Orson Welles' first feature film, which he co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in 1941's Citizen Kane, is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Following the media tycoon Charles Foster Kane's life through his modest upbringing, rise to power, and ultimate decline, the film is renowned for its innovative cinematography, narrative structure, acting, writing, and everything in between. See what makes this film so timeless, get the behind the scenes scoop, and learn why it infuriated William Randolph Hearst more than anything.
Director Orson Welles Had Complete Creative Control
Orson Welles was nothing short of a legend by the time he arrived in Hollywood. By the age of 23, he had been on the cover of TIME magazine for theater work, and his 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds caused such a panic he was forced to apologize.
The head of RKO Pictures, George Schaefer was eager to get his hands on Welles and presented him with a contract that allowed Welles to have the last word in his films' final cut. This ended up creating major conflicts in Hollywood.
He Almost Adapted Heart Of Darkness Instead Of Citizen Kane
While Orson Welles' directorial debut with his new RK Pictures deal was Citizen Kane, he originally wanted to adapt Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. The production got to the point of test shooting before the RKO shut it down because the budget was already too high.
Looking for more inspiration, Welles came across the screenplay American by Herman J. Mankiewicz, which he turned into Citizen Kane. This worked out because decades later, it allowed for Francis Ford Coppola to film his own version of Heart of Darkness in the form of Apocalypse Now.
He Was Heavily Influenced By John Ford
When Welles set off to make Citizen Kane, although he had an impressive resume that involved theater and radio, he really didn't know all that much about cinema. So, to get an idea of what to do, he turned to one of the greatest at the time, John Ford. Specifically the timeless classic, Stagecoach.
Welles once stated that he watched the film "every night for a month" and when asked to name his influences, he answered, "The old master, by whom I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."
Welles Used An Unexpected Makeup Artist
Over the course of the film, Charles Foster Kane had to look at certain times very young, and others, very old, depending on the storyline. The younger appearance proved to be very difficult to do. For the scenes in which he is an older man, Welles called upon a non-union-associated makeup artist Maurice Seiderman to do the job.
He was sweeping floors in the RKO makeup department during filming when Welles noticed him experimenting with latex for artificial face features. Welles decided to take a chance and hired him to do the makeup in Citizen Kane. Seiderman's work proved to be a groundbreaking technique.
Some Props Were Used From Other Films
Even though Welles had creative freedom over the film, he still had to adhere to a studio budget, which meant that Welles had to get creative. For example, one scene was originally supposed to be shot in a Xanadu living room but was instead shot in a redress hallway to save money.
In another instance, for the scene when Kane and his followers visit the beach, large birds can be seen in the background, which is actually a pre-made shot of pterodactyls from either King Kong or Son of Kong.
Welles Suffered Multiple Injuries While Filming
There's no doubt that Orson Welles poured his heart and soul into making Citizen Kane, even putting himself in harm's way. In the scene when Kane goes on a tirade and destroys Susan's room, tearing everything off the walls and smashing the furniture, he badly cut his hand while caught in the moment.
Then, in the scene when Kane confronts Boss Jim Gettys on the staircase, Welles accidentally fell and injured his ankle to the point that they had to reschedule some scenes while Welles directed from a wheelchair.
Steven Spielberg Owns The Iconic "Rosebud" Sled
Citizen Kane centers around Kane's final word, "Rosebud," in which reporters go out in search to find its meaning. It's eventually revealed to the audience that "Rosebud" was the sleigh that Kane owned as a child that represented his innocence that he lost in his adult life.
In 1982, one of the "Rosebud" sleds from the film was put up for auction, with the winning buyer being director Steven Spielberg. Today, it's still unknown if Spielberg's is the only one left in existence.
The Beginning Of The Film Was Revolutionary
Before Orson Welles came onto the scene, Old Hollywood was set in its traditional ways of doing things. Unsurprisingly, Orson Welles ended up changing that. At the time, films typically opened up with the film's title but front-rolled the names and credits for the actors, producers, etc.
Welles decided to do something different and presented a title card with the film's name and nothing else. Little did anyone know this would become the technique to open most films from then on.
William Randolph Hearst Did Not Want The Film To Be Shown
At the time of Citizen Kane's release, media mogul William Randolph Hearst was essentially Charles Foster Kane in the flesh, with many people associating the character with him. When rumors began to spread that Citizen Kane was loosely based on his life, using his countless resources and influence, Hearst made numerous attempts to have the release of the film.
In the end, Hearst partially got his way, as the film was only given a limited cinematic film. However, considering that it's regarded as the greatest movie ever made, he lost in the long run.
One Scene Was Cut Because Of A Scandal
Rumor has it that one scene that was initially in the film was so scandalous that it had to be removed entirely. It involved an affair scene on a yacht that was allegedly a reference to a murder that may have happened on Welles' enemy, William Randolph Hearst's yacht.
Hearst apparently discovered Marion Davis and Charlie Chaplin in a romantic situation on the ship and resulted in producer Thomas H. Ince, who was also aboard, dying. Although Ince most likely died from a heart attack, rumors spread that Hearst had accidentally shot Ince when trying to kill Chaplin.
Jerry Thompson's Face Is Hidden In The Shadows For A Reason
Jerry Thompson is the main reporter in the film that is tasked with investigating the truth behind Kane's life. However, the character is never clearly visible in the film, with his face often cast in a shadow, and there's a reason for it.
Supposedly, this is done because Thomson is always in the dark when trying to decipher Kane's motivations, and the only time that the audience sees him in the light is when he begins to have some kind of understanding.
Welles Tried To Include A Brothel Scene As Part Of A Strategy
In one of the first drafts of Citizen Kane, Kane takes The Chronicle's employees to a brothel. Unsurprisingly, the scene wasn't approved by the studio and had to be taken out. Yet, Welles wasn't all that concerned.
Apparently, the brothel scene was only added to distract the executives from a more subliminal message that went right over their heads. To make up for the scene, Welles hired female dancers and had them dance inside of The Chronicle building instead.
Welles Popularized The Use Of The Deep Focus Technique
Citizen Kane was groundbreaking in several aspects of its making, yet, a filming technique that was popularized by Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland was the implementation of deep focus.
This means keeping every object in the foreground, background, and center all in focus at once. Possibly the best example of this being used in the film is when a young Kane can be clearly seen throwing snowballs outside of the house while the focus is on the conversation happening inside.
Welles' Ignorance To Filmmaking Worked Out In The End
Coming into the filmmaking world from theater and radio, Welles knew little about making a movie, let alone directing one. Yet, his lack of knowledge in the field turned out to pay off, as his unconventional filming techniques and the use of sets with ceilings have become some of the film's most iconic elements, even though Welles didn't know what he was doing at the time.
His ignorance also made it easy for cinematographer Gregg Toland to convince him of some rather risky shots. So, if Welles had been a more experienced director at the time, Citizen Kane would have come out much different.
Who Wrote The Script Is Still Up For Dispute
Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz both went home with the Academy Awards for Best Screenplay for Citizen Kane, yet it's still unknown how much each man participated in its writing. Welles claimed that Mankiewicz wrote the first two drafts, and he was a major part of the final.
On the other hand, Mankiewicz signed a contract that said the studio was allowed to omit his name, yet the Screen Writers Guild rule was that as a producer, Welles could not be credited unless he wrote the script without help. In the end, they agreed to share credit.
The Film Had Limited Advertising
Although William Randolph Hearst and his crew were unsuccessful at completely blocking Citizen Kane from the public eyes, they impacted its advertising. Hearst did his best to convince people through his influence of the media that Welles was a member of the Communist Party, and forbade the film from being promoted in some publications.
This stopped some sources from advertising it and theaters from showing it. This impacted its run at the box office and was not a good start for Welles' film career. Yet, the quality of the movie and its later success proved otherwise.
Welles Did Literal Magic Tricks To Distract Executives
Regardless that Welles technically had creative control over the movie, the film still needed to turn a profit, and the executives ultimately did get a say. Afraid some of the executives wouldn't approve of some parts of the film, he would lie about certain scenes and entertain the executives when they were around.
When executives physically visited the production, Welles would distract them with card tricks until they eventually left. He would also keep them outside of the screening at all costs.
A Professional Opera Singer Was Hired To Sing Badly
In the film, Kane's wife, Susan, has aspirations to be an opera singer, and Kane supports her dreams, even building her an opera house to perform in. The problem is, however, is that she isn't any good.
Susan's voice was provided by a professional opera singer that was instructed to sing outside of her vocal range to produce the cringe-worthy singing in the film. The singer only agreed to participate as long as her identity was kept secret for fear of it harming her career. The singer was Jean Forward of the San Francisco Opera.
Orson Welles Supposedly Never Watched Citizen Kane
According to some close to him, Orson Welles never actually sat down and watched his movie in the theater, even sneaking out of the audience during opening night.
Welles went on to tell Dick Cavett that he never watched any movie after completing it, except for the thousands of times he watched it while in the editing room. So, it's either he was sick of it by the time he was done, or he liked to wait to hear what other people had to say.
The Film Affected Marion Davies' Reputation
Since Citizen Kane was associated with Hearst, it was assumed that Susan's character was representative of Hearst's lover, Marion Davies, harming her reputation. Welles would later tell fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich that he felt bad about how Davie's' reputation was affected and that she had nothing to do with the development of Susan's character.
He noted that Davies was an extraordinary woman-nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie." He would later write the introduction to Davies' autobiography.
Orson Welles' Lifestyle Got In The Way Of Production
Early in his life and career, Orson Welles was not yet known for living in excess, which he would later in life. However, he was beginning to show signs of it. During Citizen Kane's production, Welles was drinking more than 30 cups of coffee a day, to the point that he became sick with caffeine poisoning.
Then, after switching to tea, he began to drink so much of it that it began affecting his skin color! He was also known for not eating for extended periods of time, then sit down to a meal consisting of "three large steaks with side items."
Welles Claims Hearst Tried To Frame Him For A Crime
While Orson Welles and William Hearst were deep in their rivalry regarding the film, Welles claimed that Hearst attempted to frame him for a crime. The story goes that Welles was given a heads up by a police officer that Hearst had arranged for a naked and underage woman to jump into his arms when he arrived in his hotel room.
There, a hired photographer would be waiting to take a picture of the scene. Although it's unclear if this scheme was true, Welles did not return to his hotel.
Making Him Look Young Was Almost Harder Than Making Him Appear Old
In the scenes when Kane first buys his newspaper, for the only time, Welles appears dressed as himself at his actual age. In interviews, Welles admitted that the makeup that was applied to make him appear younger was almost as involved as the process that made him look old.
For his youthful appearance, Welles had to use temporary facelifts, certain hairstyling, and camera tricks to look like the glowing, strutting, and ambitious young Charles Foster Kane.
Orson Welles Invited Hearst To The Premiere
On the opening night of Citizen Kane in San Francisco, Welles and Hearst found themselves in a particularly awkward situation when they found themselves alone in an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel.
Regardless of their very well known feud, their fathers were friends, so Welles extended an invitation to Hearst to attend the premiere. Of course, Hearst rejected the offer. When leaving the elevator, it's said that Welles remarked, "Charles Foster Kane would have accepted."
Welles Used Dorothy Comingore's Pregnancy To His Advantage
Although having one of your main actresses pregnant at the beginning of a shoot would be a red flag for most directors, not Orson Welles. He saw Dorothy Comingore's pregnancy as a good thing and a way to convince the studio that he would finish the film on time because he had to before she gave birth.
Over the course of the production, Welles manages to hide her progressing condition by clever camera angles from behind tables or having her dress in flowing gowns.
The Snow Scenes Drove Welles Crazy
One scene that gave Welles a particularly hard time was outside of Ma Kane's boarding house. Welles hated shooting the scene because even though it was set in a snowy field, the actor's breath wasn't visible since it was shot on a sound stage.
To ensure that he never had this problem again, in his 1942 film Magnificent Ambersons, a winter scene was shot inside of an ice warehouse so the actor's breath would definitely be visible.
Contact Lenses For Kane As An Older Man
To really sell the idea that Charles Kane had grown old, and to make Welles look like it, the director/actor wore special contact lenses.
While they may have looked good in the film, they were horribly uncomfortable to wear, and a doctor had to be on set to place them in Welles' eyes. Furthermore, they limited Welles' vision, which caused him to accidentally cut his hand in the scene when he is destroying Susan's room.
Bringing In Ruth Warrick
When looking to fill the role of Emily Norton Kane, Welles had a particular type of girl in mind to play the role. He didn't just want some Hollywood actress that could play the part of a lady, but someone who truly is one.
After several test screenings, Welles came to the conclusion that "there are no ladies in Hollywood." He then contacted New York actress Ruth Warrick to audition for the role. Happily, she flew out and got the part.
Debate Over Colorizing The Film
At one point, it was believed that Ted Turner intended to colorize the film, although there was a strong push against it. The rumor started that Turner wanted to colorize it in order to bait critics.
However, his statement was irrelevant, since Orson Welles had rights to the film, so Turner wouldn't have been able to make this kind of change even if he wanted to. When word got to Welles, he reportedly yelled, "Tell Ted Turner to keep his crayons away from my movie!"
Filming The Opening Newsreel Footage Took Some Ingenuity
In the beginning of the film, newsreel footage flies across the screen in a rather artistic manner. To achieve this grainy look, Robert Wise came up with the idea of physically dragging the footage across a stone floor and running a cheesecloth filled with sand over them in order to slightly distort the images.
While this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, one cinema distributor contacted RKO about the film they received, saying it was inferior to their standard and demanded a new one.