Welles’s ‘Citizen Kane’ Scared Theater Owners, Newspapers: DVDs

Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane." Besides directing and starrring in the film, Welles was also the co-writer with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Source: Warner Home Video via Bloomberg

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” Warner Home Video has issued a beautifully restored, three-disc edition that’s available in DVD and Blu-ray.

So much has been written about Welles the boy genius and the making of “Citizen Kane” that the film itself is sometimes treated as an afterthought. Watching it again -- I’ve seen it at least a dozen times over the years -- reminded me of just how electrifying it is.

William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who was the inspiration for Welles’s Charles Foster Kane, wasn’t such a big fan. When he got wind of what Welles had done, he tried to kill the movie.

At first Hearst papers were forbidden to mention the film. Later, they went into attack mode. There were insinuations that Welles was a Communist and a homosexual. The FBI prepared a thick dossier. Theater owners were afraid to show the film and newspapers were afraid to advertise it.

When “Citizen Kane” opened on May 1, 1941, at the Palace Theater in New York, it caused a sensation. That was no problem for the 25-year-old Welles, who loved attention and controversy.

As a young theater director, he had staged an all-black “Macbeth” and a “Julius Caesar” that mimicked the look of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. His radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 triggered widespread panic by listeners who thought the Martian invasion was real.

Angry Hearst

Why was Hearst so angry with Welles and his co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz? An answer can be found in the documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” first aired on public television and included as an anniversary-edition extra.

According to the documentary, Hearst was infuriated by the unflattering portrait of Kane’s second wife, a character based on the publisher’s longtime mistress Marion Davies. “Rosebud,” the nickname for Kane’s boyhood sled and the Freudian key that ultimately unlocks his psyche, was supposedly Hearst’s pet name for Davies’s genitals.

No wonder the guy flipped out.

Part of the legend of “Citizen Kane” is that its notoriety and lackluster ticket sales started Welles’s downfall.

Eventually exiled by Hollywood, Welles spent much of his life foraging for money to make movies and acting in dreadful films. (There were exceptions, of course, such as his unforgettable performance as the elusive criminal Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and his portrayal of the sermon-spouting Father Mapple in John Huston’s “Moby Dick.”)

Great Legacy

In a 1982 interview, three years before he died, Welles admitted: “I spent 2 percent of my time directing movies and 98 percent of my time hustling to make them. That’s no way to spend a life.”

Still, Welles left behind a great legacy.

His second film, the “The Magnificent Ambersons,” is arguably even better than “Citizen Kane,” and “Touch of Evil” is one of the finest thrillers ever made. He also directed and starred in two magnificent Shakespeare adaptations, ‘Othello” and “Chimes at Midnight.”

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

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