Citizen Kane – 70th Anniversary

May 2011 is the 70th anniversary of ther release of Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest motion picture ever made.

Orson Welles’ artistic genius cannot be denied, and it should be considered this genius is both a product and ahead of its time. The film originally raised controversy for its less than favorable portrayal of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. However the greatness of the film has outlasted Hearst’s own influence.
The character of Charles Foster Kane as a mirror of Hearst is well known. What is less apparent are the parallels between Kane and Welles’ life. Kane was born into poverty in his parent’s boarding house in Colorado. When a piece of worthless land belonging to his mother yields “the world’s third largest gold mine,” she has young Kane sent to the East for his education as a ward of Mr. Bernstein, a banker. When Kane gains full control of his inheritance at the relatively young age of 25 he dedicates his fortune to building a newspaper empire based on yellow journalism. In time he would run for the governorship of New York and have a hand in ruining many lives, not the least of which would be his own.

Welles was born to affluent parents in Kenosha WI in 1915, but still endured hardship as a child. Orson’s older brother “Dickie” had been institutionalized at an early age due to “learning disabilities.” His father had invented and made a fortune with a popular bicycle lamp, but suffered from alcoholism. Separated from her husband and living in Chicago, Welles’ mother played piano to accompany the lectures of the Art Institute’s Dudley Crafts Watson. She passed away in a Chicago hospital of jaundice and for a time Orson was taken in by the Watson household. At the age of ten he ran away with the third Watson Daughter Marjorie and they were found a week later singing and dancing for money on a Milwaukee street corner.

Soon after Welles’ graduation from the Todd School for Boys his father passed away, and Orson came under the guardianship of Chicago physician Maurice Bernstein. (The Banker Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane would be the only character in the film to have a truly positive portrayal.) Using funds from his inheritance Welles traveled to Europe. While on a walking tour of Ireland he boldly walked into the Gate Theatre of Dublin and claimed to be a Broadway star. The manager of the Gate claimed to not believe him, but was impressed by his brashness and the passion of his audition, so allowed him to make his stage debut in 1931. Acclamations for his acting ability reached the US before his return, and thanks to introductions made by thornton Wilder he found work on the New York stage in 1933. His work in a revival of Romeo and Juliet caught the attention of John Houseman, who was casting a project for the WPA’s Federal Theater Project. He also began actingon Manhattan radio to supplement his income, and during this time he began working with the actors who would later become the core of his Mercury Theater.

Welles first assignment for the Federal Theater Project was to direct a play with the Negro Theater Unit. He presented a highly successful production of Macbeth set in the Haitian court of Henri Christophe entitled Voodoo Macbeth. When the lead actor fell ill on tour Welles jumped on an airplane and took over the role wearing black-face. He attempted to build on his Macbeth success in 1937 with The Cradle Will Rock, a highly politicized musical. Budget cuts at the WPA forced the production to be cancelled just before opening, and the theater where the premier was scheduled was locked to prevent Federal Property from being used in a commercial production. Welles announced to ticket holders that the show would open at another theater 20 blocks away, and most of the audience and cast made there way on foot. The union musicians refused to work for non-union government wages, and the actors’ union declared that the project was Federal property and could not be performed away from that context without permission. The show opened and was presented for two weeks with the composer playing piano and several of the actors playing their parts from the audience.

After Leaving the Federal Theater Project Welles and Houseman formed the Mercury Theatre  There first production was an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy. Welles shifted his focus into radio acting, writing and directing during the second year of the Mercury Theatre  In 1937 the Mutual Network broaedcast a seven week adaptation of Les Miserables, then hired Welles to anonymously play The Shadow. In 1938 CBS began a weekly hour long program based on classic literary works, The Mercury Theatre of the Air.

The run of Mercury Theatre probably would have ended quietly. It was rather high-brow fare, and it was scheduled opposite NBC’s popular Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio show. On Oct 30, 1938, Welles presented an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The original SciFi story had been placed it the end of the 19th century in Great Britain. Welles placed the story in contemporary Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and told the story in the form of simulated newscasts. Just like today’s TV viewers clicking the remote during commercials, in a number of households the radio dial was spun during the Bergen-McCarthy commercials and got wrapped up in the supposed news event. Because Mercury Theatre was a sustained production at the time, and without sponsorship, there were no commercial breaks and those who joined the program late weren’t “in” on the “joke”. The ensuing panic was exaggerated to some extent, but it was enough to launch Orson Welles into stardom.

Offers came in from Hollywood which Welles initially resisted. Mercury Theatre  icked up sponsorship from the Campbell’s Soup Company and renamed Campbell’s Playhouse. Eventually RKO offered an unheard of deal for an untried movie director: two pictures with complete artistic control going to Welles. The result was the timeless treasure, Citizen Kane.

Comments

  1. I love Orson Welles in “The Lives of Harry Lime” radio show. I can’t get enough of the movie “The Third Man” since I’m also a Joseph Cotten fan, and Orson’s entrance as Harry Lime in the film was one of the most spectacular in cinema, at least in black & white.

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  2. I just discovered this site,which led me to "the Lives of Harry Lime" CD. I am thinking about getting it. It looks to be packed with 52 episodes of Welles as Harry Lime! How interesting.

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