October 4, 2011

Queer Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, Roger Q. Denny, John Houseman, Mollie Kent
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Orson Welles, Harry Shannon, Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, William Alland, George Coulouris, Paul Stewart

The Big Kahuna. Frequently cited as one of the greatest films of all time due to it's superb cinematography, astounding technical achievement, beguiling story, and larger than life characterization, Citizen Kane is among the few pictures that can be considered truly legendary.

When the mighty newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) passes away, his dying word, "Rosebud", motivates journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland) to investigate its' meaning. Thompson starts by tracking down and reading the unpublished memoirs of Kane's adopted father, banker Herbert Carter (Erskine Sanford). Later, during the course of this investigation, Thompson interviews Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), close friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and lastly, Kane's shady butler Raymond (Paul Stewart). During these interviews, we are shown the trajectory of Kane's life, with the accounts often overlapping, each providing a different perspective into the actual Charles Kane. From these interviews we learn that when Kane was a child, he was sent away by his mother to live with a cold hearted banker. Later, at age 25, Kane took over The New York Enquirer and used it to build a media empire.

However, Kane's attempt at becoming Governor of New York State, which he intended to use to run for president, crashes and burns when rival Jim Getty uncovers an affair Kane was having with Susan Alexander. When Kane divorces his first wife, Emily Monroe Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick) and marries Susan, he spends the rest of his life trying to earn her love, first by buying an opera house so she can reluctantly pursue a singing career and then by building the expensive and elaborate palace Xanadu. However, none of this is enough to keep Susan from leaving him and so Kane dies alone, a faint shadow of his former self.

The Queering
For various reasons, I usually avoid reading reviews of a movie during the time between viewing a movie and completing a review of that movie. Citizen Kane I not only watched twice but during the time in between those screenings, I took the time to read several reviews from other critics. So legendary is the reputation Citizen Kane that nearly every review opened with some variation of what I now like to refer to as the Citizen Kane Standard Disclaimer which can be summed up as follows: "So great is the reputation of Citizen Kane and with so much written about it, that this critic will not be able to offer any new or original insight". All things considered, I cannot pretend any differently.

On Citizen Kane Orson Welles and the crew were either able to pioneer or popularize numerous early innovative cinematic techniques. Most notable was the deep focus method, where both the foreground and background could be filmed in perfect clarity, allowing for some truly astounding shots.

The most notable for me were:
-The shot of a miniscule child Kane playing outside through a window, while his domineering mother signs him over to the wealthy Carter in the foreground and in the midground, his poor father attempts to persuade Mrs. Kane not to go through with the deal. Note how each character's position and the amount of space they occupy on the screen perfectly corresponds to their relative influence and importance to what is occurring.
-When Kane signs his declaration of principles for the fledgling newspaper he recently acquired,
his face falls into complete shadow.
-After Kane gives his rousing campaign speech where a large portrait his face dominates the entire scene, there is a shot of Boss Getty overlooking the proceedings, while everything else, including Kane's portrait now appear in miniature.
-Shortly afterwards, there is a long take while Boss Getty confronts Mrs. Kane with her husbands duplicity in his dalliance with Susan Alexander, that uses perfect timing and staging to demonstrate the shifting power and allegiances of the characters involved.

From beginning to end, every shot in Citizen Kane is a piece of a larger puzzle to the main character's life. Not a frame goes by when there is not some metaphor or symbolism on display. But what does the larger puzzle represent? What sort of person is Charles Foster Kane really? The literal revelation of the term rosebud provides the biggest clue, but it's symbolic meaning is open to interpretation.

There is also a subtle queer subtext in the character of Kane's friend Leland. Jebidiah Leland never marries or expresses interest in any female character. Throughout the time he is being interviewed by Thompson, Leland aggressively tries to get the reporter to sneak into the convalescence home where Leland now lives some cigarettes, which he is forbidden by his doctor who cites the health risks of tobacco. What struck me about this scene is that, while a small number of doctors in the early forties believed that smoking posed a significant health risk, it would not be another decade before the first major study linking tobacco and lung cancer would be published. However, the false belief that "homosexuality" did pose serious health risks to gay men and lesbians was very widespread. Furthermore, during the Hayes code, smoking and particularly the sharing of cigarettes was a common way to subtly suggest sexual activity. Basically what I am saying is that the entire scene plays as if Leland is hitting on our intrepid reporter.

Speaking of Thompson, we never learn anything of his past and outside of a few brief shots, never see his face either. Thompson is clearly intended to be an audience surrogate, everything we learn about Kane -- other than the opening scene of Kane dyeing at the beginning and the big "rosebud" reveal at the end -- we learn through Thompson.

To go along with the sexual subtext, it's interesting to me to note how the film views on innocence and sexuality. Most notably are two instances when Kane appears the most human. The first is when he comes into the newsroom, shy as a bashful school boy to announce his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton. The other is when Kane meets Susan Alexander while she was suffering from and he has just been splashed from mud from a passing carriage. Susan invites him up to her place to wash off and he accepts her invitation, he pays back her kindness by making shadow puppets and trying to make her laugh in order to distract her from her toothache. These instances show Kane coming the closest to recapturing the innocence of his youth. But the affair that results with Susan ultimately destroys Kane, while Boss Getty clearly committed some sort of actual criminal activity, it is a sexual affair that began with the most innocent of intentions that destroys Kane.

The idea of innocence is key to understanding Citizen Kane. Rosebud clearly refers to the loss of childhood innocence that Kane experienced when his mother sent him away with Carter. When Kane arrives at the newspaper to announce his first wedding, he not only acts like a bashful schoolboy but he is wearing an all white suit, in stark contrast to the dark clothing worn by everybody else. But when he meets Susan, he is literally covered in dirt and mud, although when she takes him up to her place, the snow globe that he will be holding during both of his utterances of rosebud can clearly be seen sitting on a table.

Given all the praise that Citizen Kane has recieved over the years, I feel somewhat obligated to point out two obvious flaws. The first is that Kane's last word could not have been heard by anyone as he dies alone, without even any servants in the room. The other is what could be considered Citizen Kane's lone technical flub. During a late scene where Kane takes Susan on a picnic in a vain effort to win her heart back, what look to be Pterosaurs can clearly be seen flying around in the background. This was due to footage from either King Kong or Son of Kong being reused here to save money.

Overall, Citizen Kane can be most easily summarized as a character study of an ambitious, yet flawed man. There are no traditional heroes and villians here, merely varying degrees of vices and strengths. However, more importantly, is it the greatest film of all time? I cannot say as it would take a certain amount of arrogance on my part to declare any movie "the greatest of all time". I would not say it was my personal favourite film that I have seen, but if I were to give it some thought, I would probably place it in the top 10. However, it is certainly among the most powerful and contains an intellectual depth that few films aspire too and almost none obtain. And for that reason, it is most deserving of it's reputation.

Strongly recommended. Regardless of what country, all citizens should see Citizen Kane.

The Rating

AFI's "A Hundred Years... A Hundred Films" Tribute

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  1. There is a lot of greatness about CITIZEN KANE, to be sure, but can anyone really call any movie "The Greatest Film Ever Made?" They hung that tag on GONE WITH THE WIND for a long time despite several obvious flaws: overlength, a racist script that was dated even at the time the movie was released, and the influence of too many directors causing the middle portion of the film to be quite uneven.

    I tend to give KANE the highest marks for its technical brilliance, and the actors are all first-rate, but I saw it once and I would not sit through it again for love or money because the middle portion of the film, in which Kane tries to turn his mistress Susan Alexander into an opera star despite the fact that her voice is perfectly dreadful, is an extremely unpleasant experience for me as a musician; it is rather like listening to the sound of the dentist's drill.

    (That being said, it is a tragedy that Dorothy Comingore did not become a bigger star; her role was by far the most difficult one in the film and she should have gotten an Oscar for it.)

  2. Thanks for your comment Scott. Like I said, I would not label it the "greatest movie of all time" nor is it my personal favourite. What I liked the most about it is that each shot is it's own metaphor in miniature and yet still part of a cohesive whole.

  3. It's not correct that nobody was is the room to hear Kane whisper Rosebud. The butler Raymond has a line in the movie telling a reporter that he heard Rosebud used twice. During the rampage scene after Susan leaves and during the death scene. This means Raymond was in the room at the time of Kane's death.


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