Citizen Kane Production

Welles entered his tumultuous but illustrious teenage years before talking pictures were made. He cut his teeth in live theatre and then got into broadcasting via radio. For him, film was a frontier. It’s only fair to note, though, that his original motivation for exploring this virgin territory was to raise money for Broadway productions of such upcoming plays as Five Kings and Playboys of the Western World.

He flew to Hollywood, rented a house between the residences of Shirley Temple and Greta Garbo, and signed a luxurious two-movie contract with RKO. His plan was to shoot, for his first film, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s controversial classic Heart of Darkness. But work on this project ran aground, producing nothing. Welles also forayed briefly into an attempt at producing an adaptation of Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler With a Knife. This, too would be aborted, and according to the tired adage, the third time would be the charm, yielding the classic Citizen Kane.

Before beginning work on Darkness, what he thought would be his first film, Welles admirably immersed himself into the world of movies, attempting to go from outsider to master through an academic style of study. He was able to pick the brains of a couple of big directors, King Vidor and John Ford. But it was tour through RKO studios that is most impressive and that produced the best results. RKO screened films for the incipient director every day: Stagecoach, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and dozens of others. He particularly poured over these two films, taking in their every nuance. He was then able to spend days meeting with every technician at RKO, getting a feel for all aspects of the craft.

Welles conceived the premise of Kane and got started on the screenplay. He then brought in his associate and experienced screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, and the two of them would knock volleys of re-writes back and forth.


Welles, as history tells us, cast himself in the title role of C.F. Kane. For the other principals, he went with trusted souls. He brought on board various Mercury players, casting them in some of the film’s biggest roles. To play Bernstein, Kane’s right-hand man, he chose Everett Sloane, and for LeLand, the critic, Joseph Cotten. Sloane’s Mercury Theatre on the Air work had included radio productions of Les Miserables, while Cotten had worked with Welles in Too Much Cotten. Both were, along with Welles, new to the screen, both movie and TV. The actors Welles cast were familiar to him but only relatively well-known in general, and weren’t Hollywood A-listers. This applies not only to Sloane and Cotten, but to Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford, and William Alland.

Transformed into Kane

Since the movie follows Kane throughout his epic adventures, Welles needed the magic of Hollywood to age him. He employed Maurice Seiderman, an unconventional makeup artist who used casts of his subjects for realism. For Welles, Seiderman needed rubber chins and ears, and even contact lenses to age the eyes. Each day’s work took four hours, and Welles would get started around 4 a.m.

Welles develops his cinematic style

Making the transition from directing for both radio and stage to directing for film, Welles wasted no time on pedestrian, conservative cinematography. He was far too artistic, with too clear a vision, for that. Instead, he used what he’d learned so well in both forms, taking from drama a knack for long takes that seemed to show the action unfolding patiently, and from radio, a particular elan with the use of sound. Biographer Charles Higham asserts that Welles “revolutionized the soundtrack overnight,” and explains that he used it “with vivid emphasis, enhanced, subdued, tossed around in a manner that only deep experience on the air could have made possible.”

As for the visual style, one could argue that Welles was nearly half a decade ahead of his time in his use of discontinuity. Biographer Barbara Leaming illuminates some of Welles’ technique:
What is so curiously disconcerting is the way Welles repeatedly deceives
our expectations, as when, for instance, he lulls us into the dark,
dreamy opening sequence of Kane’s muttering “Rosebud,” then,
suddenly, blasts us out of our seats with the brassy mock-newsreel
of Kane’s life story. Then, the very moment that life story is over,
there follows another shock. The film within the film stops dead.
She further notes:
Now there is an extraordinary shot in which, as he speaks
about the film he has (and we have) just seen, one
of these shadowy spectators looms in front of the bare,
white movie screen: a frame within the frame. Fascinated
by frames, by the borders between things, Welles was inclined
to give the audience a jolt whenever the movie moves from
one scene to another...the newsreel’s suddenly stopping
dead, and the sense of emptiness, of loss, that follows suggests
Welles’s idea that, unlike theater, film is “dead,” and that
the filmmaker has to do something about it.
In an interview a 1971 interview, Welles said, “I believe in the film as a poetic medium. I don’t think it competes with painting, or with ballet--the visual side of films is a key to poetry. There is no picture which justifies itself, no matter how beautiful, striking, horrific, doesn’t mean anything unless it makes poetry possible.”

Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. New York: St. Martin’s. 1985.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1983.
McBride, Joseph. Orson Welles. London: Secker and Warburg. 1972.


  1. My Favorite Film Of All Time 1941's Citizen Kane Is Turning 75 Years Old Next Month In May Of 2016.


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