean by his last words?” and that question drives the investigation into Kane’s personal life. It’s a compelling framing device, because everyone enjoys a good mystery, but it’s doubly appropriate because Kane’s life itself is essentially an investigation.
Todd Alcott by way of David Mamet would ask, “What does the protagonist want?” What does Kane want? Jedidiah almost spells it out for the audience: “He wants love, but on his own terms.” What are those terms then? One-sided. Kane wants to receive love but never have to give it. He can easily charm his way into a lady’s pants or buy into them or both, but when it comes to anything requiring a personal commitment, an actual sacrifice, he’s utterly incapable. That’s part of it, but I think more accurately Kane wants to find happiness, or at least the happiness he felt as a child, and the story of his life can be broken down into the various ways he tries to find it — and, like the reporter, never reaches his goal.
All Kane’s attempts to find happiness are manifested through some form of control or power, be it legal, financial, political, or material. Financial control he acquires pretty easily from his parents. His mother purchased some land that turns out to be a literal gold mine, and soon he’s shipped off to be the ward of Mr. Thatcher, a banker (parallels to Batman notwithstanding). This isn’t actually Kane trying to find his own happiness, but rather his parents, more specifically his mother, who thinks that living with a creepy old man will give him prospects and ensure him a good future. His father, on the other hand, disagrees, and thinks that the best thing for his son, any son, is to be with his parents. Both of them ostensibly want what’s best for their boy, but in the end money wins out over love, and Kane grows up to make the same mistake his mother makes over and over again.
When he turns 25, Kane inherits his parents’ money and in turn his legal freedom from Mr. Thatcher. And what better way to celebrate that freedom than by defying the man whose thumb he’s been under for the last 17 or so years? He acquires a newspaper and immediately launches into an attack on his former guardian, hiding behind the excuse (as so many print and internet journalists often do) that it’s all in the pursuit of truth when what he really wants is revenge. That’s not enough though, and once Kane’s had his revenge, he uses his money and freedom to gain political power.
So Act II of Kane’s life begins, and with Kane free of responsibilities, rich, and full of potential, we’re ready to see where this kid will go. This is the longest act, and it covers a lot of ground, introducing two key players in Kane’s life: Mr. Bernstein, his business manager, and Jedidiah Leland, his best friend and critic. It also introduces Kane’s declared principles, which, from the moment they’re cast, we know will be violated.
It’s a good rule of analytical thumb that whenever there’s two characters close to the protagonist, they’re going to be extreme representations of the protagonist’s major character traits. For example, in Anatomy of a Murder you have the main character Paul Biegler and his confidants: his secretary, representing Paul’s self-control and discipline, and Parnell, representing his flamboyance and unrestrained talent. Even in something as recent (and reviled) as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull there’s Jones’ associates Mac, representing the fortune and glory side of Indy and Ox, being the scholarly side.
Bernstein and Jedidiah similarly highlight two contrasting aspects of Kane. Mr. Bernstein (always referred to by his last name) sees Kane as Kane wanted people to see him — a titan, a great man, and one who was scarcely of this earth, generously granting us his presence. Bernstein never saw beyond that, a point that’s driven home by the framing of his interview — his desk symbolizing a physical barrier and the massive portrait of Kane always looming over him.
Jedidiah, on the other hand, knew Kane’s weaknesses, or at the very least saw through the gloss (there’s a reason he’s blind; he never saw the image). Likewise, there’s no physical barrier separating him from the reporter, And if the point isn’t already driven home, Jedidiah is named after a prophet, yet his name also means “beloved of God” — God may well refer to Kane, but Kane itself is ironically biblical, at least in this context.
This segment of Kane’s life is nicely subdivided into three sections with his political aspirations , his increasing recklessness, and his growing disappointment with each. Anyone wondering if Kane will find happiness in politics is probably insane anyway, and Welles almost immediately answers the question with a resounding, “No.” Since he already has the control over the press, Kane starts by persuading the public to push for war with Spain, which means persuading his writers to push for war with Spain. And, like any good politician, he uses
logic, reason, and thoughtful arguments an orgy of booze, song, and women to convince the people.
Despite the underlying cynicism, I love this scene, and Welles is great fun to watch. Look how fluid he is as he swings in the dancing girls, salutes, and, later on, dances himself. It’s tough not to get caught up in the excitement. After a performance like that, whatever Kane’s pushing doesn’t matter — you’re on board. Of course, the darker side to the scene is that he’s pushing for war, something Mr. Bernstein is all but oblivious to and Jedidiah is all too aware of, but I’ll get to them in a moment.
The ploy works (and yes, we actually did go to war with Spain, as silly as that sounds), but even though Kane can manipulate people into doing his bidding, he doesn’t have any direct power over them. What’s the next step? Like the monarchs of Europe, he decides to marry into power by wedding the President’s niece. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t get him the power he wants. True, he has a direct connection to one of the most powerful men in the world, but he himself has none. And, for that matter, Presidents, unlike monarchs, have term limits, being married to the niece of one only gets you an in for a maximum of eight years (granted this is before we had official term limits, but still, eight was the unspoken limit).. Disappointed with yet another venture, and his wife having outlived her purpose, Kane’s first marriages crumbles so quickly he barely notices. Instead, he runs for office, because why be beholden to the people when you can rule over them?
And here, appropriately is Kane at his worst. War with Spain was one thing — he pushed for it, but he wasn’t a decision maker nor did he pull any triggers — but his assault on Jim Gettys is a personal declaration of war, and he’s happy to smear Gettys all across the state. Thus far Kane’s gone from targeting an entire country to one man, and while it’s easy to set back while others fight a battle for you, issuing a direct attack leaves him exposed, vulnerable to retaliation. Similar to the way we don’t pay much attention to the mess of senators and congressmen who declare a unjust war, but if one paws his way into the wrong Pussy Jar, woe be unto him.
And that’s just what Kane does. For the first time in many, many years, Kane has found some small bit of happiness with his mistress, ironically because she’s clueless as to who he is. Despite his life’s work, Kane has happiness thrown in his lap. He didn’t have to work for it, and he didn’t need to be rich or powerful to get it. But his affair marks the end of his political career. Kane, though completely unintentionally, has indeed found happiness in politics, just not in politics themselves and not in any way he could expect or control. It goes without saying, but this is some good screenwriting — thematically (and literally), Kane’s political career is over now that he’s met Susan. And whether it was Welles or Mank who came up with the idea of exposing the affair, it consummately ties up the second act and begins the third.
If the first act of Kane’s life was Gaining Power over Himself (or wresting it away from Mr. Thatcher), and the second was Gaining Power over Other People, the third would be Gaining Power over One Person — Susan Alexander. The mystery switches again and becomes, “Will Kane find happiness with Susan?” This final act is also the most interesting in Kane’s development because he actually has the very thing he’s been looking for, and, honestly, I’m not entirely sure whether he’s unaware of that or whether he is and most of his struggle is trying not to lose it again.
However, as much as I’d like to believe that Kane had happiness within his grasp, and that had he only done things differently he could have been happy forever, I can’t. For one, if Susan was the One Thing he was looking for all his life, then he would have called out her name on his deathbed instead of Rosebud. For another, Susan would have been introduced much earlier in the film. She could have rejected him in the end, but her character would not have been so peripheral. Instead, I think her importance is to remind Kane of a simpler time and the happiness he found in it.
Now I don’t expect Kane to come to that realization, and if, when he was cuddled in his little love nest with Susan, Kane suddenly sat up and said, “Now I know where happiness lies! It’s in the heart of a child! Susie, you wild bitch, let’s give all my worldly possessions away, buy a bunch of sleds, and head on over to the orphanage!” I wouldn’t buy it for a second — and it’s unlikely that Kane would have the eminence it does. Kane is a tragic figure doomed from the start, but how that damnation plays out is what makes it among the greatest cinematic stories.
In any event, Kane’s struggle to maintain control over Susan parallels his struggle to achieve political power: he first tries to convince the public that she’s a great opera singer, but, unlike the Spanish-American War, nobody’s buying it. Susan stinks and she knows it, Kane knows it, even the lousy stagehands know it, and Jed Leland knows it — and he also knows that he has to pan her and in so doing sink his career. It’s exactly what he suspected way back when, and so he does what any sensible reviewer would do — he gets stinking drunk and leaves his editor to finish the job, which Kane does and then promptly fires Jed, closing the Cain parallel we suspected from the beginning.
This isn’t Kane’s first defeat, but it is the one that sends him spiraling down to the end. The case could be made that his fate was already decided once he met Susan, but, I think Susan, among the many other things I’ve already listed her as symbolizing, also represents a last chance of sorts. Besides, Kane getting caught in the love nest doesn’t have the resonance of him going back on his stated principles, and the cocky guy who ran for governor is not the curmudgeon he is here.
Either way, Kane retreats from the public eye, focusing his energy on building up Xanadu, which, while touted as a marvel, is nothing more than an elaborate prison. Kane’s tried to control the public perception of Susan, now he’s trying to control Susan herself, and neither goal has gotten him any closer to lasting happiness. Understandably, Susan’s not having it. Like the younger Kane, she wants her freedom (which is kind of odd; she didn’t mind being cooped up in her room when they were carrying on their affair), and leaves. Kane, furious at yet another failure, destroys his possessions, and dies in seclusion, bringing the past to the present and also back to the original mystery: What is Rosebud?
Rosebud, of course, is his sled. His sled from when he was a kid, and though I didn’t save you two boobless hours, I will say that it’s another testament to the screenplay that the film’s McGuffin is actually important, and it’s a whollop of a good symbol — cheap, as opposed to the expensive crap adorning Xanadu, humble, the one thing Kane should have been, a reminder of where it all began, or, if you think, like I do, that Kane was doomed from the beginning, where it all ended, and, like any chance Kane had at happiness, gone.