On this day in Film History: Hearst vs. Citizen Kane

(a few days late I know, but still an interesting story about a great movie classic)

On this day in 1941, Orson Welles was well on his way to releasing Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest movie he ever released. The film told the story of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional newspaper tycoon, who became fabulously rich after a huge gold mine was discovered on property owned by his mother. When Kane becomes a young man, though incredibly wealthy, he is full of ideals and dreams of what he could do with that wealth. After marrying the niece of the current President of the United States and having a son, Charles Jr., Kane makes a run for President and initially does extremely well. During this time, his marriage to his wife has disintegrated, though they maintain a loving facade for the sake of their son and their reputations. However, just as it looks like Kane will secure the nomination, it is discovered (and made public) that Kane has been having an affair with a singer named Susan Alexander and in the ensuing scandal, Kane’s wife leaves him and he is forced to end his nascent political career. When his wife and son are later killed in a car accident, it destroys Kane even further. The aging tycoon becomes obsessed with controlling everyone and everything around him. While Susan Alexander is initially happy to marry Kane, she finds life in the oversized mansion of Xanadu extremely stifling, not to mention the fact that Kane insists she be a huge opera star, when her voice is clearly unsuited to the task (Susan is not a bad singer, her voice simply can’t take the range of an opera). When Susan ultimately leaves him, Kane withdraws from public life altogether, finally dying alone, a miserable old man, his final word being “Rosebud.” And what is Rosebud? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out!

(Orson Welles didn’t just direct the movie, he starred in it too!)

That is a fairly concise summary of the movie. But what makes things really interesting, is that the real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst did everything he possibly could to try and stop this film from being released. Hearst objected strongly to the film because he suspected and later outright accused Welles of basing the character of Charles Foster Kane on himself (Hearst). Welles vehemently denied this, but Hearst was determined to make the accusation stick. First he offered the studio $800,000 dollars (that’s over 13 million dollars in today’s money) to destroy every copy of the film they had. When that failed, Hearst allegedly tried to trap Welles in a scandal by planting a girl in his hotel room (no, really!) And when THAT failed, Hearst threw his entire newspaper empire into slandering both the film and Welles’ character as much as possible. The plan partially succeeded as Citizen Kane did not perform nearly as well upon release as many had expected. However, Welles’ ultimately had the last laugh because Hearst tried so hard to have the movie killed, that the character of Charles Foster Kane is now forever linked to William Randolph Hearst (not to mention that Citizen Kane is today considered one of the greatest movies ever made).

Nice try Mr. Hearst, but your evil scheme didn’t work!
For more “On this day” posts, see here


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