On This Day

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Associated Press
Orson Welles, second from right, attends the premiere of “Citizen Kane” at the Palace Theater.

On This Day: “Citizen Kane” Premieres in New York

May 01, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 1, 1941, Orson Welles’ innovative film based on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, often cited as the greatest in American cinema, opened in New York City.

Film Nearly Quashed by William Randolph Hearst

“Citizen Kane,” written by 26-year-old filmmaker Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, chronicled the life of a newspaper magnate considered to be real-life publishing baron William Randolph Hearst. The film’s narrative power and experimental noir style caused a buzz even before its release.

So sharply does Citizen Kane veer from cinema cliché, it hardly seems like a movie,” Time magazine reported in a pre-release article, praising the film’s innovative camera work and new filming techniques such as using artificially aged and streaked film to resemble authentic documentary film clips.

The movie set off a bitter feud between Welles and Hearst. The media magnate tried to prevent the release of “Citizen Kane,” and his campaign against the film kept it from receiving popular acclaim until decades later. But in the end, the movie may say as much about its maker as it did about its muse.

“Hearst and Welles were proud, gifted, and destructive—geniuses each in his way,” said Thomas Lennon, producer of the PBS documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane.” “The fight that ruined them both was thoroughly in character with how they’d lived their lives.”

Video: Original 1941 trailer

The theatrical trailer screened prior to the film’s release in 1941 can be viewed at YouTube.

Key Players: Orson Welles and Gregg Toland

Orson Welles
Welles, the son of a wealthy inventor and a concert pianist, was a precocious child who staged mini-productions of Shakespeare’s plays in his home. As a young adult, he worked on Broadway as a director and actor, and founded the Mercury Theatre. He also worked in radio, provided the voice of the titular character in “The Shadow” and achieving national notoriety in 1938, when he broadcast H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” as a news story and caused a panic when audience members believed there was an actual alien invasion.

Welles was a brilliant and innovative filmmaker, but he possessed an “erratic, egotistical, self-indulgent and self-destructive temperament,” said The New York Times in his obituary. His films often sparked controversy and harsh reviews, and his frequent clashes with movie studios hampered his work. Though his career included many failed projects, his legendary successes ensured that he would be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

“He was the legendary sort of figure upon whom old anecdotes are rehung,” wrote the Times. “Mr. Mankiewicz, for example, was reported by Miss Kael to have said of Welles, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes God.’”
Gregg Toland
The legendary cinematographer of “Citizen Kane,” Gregg Toland, began in Hollywood as a 15-year-old office boy, rising by age 27 to become the youngest “first cameraman” in the business. Toland’s expressionistic, noir-style trademarks include sharp, deep-focus pictures, ceilinged sets and low-angle lighting.

In 1941, as the industry’s most sought-after director, Toland opted to break out of studio restrictions by working with Welles on "Citizen Kane," saying “I want to work with someone who’s never made a movie. That’s the only way to learn anything: from someone who doesn’t know anything.”

The Influence of “Citizen Kane” on Filmmaking

“Citizen Kane” revolutionized filmmaking through its use of deep-focus photogaphy, non-linear storytelling, and other innovations. British theater critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, “Nobody who saw ‘Citizen Kane’ at an impressionable age will ever forget the experience; overnight, the American cinema had acquired an adult vocabulary, a dictionary instead of a phrase book for illiterates.”

Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said, “Citizen Kane is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as ‘Birth of a Nation’ assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and ‘2001’ pointed the way beyond narrative.”

The film in frequently listed as the greatest of all-time. It tops the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American movies of all time, and a 2002 poll of critics and directors by the British Film Institute saw both groups rank “Kane” first.

“Dazzlingly inventive, technically breathtaking, Citizen Kane reinvented the way stories could be told in the cinema, and set a standard generations of film-makers have aspired to,” says the BFI.

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