The Staying Power of 'Citizen Kane'
What does a black-and-white film from the early 1940s have that allows it to compete with the like of Marvel’s new Infinity War movie, with its $350 million budget, amazing special effects, rockstar cast, and characters that have been developed for decades in the comic book world?
If you ask a Millenial, or even some Baby Boomers, the answer you might get is: “Nothing.” But ask this question again, using Citizen Kane in place of a generic 1940s film, and you’re likely to get a very different answer, at least from your more cultured friends and associates. Citizen Kane, the legendary film that debuted on May 1, 1941 to little fanfare but great critical acclaim (no small feat, either, given the standards of the critical class those days), still doesn’t get much credit in America’s mainstream culture anymore, but there’s no mistaking its influence on both blockbusters like Infinity War and critically-acclaimed films unknown to all but a few.
Orson Welles, the famed screenwriter who penned the infamous “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938, was heavily recruited by Hollywood after the notoriety his radio programs had earned, but it wasn’t until 1941 that the screenwriter tried his hand at movie making. Citizen Kane was the end result.
For those of you who don’t know, or have spider webs in your memory storage areas, Citizen Kane is lauded for its groundbreaking special effects, sound and music scoring, excellent storyline, budget-pleasing sets, and relevant socio political commentary. The storyline is about a journalist trying to discover the meaning of a word (“rosebud”) uttered by a dying media magnate on his deathbed. It’s an excellent, original mystery that I don’t want to spoil, so do yourself a favor a rent it, buy it, or rewatch it again tonight.
The relevant socio political commentary is more interesting, in part because people today still use the film to attack media moguls they don’t like (such as Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch). One narrative about the film’s sociopolitical impact even likens the film to a subtle anti-fascist, and pro-war production because of the attention it draws to the immense power media moguls wield, and the incentive structures they face (and produce). This argument has at least some bite to it, as one of America’s most powerful media moguls in the 1940s, William Randolph Hearst, refused to give the film any sort of advertisement in any of his many publications. This blackballing on the part of the powerful led, of course, to the Citizen Kane’s relative flop at the box office.
Hearst, a proud Progressive and champion of workers’ rights in the 1920s and 30s, made his fortune through “yellow journalism,” at least according to some present-day scholars. However, due to the overwhelming sympathies to left-wing politics harbored by the current academy, it’s probably safe to say that at least some of Heart’s publications ran clean reporting campaigns. Hearst bounced around politically the older and wealthier he became, going from a champion of worker’s rights and American imperialism (Progressive causes) to supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, to arguing in favor of isolationism during World War II, and attacking FDR and his inner circle. In vastly more simple terms, Hearst moved from the left to the right as he got older and wealthier.
The storyline of Citizen Kane loosely follows this path, but with the added twist of an abusive childhood, orphan-esque teenage years, a bitter marriage and a mistress, and a lonely death. This plotline sounds familiar today - a testament of Citizen Kane’s genius - and without it the film world, including Hollywood, might never have reached the towering heights of global influence it has today.