Citizen Kane (1941), a sophisticated and classic American film drama, directed, produced, starred and co-written by 25-year-old Orson Welles, is a landmark work in the history of cinema, which can be termed the first truly modern movie. In the opinion of most critics, it ranks among the few films ever made for which a remake is all but unthinkable. It is more than a great movie, rather one of the miracles of cinema, that assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era and accumulated all the lessons of the emerging era of sound and light in movies, to stand above all the others.
Citizen Kane, depicting the meteoric rise and sharp fall of a newspaper magnate named Charles Foster Kane, created tremendous controversy as the leading character strongly resembled real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who unsuccessfully tried his best to stop its production, ban its release and barred mention of it in his newspapers. Although the critics profusely acclaimed the film, it failed miserably at the box office and soon faded from view, until it was re-released in 1956, when it found recognition in Europe.
Citizen Kane opens in the night's foggy mist, illuminated by the moonlight with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign hanging on a giant gate and a wrought-iron ‘K’ initial on the crest of the gate of a ghostly mediaeval castle with towers called Xanadu, situated on a man-made mountain. The castle is reflected in a water-body, where the prows of two empty gondolas are tied to a wooden wharf, while the castle ground is equipped with Zoo pens, designed for exotic animals. A lighted, single, postage-stamp-sized window of the castle is seen in a long shot, which suddenly became dark, during a closer shot, as the light went out. But from an angle in the turret room facing out of the enormous window, a silhouetted figure is seen lying stiffly on a bed in the low-lit room. The old man in the bed with a crystal glass globe in his hand is Charles Foster Kane, the owner of the vast palatial estate in Florida. Suddenly, swirling snowflakes filled the entire screen, which surrounds a snow-covered house with snowmen around it, signifying a wintry scene inside a crystal glass globe in the grasping hand of the old man. Symbolically, it is a recollection of his childhood in a log cabin, while the glass ball represents the mother’s womb. Later, it is learned that the globe is also associated with Susan Alexander Kane, his first and the only innocent love.
Nevertheless, grasping the glass globe, which may represent a snowball, the old man on his death bed murmured a mysterious word, Rosebud, and died.
However, in reality, no one would have heard Kane's last word, as he was alone when he died, although later in the film, his butler stated that he heard the last word. It could be speculated that it was Kane's last conscious thought before death and after his death, the snowstorm globe rolled from his relaxed grip, bounced down two carpeted steps and shatters into tiny pieces on the marble floor, indicating his broken love.
Immediately after that, a door was opened and a nurse in her usual white uniform appeared on the screen, refracted and distorted through a curve of a sliver of shattered glass fragment from the broken globe, who folded Kane’s arms over his chest and covered him with a sheet.
After that, in an abrupt cut from his private sanctuary, an authoritative newsreel, a biopic film-in-a-film, briefly covered the chronological highlights of the public life of the deceased, the life story of Kane, an enormously wealthy newspaper publisher and industrial magnate, including information about Xanadu and its grandeur. While Kane's death becomes sensational news around the world, the producer of the newsreel tasks cinema newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson to discover the meaning of Kane's last word, Rosebud, which is possibly a secret key to the mysterious and complex life of Charles Foster Kane.
Jerry Thompson spent more than two weeks, gathering information from four of Kane's associates and the memoirs of Kane's ex-guardian and bank manager, Walter Parks Thatcher. Strangely, their slightly prejudiced, contradictory and inconsistent account of Kane, combined with semi-overlapping flashbacks, revealed different facets of a single personality. Thompson tried to approach his second wife, Susan Alexander Kane, a provocative blonde woman, now an alcoholic woman and owner of a nightclub, but failed, as she refuses to talk to him. He visited the private archive of the late banker Thatcher and through his written memoirs came to know all about Kane's rise from a Colorado boarding house and the decline of his fortune. According to the memoirs, gold was discovered in 1871, through a mining deed belonging to Kane's mother, Mary Kane, and she hired Thatcher to assume the guardianship of his son and establish a trust that would provide for his education. While the parents and Thatcher discussed arrangements in the boarding house, the young Kane was engaged in playing happily with a sledge in the snow outside and when the parents introduced him to Thatcher, the boy struck Thatcher with his sledge and attempted to run away. At the age of 25, when Charles Foster Kane gained control of his trust, the productivity of the mine, as well as Thatcher's judicious investment policy, had made him one of the richest men in the world. He then took control of a newspaper named the New York Inquirer and immediately embarked on a career of yellow journalism, publishing baseless scandalous articles with catchy headlines that attacked Thatcher's and his own business interests for increased sales. However, after the stock market crash in 1929, he sold his newspaper empire to Thatcher.
After going through the memoirs of Walter Parks Thatcher, Jerry Thompson met Kane's general business manager, Mr Bernstein, in his New York City office in front of a fire in the hearth and Kane's portrait above the mantle. He recalled that Kane hired the best available journalists to make a strong team for increasing the circulation of the New York Inquirer and rose to power by successfully manipulating public opinion about the Spanish-American War and tactfully marrying Emily Norton, the niece of the President of the United States. Thompson also visits and interviews Jedediah Leland in a convalescent resident of the Huntington Memorial Hospital, a drab Manhattan retirement centre on 180th Street, who was once the best friend of Kane and later worked for him. Leland confessed that Kane was never brutal, but he just brutal things. While discussing the early great days in Kane's newspaper empire, he crticised Kane's lack of conviction as he selfishly turns to politics. He also informed that Kane's marriage to Emily disintegrated over the years and he became involved in an illicit affair with amateur singer Susan Alexander while running for Governor of New York. However, the affair was discovered by his wife, as well as his political opponents and the consequent scandal ended his political career. Despite everything, he married Susan Alexander, built a large opera house and forced her into a humiliating career as an opera singer, for which Susan had neither the talent nor the ambition. Jedediah Leland confessed that he was fired by Kane, when he began to write a negative review of Susan's opera debut, but Kane himself finished the negative review and printed it.
On a return visit to Atlantic City, Thompson revisited a drunken Susan at the cheap El Rancho nightclub, where she finally retraced her voice teacher and opera coach, her pathetic operatic career and her final claustrophobic days with Kane in Xanadu. She also described to him the aftermath of her opera career. She divulged that after her attempted suicide, Kane consented to abandon her singing career. Finally, after spending years in isolation in Xanadu and being dominated by Kane, she left him. Later, Kane’s butler Raymond recounted how Kane became violent after Susan left him and began to destroy everything in her bedroom. However, as he found the snow globe in the room, he grew calm and murmured ‘Rosebud’.
Towards the end of the film, Thompson is joined by other newsreel people who have gathered at the estate. While they walk through the enormous warehouse stacked with crates, containing furniture and other possessions of Xanadu, the other reporters ask Thompson if he has solved the mystery around the word ‘Rosebud’ and discovered its meaning, when Jerry admits that he has been playing with a jigsaw puzzle with the word, but could not solve the secret. By that time, workers were busy clearing away the vast array of articles in the basement beneath Xanadu and throwing the discarded junk items in a blazing furnace. As they found the sledge on which the eight-year-old Kane was playing on the day that he was taken from his home in Colorado and threw it into the furnace with other items, its trade name ‘Rosebud’ became visible through the flames, unveiling the mystery of the word.
The end of the innocence of childhood
The sledge is an enduring symbol of Kane's life, which was taken from him in his early days as he was torn from his family and sent east to boarding school, while Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of his childhood, which Kane intended to regain throughout his life. While the sled signified the innocence, beauty and love that he lost, the love that eluded him, Rosebud is the reminder of his childhood with his mother, a childhood that was abandoned by the lure of a bright future and opportunities for having enough wealth.
Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won one, for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, although it was booed every time one of its nine nominations was announced. It stood at number one position for 50 consecutive years in the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound decennial poll of critics and was voted number 9 in the Brussels 12 list at the 1958 World Expo. Apart from that, it was selected by the Liberty of Congress to be inducted into the 1989 inaugural group of 25 films for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.