Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Orson Welles: On Writing ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane (Directed by Orson Welles)
Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Form of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances... In a story by Chesterton — ‘The Head of Caesar,’ I think — the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.  (Jorge Luis Borges)

Citizen Kane unfolds in a series of flashbacks drawn from those closest to the newspaper publisher, and relentlessly follows the reporter seeking in vain to find the meaning of "Rosebud.” The discovery in the last scene that Rosebud was the name of the sled Kane owned in early childhood “is not the answer,” wrote critic Roger Ebert. “It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film’s construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.” 

Welles, who had lost his parents at a young age, was a child prodigy. “There just seemed to be no limit as to what I could do. Everybody told me from the time I was old enough to hear that I was absolutely marvelous,” he said in a 1982 interview. “I never heard a discouraging word for years. I didn’t know what was ahead of me.” When he was only 23, Time magazine put him on it’s front cover, calling him the “brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years. Welles should feel at home in the sky, for the sky is the only limit his ambitions recognize.”

Citizen Kane's release on 1 May 1941 was anticipsted with great enthusiasm. Welles had created a major sensation in the New York theatre. He had directed an all-black cast in a staging of Macbeth, which he transposed to Haiti, and set Julius Caesar in the context of Nazi Germany. He had also produced a famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. These triumphs created great anticipation for his debut picture in Hollywood, which had given him unprecedented freedom, which he gleefully seized. 

The picture gained its most passionate audience in France after the Second World War, where future film-makers such as François Truffaut saw it when they were studying experimental film. After years of little attention in the United States, the picture was released in May 1956 and appeared about the same time on TV. In 1962, it came at the top of the poll in Sight & Sound magazine for the greatest film ever made.

The following extracts are taken from an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in which Orson Welles discusses the writing of Citizen Kane:

Peter Bogdanovich: There’s a film written by Preston Sturges called ‘The Power and the Glory’ [1933] which has been said to have influenced you in the flashback style of ‘Kane’. Is that true?

Orson Welles: No. I never saw it. I’ve heard that it has strong similarities; it’s one of those coincidences. I’m a great fan of Sturges and I’m grateful I didn’t see it. He never accused me of it – we were great chums – but I just never saw it. I saw only his comedies. But I would be honored to lift anything from Sturges, because I have very high admiration for him...

PB: The idea for the famous breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife [the nine-year deterioration of their marriage is told through one continuing conversation over five flash-pans] –

OW:  – was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder! It’s a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like sixty years of a family’s life –

PB: All at dinner –

OW: Yes, they’re all sitting at dinner, and they get old – people wheel baby carriages by, and coffins and everything. That they never leave the table and that life goes on was the idea of this play. I did the breakfast scene thinking I’d invented it. It wasn’t in the script originally. And when I was almost finished with it, I suddenly realized that I’d unconsciously stolen it from Thornton and I called him up and admitted to it.

PB: What was his reaction?

OW: He was pleased...

PB: Just how important was [Herman J.] Mankiewicz in relation to the script?

OW: Mankiewicz’s contribution? It was enormous.

PB: You want to talk about him?

OW: I’d love to. I loved him. People did. He was much admired, you know.

PB: Except for his part in the writing of ‘Kane’... Well, I’ve read the list of his other credits...

OW: Oh, the hell with lists – a lot of bad writers have wonderful credits.

PB: Can you explain that?

OW: Luck. The lucky bad writers got good directors who could write. Some of these, like Hawks and McCarey, wrote very well indeed. Screenwriters didn’t like that at all. Think of those old pros in the film factories. They had to punch in every morning, and sit all day in front of their typewriters in those terrible ‘writers’ buildings.’ The way they saw it, the director was even worse than the producer, because in the end what really mattered in moving pictures, of course, was the man actually making the pictures. The big-studio system often made writers feel like second-class citizens, no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun – when Hollywood, you understand, was still a funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank,... a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness wasn’t focused straight onto you, he was the best company in the world.

PB: How did the story of ‘Kane’ begin?

OW: I’d been nursing an old notion – the idea of telling the same thing several times – and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure – couldn’t be a politician, because you’d have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.

PB: The first drafts were in separate versions, so when was the whole construction of the script – the intricate flashback pattern – worked out between you?

OW: The actual writing came only after lots of talk, naturally,...  just the two of us, yelling at each other – not too angrily.

PB: What about the ‘Rashomon’ idea? It’s still there to a degree.

OW: It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. ‘Rosebud’ was Mank’s, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole shtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

PB: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn’t matter what it means  –

OW: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

PB: The reporter says at the end, ‘Charles Foster 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, but it wouldn’t have explained anything...’

OW: I guess you might call that a disclaimer – a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it’s mine, I’m afraid.

PB: I read the script that went into production... There were so many things you changed on the set, or, anyway, after you’d started shooting. From the point of view of Kane’s character, one of the most interesting is the scene where you’re remaking the front page for about the twentieth time. In the script, Kane is arrogant and rather nasty to the typesetter. In the movie, he’s very nice, even rather sweet. How did that evolve?

OW: Well, all he had was charm – besides the money. He was one of those amiable, rather likable monsters who are able to command people’s allegiance for a time without giving too much in return. Certainly not love; he was raised by a bank, remember. He uses charm the way such people often do. So when he changes the first page, of course it’s done on the basis of a sort of charm rather than real conviction... Charlie Kane was a man-eater.

PB: Well, why was it in the script the other way?

OW: I found out more about the character as I went along.

PB: And what were the reactions of Mankiewicz to these changes?

OW: Well, he only came once to the set for a visit. Or, just maybe, it was twice...

PB: Before shooting began, how were differences about the script worked out between you?

OW: That’s why I left him on his own finally, because we’d started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine. At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all – who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank’s and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.

PB: As you know, Houseman has repeatedly claimed that the script, including the conception and structure, was essentially Mankiewicz’s.

OW: It’s very funny that he does that, because he deserves some credit himself. It’s very perverse, because actually he was a junior writer on it, and made some very important contributions. But for some curious reason he’s never wanted to take that bow. It gives him more pleasure just to say I didn’t write it...

PB: What was the influence of your guardian, Dr. Bernstein? And why did you give that name to the character in ‘Kane’?

OW: [laughs] That was a family joke. He was nothing like the character in the movie. I used to call people ‘Bernstein’ on the radio all the time, too – just to make him laugh... I sketched out the character in our preliminary sessions – Mank did all the best writing for Bernstein. I’d call that the most valuable thing he gave us...

PB: Yes, that scene with the reporter [William Alland] –

OW: That was all Mank, by the way – it’s my favorite scene.

PB: And the story about the girl: ‘One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry... There was another ferry pulling in, and... a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on... I only saw her for a second... but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.’

OW: It goes longer than that.

PB: Yes, but who wrote it?

OW: Mankiewicz, and it’s the best thing in the movie. ‘A month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought of that girl.’ That’s Mankiewicz. I wish it was me.

PB: Great scene.

OW: If I were in hell and they gave me a day off and said, ‘What part of any movie you ever made do you want to see?’ I’d see that scene of Mank’s about Bernstein. All the rest could have been better, but that was just right...

PB: You once said about the editing of ‘Kane’, ‘There was nothing to cut.’ What did you mean?

OW: When I made Kane, I didn’t know enough about movies, and I was constantly encouraged by [cinematographer Gregg] Toland, who said, under the influence of Ford, ‘Carry everything in one shot – don’t do anything else.’ In other words, play scenes through without cutting, and don’t shoot any alternate version. That was Toland in my ear. And secondly, I didn’t know how to have all kinds of choices. All I could think of to do was what was going to be on the screen in the final version. Also, I had a wonderful cast...

PB: Why did you decide not to have credits at the beginning of ‘Kane’? No one had ever done that before.

OW: The script dictated that. Look at all the other things that go on at the beginning, before the story starts: that strange dreamlike prologue, then ‘News on the March,’ and then the projection-room scene – it’s a long time before anything starts. Now, supposing you’d added titles to all that. It would have been one thing too much to sit through. You wouldn’t have know where you were in the picture.

PB: In that prologue you just mentioned, why does the light in his bedroom suddenly go off – and then come on again after a moment?

OW: To interest the audience. We’d been going on quite a while there with nothing happening. You see a light in the window – you keep coming nearer – and it better go off, or a shadow had better cross, or something had better happen. So I turned the light off – that’s all.

PB: Then you cut inside.

OW: That’s right. Maybe the nurse turned it off because it was getting in his eyes. Who knows? Who cares? The other answer is that it symbolized death. Got that? All right...

PB: What did you mean by the mirrors at the end, when Kane walks by and you see his image reflected many times?

OW: I don’t think a moviemaker should explain what he means. About anything. Leave it to the customers. Why spoil things for people who enjoy finding their own meanings?

PB: But you just explained the light going off –

OW: Next.

PB: The black smoke at the end has been said to symbolize the futility of his life...

OW: I don’t know – I hate symbolism.

PB: Fritz Lang said he dropped the use of symbols when he came to America because somebody at MGM said to him, ‘Americans don’t like symbols.’

OW: I’m one of those Americans. I never use it. If anybody finds it, it’s for them to find. I never sit down and say how we’re going to have a symbol for some character. They happen automatically, because life is full of symbols. So is art. You can’t avoid them; but if you use them, you get into Stanley Kramer Town.

PB: I know you hate to think up titles –

OW: No! I love to think ’em up, but can’t! Citizen Kane came from George Schaefer – the head of the studio, imagine that! It’s a great title. We’d sat around for months trying to think of a name for it. Mankiewicz couldn’t, I couldn’t, none of the actors – we had a contest on. A secretary came up with one that was so bad I’ll never forget it: A Sea of Upturned Faces.

PB: Can we talk about Leland’s betrayal of Kane?

OW: He didn’t betray Kane. Kane betrayed him.

PB: Really?

OW: Because he was not the man he pretended to be.

PB: Yes, but, in a sense, didn’t Leland –

OW: I don’t think so.

PB: I was going to say something else. Didn’t Leland imagine that Kane was one thing and then was disappointed when he wasn’t?

OW: Well, it comes to the same thing. If there was any betrayal, it was on Kane’s part, because he signed a Declaration of Principles which he never kept.

PB: Then why is there a feeling that Leland is petty and mean to Kane in the scene when he gets drunk?

OW: Because there he is – only there, because he’s defensive. It’s not the big moment. The big moment is when he types the bad notice afterward. That’s when he’s faithful to himself and to Kane and to everything.

PB: I wonder if that’s as simple as your answer is now, because if you were put in a position like
that –

OW: I’m not his character. I’m a totally different kind of person from Jed Leland. I’m not a friend of the hero. And he’s a born friend of the hero, and the hero turned out not to be one. He’s the loyal companion of the great man – and Kane wasn’t great; that’s the story. So of course he’s mean and petty when he’s discovered that his great man is empty inside.

PB: Well, maybe one feels that Leland could have afforded to write a good review.

OW: Not and been a man of principle. That Declaration of Principles Kane signed is the key to it. Leland couldn’t – no critic can. He’s an honest man. Kane is corrupt. I don’t think he betrays Kane in any way.

PB: Well, one has an emotional response to Kane in the picture, and I certainly felt that Leland betrays him – I felt that emotionally.

OW: No, he doesn’t. You’re using the word ‘betrayal’ wrong. He’s cruel to him, but he doesn’t betray him.

PB: Well, he betrays their friendship, then.

OW: He doesn’t. It’s Kane who betrayed the friendship. The friendship was based on basic assumptions that Kane hadn’t lived up to. I strongly and violently disagree with that. There is no betrayal of Kane. The betrayal is by Kane.

PB: Then why do I somewhat dislike Leland?

OW: Because he likes principles more than the man, and he doesn’t have the size as a person to love Kane for his faults.

PB: Well, then, there you are.

OW: But that’s not betrayal. ‘Betrayal’ is a dead wrong word. He simply doesn’t have the humanity, the generosity of spirit, to have been able to endure Kane...

PB: Do you think that Thompson, the reporter, is changed by going through the Kane story? Is he altered?

OW: He’s not a person. He’s a piece of machinery –

PB: To lead you through.

OW: Yes.

PB: Was there any mystery before the Rosebud element? I mean, did you try anything else?

OW: Yes. And there was a scene in a mausoleum that I wrote – it was a quotation from a poem or something, I can’t remember – and Mankiewicz made terrible fun of it. So I believed him and just said, ‘All right, it’s no good.’ It might have been good – I don’t remember it, because I was so ashamed from Mankiewicz’s violent attack on it.

PB: Why did you begin and end with the No Trespassing sign?

OW: What do you think? Anybody’s first guess has got to be right.

PB: A man’s life is private.

OW: Is it? That should theoretically be the answer, but it turns out that maybe it is and maybe it isn’t...

PB: Is the name Kane a play on Cain?

OW: No, but Mankiewicz got furious when I used that name, because he said that’s what people will think. We had a big fight about that.

PB: The original name was Craig.

OW: Yes. And I said I thought Kane was a better name –

PB: Just because it was a better name –

OW: Yes. And Mankiewicz made the other point: ‘They’ll think you’re punning on Cain’ and all that, because we had a big murder scene in the original script. And I said they won’t, and he said they will, and so on. I won...

PB: Did you notice an influence on Hollywood films from ‘Kane’?

OW: You couldn’t mistake it. Everybody started having big foreground objects and ceilings and all those kind of compositions. Very few people had ever even used a wide-angle lens except for crowd scenes.

PB: But the effect wasn’t in terms of story construction?

OW: No, the things that I valued didn’t seem to have much effect on anybody. But the most obvious kind of visual things, everybody did right away.

PB: It seemed to me that your memory of your mother is reflected in the scenes with Kane’s mother.

OW: Not at all. She was so different, you know.

PB: I don’t mean the character, but the affection of Kane –

OW: Really no comparison. My mother was very beautiful, very generous, and very tough. She was rather austere with me.

PB: Well, the mother in ‘Kane’ was not a sentimental mother –

OW: It isn’t that. There’s just not any connection.

PB: It’s not so much the mother herself but the emotion of remembering a mother. As in the scene where you meet Dorothy Comingore and tell her you’re on a trip in search of your youth, and she has that line, ‘You know what mothers are like.’ And you say, in a sad, reflective tone, full of memories, ‘Yes.’ It’s one of my favorite moments in the picture.

OW: No, Peter, I have no Rosebuds.

PB: But do you have a sentiment for that part of your past?

OW: No... I have no wish to be back there... Just one part of it, maybe. One place. My father lived sometimes in China, and partly in a tiny country hotel he’d bought in a village called Grand Detour, Illinois. It had a population of 130. Formerly it was ten thousand, but then the railroad didn’t go through. And there was this hotel which had been built to service the covered wagons on their way west through southern Illinois (which is real Mark Twain country, you know, and people like Booth Tarkington). My father spent a few months of his year there, entertaining a few friends. They never got a bill. And any legitimate hotel guests who tried to check in had a tough time even getting anyone to answer that bell you banged on the desk. Our servants were all retired or ‘resting’ from show business. A gentleman called Rattlesnake-Oil Emery was handyman. One of the waitresses had done bird calls in a tent show. My father was very fond of people like that.

Well, where I do see some kind of Rosebud, perhaps, is in that world of Grand Detour. A childhood there was like a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies – a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life, with a country store that had above it a ballroom with an old dance floor with springs in it, so that folks would feel light on their feet. When I was little, nobody had danced up there for many years, but I used to sneak up at night and dance by moonlight with the dust rising from the floor... Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of. It really was kind of invented by my father. He’s the one who kept out the cars and the electric lights. It was one of the ‘Merrie Englands.’ Imagine: he smoked his own sausages. You’d wake up in the morning to the sound of the folks in the bake house, and the smells... I feel as though I’ve had a childhood in the last century from those short summers.

PB: It reminds me of ‘Ambersons’. You do have a fondness for things of the past, though –

OW: Oh yes. For that Eden people lose... It’s a theme that interests me. A nostalgia for the garden – it’s a recurring theme in all our civilization.

– From Peter Bogdanovich: Interview with Orson Welles. In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane:  A Casebook (ed. James Naremore. OUP, 2004)


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