Citizen Kane at 80: The Story of the Greatest Film Ever Made

On May 1st, 1941, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane opened in the Palace Theatre in New York City. RKO Pictures distributed the film and also owned the theatre. Citizen Kane received mixed to positive reviews but failed to make a profit at the box office. Eighty years after its release, it is often called the greatest film ever made.

The film tells the story of Charles Foster Kane. From the perspective of a newsreel producer, Jerry Thompson. We learn Kane’s life story but the real mystery is the meaning of the last word he said, “Rosebud”. (Spoilers ahead.) Through interviews with his former acquaintances, we discover that Kane’s parents left him at a young age. He engaged in yellow journalism (the 1890’s equivalent of fake news) during his career as a newspaper magnate. Kane had a tumultuous political career and ran for governor of New York. He married twice, once to Emily Norton, a socialite with political connections, and then to Susan Alexander, a singer. Both marriages were difficult.

The biographer never finds out the significance of “Rosebud”, but the audience does. We witness the destruction of Kane’s unneeded possessions. During this destruction, we glimpse Kane’s childhood sled, the symbol of his childhood innocence, with the name “Rosebud.”

Orson Welles’ Breakout Movie

 Citizen Kane was Welles’ first motion picture. It also was the feature film debut for most of the cast. Previously, they starred in radio and theatre. Charles Foster Kane was likely an amalgamation of several different business moguls of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. However, William Randolph Hearst, leader of The New York Morning Journal, took offense to the character. He believed Kane was a caricature of himself, especially taking umbrage to the portrayal of Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander. Hearst had a similar affair with showgirl Marion Davies that tanked his own political ambitions. He attempted to use his power over the media to silence Welles and Citizen Kane.

Hearst forbid positive mention of the film in any of his papers. His suppression is one of the reasons the film did not recoup its budget at the box office. From outside the Hearst sphere of influence, the film received mostly positive reviews, but that did not sufficiently inspire the movie-going public.

The film received nine nominations at that year’s Academy Awards, but ultimately, it received only one – Best Original Screenplay, shared between Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. John Ford’s drama How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars. This movie never rivaled the influence of Citizen Kane.

The Revival of Citizen Kane

After languishing in the realms of forgotten films for the rest of the Forties, the film began to receive a critical revaluation in the Fifties. By the end of the century, the film had cemented its place as the most lauded film of all time. Numerous film critics and directors have placed Citizen Kane on their lists of greatest films ever made, including the American Film Institute, which places the film atop both their 1998 and their 2007 lists of the best American movies of all time. The film’s influence is visible in films even to this day, particularly its striking cinematography.

This piece was contributed by Virginia Linza. She is majoring in Film and English at George Mason University. Her favorite way to enjoy art is snuggled up with a warm cat.

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