If you look at a list of the greatest films ever made, you will consistently find one title at or very near the top: Citizen Kane (1941), the first feature film from the legendary Orson Welles. The film presents itself as a biography of the unbelievably rich (fictional) tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles) who has just died in Xanadu, his lavish estate. His last word was “Rosebud” and the rest of the film follows a reporter piecing together Kane’s life in an attempt to find out what the word means.
You know the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” ? Well, in the case of this film, I think it is also true that “money corrupts and a lot of money corrupts absolutely.” The bulk of Kane’s life is dominated by a massive inheritance that comes after a gold mine is discovered on his mother’s property. The young Kane starts with all the good intentions in the world; for example, when he purchases a newspaper, he’s determined to report the truth and when he later marries the President’s niece and enters politics, he sets himself up as a man above corruption. But one mistake after another gradually pulls Kane down and ultimately costs him everything that really matters: he loses his first wife and child, his second wife ultimately leaves him too; he loses any chance of a political career and by the end of his life doesn’t have any real friends.
As Kane slips into old age, he is clearly operating under the belief that money and/or material possessions can fix any problem. He literally buys an opera career for his second wife and is angry when she doesn’t become an instant success (ignoring the fact that her voice isn’t suited for opera). In fact, Kane tries to give his second wife everything a woman could want, but instead of making her happy, it ultimately drives her away, leaving Kane all alone in a palatial mansion.
It’s such a tragedy to watch Kane slip farther away from everyone around him and wrap himself in a cocoon of money and things. I think the discovery of that gold mine was the worst possible thing that could’ve happened to him. As for the meaning of “Rosebud” well…I can’t bear to spoil that. All I will say is, watch the final sequence very closely, the answer comes right at the end.
Now for some interesting trivia about Citizen Kane:
-The film was one of the first (if not the very first) to shoot scenes angled up at the ceiling, which required ceilings to be created for the sets (because up until then you didn’t need ceilings for sets because the cameras didn’t look up that way).
-For the sequence in which Susan (Kane’s second wife) sings an operatic aria, the music was deliberately written just out of the singer’s range, to better create the impression that she is singing music beyond her skills. It’s not that Susan can’t sing, she just wasn’t meant to perform opera.
-While Kane is an based on several real-life figures, one of the biggest influences came from William Randolph Hearst, a big newspaper tycoon. Hearst was so enraged by his perception of the film mocking him and his life that he banned any and all mention of the film from any of his papers, no advertisements, no reviews, nothing!
If you haven’t watched Citizen Kane before, I highly recommend viewing it at least once. Bernard Herrmann provided a magnificent score for this film: two moments in particular that stick out to me are the opening as the camera slowly travels up to Xanadu and the ending scene as unwanted items are thrown into the furnace to be burned and the camera pans over all the many items Kane acquired throughout his life.
If you’ve seen Citizen Kane, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!
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Great film. Have seen it a few times, but might be time for another re-watch.
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I’ve been meaning to get my own copy for ages, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it as a teenager, I was mesmerized 🙂
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Although not my favorite classic film, this one undoubtedly did more for cinematography and movie-making in general than most. Many have called it the first modern movie because of its innovative camera angles and storytelling methods. The innovation was so influential that it all seems very commonplace now and it’s easy to forget how big this film was when it came out. Great review, though. I need to give this one another viewing sometime soon!
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