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WHO or WHAT WAS ROSEBUD? … Well, come closer

CITIZEN KANE  (1941) Poster

CITIZEN KANE (1941) Poster

The Dendy Quays has reintroduced their ‘Autumn Allure’ showcase of old films. Every Monday at 10am or 6pm for $9 ($7.50 for members and even cheaper if you possess a Senior’s Card) you can delight in seeing a classic.

To be able to view with an audience such films on a big screen as ‘Rear Window’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, films that you have come to know well from constant reruns on the small screen, is nothing short of the occasional revelation and always a joy. You do miss a lot of on-screen business when viewing is confined to the small screen.

Last Monday was Orson Welles’s CITIZEN KANE’s turn. It was an old film print, which snapped half-way through requiring a hasty splice and dice before the film recommenced, and with the audio snap crackle and pop of an old print.

As I sat through this film I had to keep reminding myself that it is over 70 years old. The screening reinforced why it keeps winning the greatest film lists. Every component of the film-making process is just brilliant.

Of course assisting the film’s ability to remain as fresh as a daisy and totally relevant in today’s digital instant-news media world is the film’s narrative of a man who owns and runs a media empire and who becomes totally corrupted in the process until on his deathbed he dies totally alone and with just one word on his lips – “Rosebud.”

The story of Kane’s life is told via a series of flashbacks facilitated by a journalist as he interviews those who knew Kane in an endeavour to discover who or what was ‘Rosebud’.

It’s a simple but effective technique and one that’s become a trifle clichéd. This film is why this story-telling approach is now a cliché. As so much of the story is set in a newspaper it further adds to legitimizing the technique. You never see the reporter’s face, always the back of his head and yet it is this anonymous reporter’s questions and voice-overs that drive the narrative.

The film’s themes are the big over-arching themes of power, wealth, corruption, loss, abandonment, betrayal, and the impact they have on an individual’s humanity. The acquisition of unimaginable wealth, and with that, great power and influence walking hand in hand with the temptations of personal arrogance and corruption.

The perceived betrayal of his mother when removing him from the family as a child is the catalyst for Kane’s ultimate downfall.

Kane, as a boy, leaving home with Mr Thatcher.

Kane, as a boy, leaving home with Mr Thatcher.

The family home may have been poor but there was a level of happiness, contentment and the feeling of being wanted in this simple home that Kane was never able to experience throughout the rest of his life. This loss and sense of betrayal establishes a personally disastrous and unsatisfying pattern of behavior in the way in which he engages with all those with whom he shares a part of his adult life.

The technical aspects of the film were also ground-breaking. They include the use of different lenses, the framing of individual shots, the lighting of each scene giving it a film-noir, quasi-gothic feel, how the moving camera was used with new editing techniques to make those shots work effectively, the use of wipes and soft cuts, and the uncluttered sound track.

Also of interest, with the exception of Welles himself, is the sparse, minimalist, naturalist acting style and qualities of those Mercury Players who are Kane’s cast. In contrast Welles’s chewing the scenery performance further highlights the difference between what Kane can get away with when there are no constraints on his behavior as opposed to the behavior of Joe Ordinary. For Agnes Moorhead and Joseph Cotton, CITIZEN KANE was the break for on-going stellar careers.

Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton.

Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton.

There are two options that can be pursued by a first time feature film director. The first is to play it safe because you haven’t done it before. The second is to just go for it and it’ll be fine on the night.

Welles had been given a contract by RKO, which gave him total control. His ego made him comfortable with following the latter course. CITIZEN KANE was the immediate result and a revolution in film techniques then followed.

Everyone knows CITIZEN KANE was loosely based on the American media giant, William Randolph Hearst, who hated the film so much he ran a campaign against the film and relentlessly pursued Orson Welles until Hearst’s last dying breath. I still don’t understand as the subject matter of the film could have been far worse. CITIZEN KANE never deals with the Hearst scandal of the mysterious death of Thomas Ince that occurred on Hearst’s boat, the Oneida, in 1924, and which became the subject of the Peter Bogdanovich’s film, THE CAT’S MEOW (2001). One interesting fact about the Ince death scandal is that Louella Parsons walked onto that boat as a hack society writer for one of Hearst’s papers, and walked off it with a life-time contract as a syndicated columnist throughout Hearst’s empire.

Hearst’s campaign against Welles personally and his film in particular almost certainly cost CITIZEN KANE the Best Picture Oscar for 1941. ‘How Green is my Valley?’ is a great melodrama, but ‘Citizen Kane’ it isn’t.


Iconic shot from CITIZEN KANE

Iconic shot from CITIZEN KANE

The film opens and closes with an ultra-extreme close-up of a mustachioed old man whispering the word “Rosebud” before dying. At the film’s end those of us in the audience have come to learn what Rosebud is as the trash of Kane’s estate is confined to the incinerator and we zoom in as a child’s sled with the faded painted name, Rosebud, is reduced to ashes.


However, ancient common gossip that emerges whenever talk gets round to either CITIZEN KANE or the illicit relationship between Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, suggests that ‘Rosebud’ was the name Hearst gave Davies’s vulva, or to put it more delicately, her private parts.

Whether it’s true or not, it offers a more logical reason for Hearst’s obsessional life-long pursuit of Welles. As the quest to find Rosebud drives the film’s narrative it just adds another layer to be enjoyed as you quietly chortle at the double-entendre offered up in one of the world’s finest films by this outrageous piece of titillating scuttlebutt.

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