Fag: NORAM 102 American Popular Culture

Oppgavetype: Muntlig foredrag

Tidspunkt: Høsten 2002



Citizen Kane


Introduction. Citizen Kane was released in 1941 by RKO pictures. It was directed by “wunderkind” (prodigy) Orson Welles, who had become famous through his Mercury Theatre troup whose 1938 radio performance of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was sensationally realistic, causing panic in many an American home. Kane was his first picture, and he both directed, co-wrote, produced and starred in the movie. All this at the age of twentyfive.


Plot. The film opens with Charles Foster Kane uttering his last word “Rosebud” before he dies and drops a crystal ball on the floor. Then the movie cuts to a newsreel telling and depicting the life of Kane, described here as one of the most important people in the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, the life of Kane is loosely based on that of famous newspaper tycoon W. R. Hearst, and throughout the story parallels become apparent to those familiar with the latter’s life. The newsreel ends, and we find that it has been shown to a room of journalists, one of which is given the task of finding out what Kane’s last word meant. This is what we could call the frame narrative of the movie. Thompson, the journalist, gets five different versions of Kane and his life: The memoirs of a certain mr Thatcher and the descriptions of his newspaper manager mr Bernstein, his friend and theater critic mr Leland, his second wife ms Alexander and his butler Raymond. Through their testimonies we are told how Kane’s parents became filthy rich by accident, how he was sent away to be raised by the bank and mr Thatcher in particular, how he found running a New York-based newspaper interesting at the age of twentyfive and how he developed this newspaper, about his first marriage to Emily Norton and how it ended when he had a scandalous affair with Susan Alexander thus ruining his chances of becoming governor and how this second marraige also failed, how he became one of the most central characters of American society and how different opinions about Kane’s character were plentiful and finally how he grew more and more eccentric and narcissistic towards the end of his life. But none of them can tell him what “Rosebud” means. As Thompson concludes with this line “Mr Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost... I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece”, the camera moves away from the newspaper crew and closes in on a huge oven where Kane’s belongings are being burnt. The camera focuses on the sled Kane had as a child when he was taken away being thrown in, and we can clearly see the word “Rosebud” painted on its surface.


Themes. Whole books have been written about this movie and its multi-level themes, and I will try to illuminate some of them. First and foremost, there’s the Rosebud sled. Kane was obviously emotionally connected to this sled, it represented something very important to him. But what? Kenneth Tynan describes it as being “a symbol of maternal affection, the loss of which deprives him irrecoverably of the power to love or be loved”. Welles himself said that “In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost”. Again others have pointed out that it expresses his longing for yesteryear’s lost innocence and security.

The movie also deals with America’s love of power and materialism, and the personal corruption it sometimes fosters, and is also a comment on what we all know: Money can’t buy love. And it can’t buy happiness. In the opinion of his friend mr Leland, this is exactly what Kane tried to do - and failed. So although this is a story about the American Dream, it is not your average Horatio Alger narrative. Leland also believed that Kane only really cared about himself: “But he never believed in anything except Charlie Kane, he never had a conviction excpet Charlie Kane in his life. I suppose he died without one.”. In other words, a total narcissist. But he wanted everybody to love him. All the interviewees give us this impression. But they also emphasize his lack of ability to give of himself. Both mr Leland and ms Alexander say so.

Another point of the movie, stressed by the phragmentaric narrative structure, is that it is impossible to say what makes a man. It is beyond one person’s reach to fully describe another human being. We are given six accounts of Kane and his life, all somewhat different and with a personal touch. But that is not to say that someone is lying. All the six presentations of Kane are true, but only what we call subjectively true. They are all true in the eyes of the respective beholders, but not necessarily easily intersubjectively accepted.


Importance. Citizen Kane was almost not released at all. Hearst himself tried to stop it, and his newspapers were categorically prohibited from mentioning it. Even its premiere at New York’s Radio City Music Hall was cancelled as a result of John D. Rockefeller’s friendship with Hearst. At the 1942 Acacemy Award galla, the movie was almost mocked. It was nominated in nine categories, but won only one, for best Original Screenplay. It was also booed by large parts of the audience. But today, there is no denying the huge impact of Kane. Its non-chronological narrative structure was a novelty within motion pictures. Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni has described Kane as being the first picture with a modernistic narrative. Also the high-contrast shadowy lightning for which Gregg Toland was responsible, the use of angles (strong people look down at the camera, weak people look up), distances (physical distance signals mental distance, as well), deep-focus photography, visual symbolism (a doll is fore-fronted at the crucial brake-up scene between Kane and ms Alexander) and overlapping audio were artistic effects destined to influence movie-makers for generations to come. In 1996, the American Film Institute announced Citizen Kane the Greatest American Movie of All Time.