TNR Film Classics: 'Citizen Kane' (February 24, 1941)

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BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 27, 2011

TNR Film Classics: 'Citizen Kane' (February 24, 1941)

Will Hollywood stand up to William Randolph Hearst over the matter of Orson Welles’s film, Citizen Kane? RKO, the distributor, announces that it is going ahead with plans to show the picture. It has been booked into the number-one movie house of the nation, the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and many other places. But the films are so notoriously timid when confronted by the power of a journalistic overlord like Hearst that many people find it hard to believe the producers really intend to defy the lord of San Simeon.

Hollywood trembled when the first threats came that the Hearst newspapers would open an editorial attack upon the motion-picture industry unless the film was censored or suppressed. Underlings of the aged publisher made the threat after seeing the picture. Nothing was put into writing, but Variety, on January 15, reported that “steady bombardment from the heaviest editorial artillery in the Hearst press is faced by the entire film industry as a result of the fury into which William Randolph Hearst has been thrown by the revelation that the story of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s first film, bears similarity to the life of the publisher.”

Variety also said that Hearst, through his Hollywood agent, Columnist Louella Parsons, would sue for an injunction to restrain RKO, as distributor, from releasing Welles’s movie. The “bombardment” would deal with employment of aliens in Hollywood, the alleged inclusion of risque lines and scenes in scripts despite the Hays office, and with the private lives and business affairs of certain film magnates. Hearst papers, it was feared, might carry full accounts of the forthcoming trial of Joseph M.Schenck, president of Twentieth Century-Fox, in New York on income-tax charges, and any similar stories of Hollywood or Wall Street they could get hold of.

The Hays office (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) issued a statement that it would observe a hands-off policy in the controversy between the publisher and Welles. The neutral position of the Hays office, which is supposed to defend the interests of RKO as well as those of other companies, is reminiscent of the sterling fortitude displayed by the late Neville Chamberlain when Hitler trampled Czecho-Slovakia. It also suggests the attitude of many film-industry leaders—those who control the policies of the Hays office. There seems to be no inclination in these circles to condemn Hearst or his lieutenants for their threat to free speech and freedom of the screen.

Hearst has already made one overt move. Even before Miss Parsons and the attorneys saw the picture, he ordered all mention of RKO films and players had been arranged by RKO to publicize the picture be kept out of the drama sections of his newspapers. Thus, for instance, in Los Angeles, a review of Christopher Morley’s Kitty Foyle, which RKO made with Ginger Rogers, was published only in one edition of The Los Angeles Examiner. The Detroit Times, another Hearst journal, had been running advertisements that it would carry a serialization of Kitty Foyle as written by Morley. Suddenly the exploitation campaign stopped and the serial has not been published in The Times. Use of the serial in the paper had been arranged by RKO to publicize the picture.

Orson Welles wrote the script of Citizen Kane, played the leading role, directed and produced the picture. The story deals with a young heir to a fortune in mining stock who comes to New York from the West, launches a gaudy newspaper, campaigns for the governorship of New York and editorializes vigorously for war with Spain in Cuba. He attempts to promote the fortunes of a pretty, blonde opera singer and fires his best writer for doing a concert review that showed the lady’s singular lack of talent. At the end, embittered and unlamented, he dies amid the splendors of a great Florida castle he stuffed with antiques and art treasures.

Charles Kane differs from William Randolph Hearst in many ways. For one thing, he is a sympathetic character. And there is nothing peculiar to Hearst in Kane’s passion for art collecting. The Sultan of San Simeon brought a few new tricks to yellow journalism, but he was, by no stretch of imagination, the only publisher to glory in sensationalism. History is filled with such characters as Citizen Kane.

The excitement over Citizen Kane started when Welles showed a rough cut of the picture to several reviewers who had to write pre-dated reviews for national magazines. Word began to leak out that the story paralleled Hearst’s life. Immediately Miss Parsons demanded to be shown the film. An appointment was made for her to have a showing. She appeared with two Los Angeles Hearst attorneys, A. Laurence Mitchell and Oscar Lawler. Miss Parsons and the lawyers sat through the picture in silence and left the RKO projection room without bidding goodbye to Welles.

The Associated Press and the United Press did not print the story despite the fact that Orson Welles is excellent copy. Hearst is a member of the AP and a profitable client of the UP. Time carried a story which did not touch upon important aspects of the situation. The New York Times published an excellent article by the most competent correspondent in Hollywood, Douglas Churchill. The New York Post also had good coverage. PM at first characterized the matter as a “publicity stunt,” but later admitted that Hearst’s antipathy was real. There was mention of the incident by two syndicated columnists, Hedda Hopper, who writes for The Des Moines Register and Tribune group, and John Truesdeil, of Esquire Features. The Los Angeles Times carried Miss Hopper’s story. Daily Variety, edited in Hollywood by Arthur Ungar, published full accounts, as did the weekly edition of Variety, which is printed in New York.

William Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, penned a front-page editorial attacking George Schaefer, president of RKO, for allowing Welles to make Citizen Kane. Wilkerson said that Schaefer made a mistake in permitting one man to write, produce and direct a picture and to act in it. Hollywood is oozing with synthetic geniuses; an authentic one would be a menace. Wells did no boot-licking. He defied the Hollywood caste system, ate with his aides and even was publicly seen with people who made less than $1,000 a week. Instead of casting shopworn stars he brought his Mercury players out from New York for the picture. Now, in certain quarters, he is the greatest villain in Hollywood. Instead of praising him for his forthright determination to make an interesting character study, even if it did offend Hearst, instead of condemning the effrontery of anyone who tries to suppress a creative work, some leaders of the industry say privately that Orson Welles must be stopped. Whether they will join hand with William Randolph Hearst to do the job remains to be seen.

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posted in: books and arts, film, los angeles, new york, new york city, hays, rko, the hays, twentieth century, america, slovakia, charles kane, hitler, joseph m.schenck, louella parsons, neville chamberlain, orson welles, william randolph hearst, citizen kane, radio city

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