Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents an Oscar Nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Citizen Kane (1941)
In 1939, the President of RKO Pictures did something that was incredibly stupid: he signed Orson Welles to a two-picture deal and gave him complete artistic control. Imagine it – a business man in charge of creating very expensive art draws up an agreement to allow a man who had never written a film, never shot a film, never directed a film, never edited a film, and never marketed a film before to do all of the above with absolute freedom. It could have been a disaster, but it seemed at the time that Welles had earned it by garnering theatrical success and by driving the country mad with a little radio program about aliens invading. Sixty years before Blair Witch, Welles made the country believe that fiction was reality.
And perhaps that feat does deserve the freedom to inspire beyond it.
But that doesn’t mean that his ideas will sell. Welles tried twice to pitch to the studio, but they turned him down until he came to them with Citizen Kane – a story patterned off the life of yellow journalist, politician and Rupert Murdoch of his time, William Randolph Hearst. It was green-lit and production began in earnest in 1940.
More than any other, this film carries the prize and albatross of being called the greatest movie ever made. It’s cinematic gold. Genius placed on celluloid. Simply put, Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of movies.
Think about that for a minute. There can be arguments and debates raging for the rest of time, but whenever anyone needs an analogy for how good a film is, they go directly to Orson Welles’s first. That’s a difficult distinction to get over because, as a lot of modern audiences have concluded, it doesn’t feel like the best movie ever made when you’re watching it.
It should be watched nonetheless. It should be at the top of the list for any serious film fan simply because of the impact it made on the artform and the technology of the time. If The Wizard of Oz was the Avatar of its time, then Citizen Kane can also partially bare the distinction for allowing audiences to see everything from the foreground to the background in deep focus. The tech that gave us that most-iconic shot (Welles, arms outstretched as if channeling Nixon before Nixon, hunched over a podium with a giant graven image of himself looming overhead like a God about to strike down the townsfolk), is featured heavily throughout the film, creating quizzically beautiful images that hadn’t been seen before. Images that have been copied by filmmakers since.
Because of this and a ton of other special effects and make-up, the film demands to be studied by anyone who wants to hop behind a camera themselves.
Beyond that, the story is engrossing as any drama you’d ever see. It’s a character study, a detective story, and an examination of relationships that a megalomaniac destroys and rebuilds and re-destroys. Welles is the x-factor here. The actor is one of the best of all time, and he uses Kane to reach right out of the screen, wrap his hand around your throat, and light up a cigar while he chokes you mercilessly.
It was given phenomenal reviews upon its release, but it didn’t make much box office cash. That’s sort of par for the course when we think about great films that didn’t quite drive people into the seats. However, not all films are threatened so seriously to be destroyed by the man who they are making a parody of. Apparently Hearst was more than just a little pissed at the film, and enlisted help from famous producer Louis B. Mayer to buy all the prints and burn them.
Luckily, that never happened. The film, unburned, went on to be nominated for all the major Oscar categories (including Best Picture), winning for Best Original Screenplay, but losing in every other category. Welles lost out to Gary Cooper (as Sergeant York in Sergeant York), and lost out to John Ford (for How Green Was My Valley) for Best Director.
But they all lost out to him in history – because this man who had never written a film, never directed a film, never edited a film, and never marketed a film, created what is rightfully, arguably the best film ever made. Not bad for his first time out of the gate.
And maybe that’s why RKO gave him that freedom in the first place.
Sort of makes you wonder what would happen if more artists were given that luxury.
It has a stunning production story, changed the face of filmmaking itself, and can be lauded no more than for me to bluntly say: if you have never see this film, go see it immediately.