Sunday, August 28, 2011

Orson Welles Interview - "Citizen Kane": The Greatest Film That Almost Never Was

PhotobucketA 1960 interview where Orson Welles gives background on the making of one of the most famous, controversial and critically acclaimed films made in the United States.

"Citizen Kane" was not the film Welles and his Mercury Theater group was going to make when he was brought to Hollywood by the RKO Studio boss George Schaffer in 1939. Welles was already a well-known figure thanks to his memorable "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast on Halloween Eve, 1938, a broadcast that caused an estimated one in five listeners to his CBS program to believe there was an actual Martian invasion taking place near New York City. Welles was also an acclaimed theatrical director, radio star and actor in both mediums. All of 23 years old at the time of his New York success, he had an uncanny knack of playing characters of any age. His role as Captain Shotover in an Broadway production of GB Shaw's "Heartbreak House earned him the cover of Time magazine.

It also earned him a lot of jealousy. He was the classic "enfant terrible", a young genius capable of great sensitivity in dealing with casts and crew and also biting sarcasm and towering rages when he didn't get what he wanted from an actor or a stagehand. Generally those that worked for him, however, would stay loyal to the man because he brought out the best in all around any project he was associated with.

His original film for RKO was supposed to be an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" with Welles as Marlowe and much of the film shot with a subjective camera as the protagonist journeys down the Congo River toward the remote ivory station of the powerful and mentally unhinged Mr. Kurtz. But, despite Welles' carte blance contract with RKO, he couldn't bring the primary budget in at an acceptable cost.

The "Heart of Darkness" project ate up a lot of time before it was cancelled. The media and the established Hollywood film community began to wonder when Welles would make his first film. He tried to get a second film started, a thriller called "The Smiler With a Knife", but he needed a strong leading lady for the box office and both Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell turned him down. He wanted to use RKO B-film star Lucille Ball for the role but the executives talked him out of the project.

According to Barbara Leaming's authorized biography of Welles, he was under the gun (it was mid-1940) and needed a project off the ground to satisfy his critics in and out of the industry. Then the idea came when he and producer-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz got together and decided to make a film about the press baron William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, a ersatz progressive news titan turned politician had developed into an arch-conservative, isolationist and red-baiter by 1940. He had a great deal of power in Hollywood and New York and was not averse to using that power to assassinate in press ink anyone who displeased him. His closest associate was the powerful Louis B. Mayer of MGM studios, who nearly managed to get RKO to sell the film to his studio--so he could burn the negative!

Working with master cinematographer Gregg Toland, first-time film composer Bernard Hermann and a cast including Joseph Cotton and Agnes Morehead, Welles employed story-telling skills gleamed from his radio experience. Critically, the film exceeded almost everyone's expectations about the "boy wonder".

But "Citizen Kane" faced such powerful opposition from the mighty Hearst media, that it was banned by many theater chains and thus never became the commercial hit Welles needed to make the kind of singular films he was interested in directing.

One more film under his RKO contract, "The Magnificent Ambersons", had the bad luck to come out right after the USA entered the Second World War. Despite its fine acting (again with Cotton and Morehead but without Welles) a early 20 Century period drama with a downbeat ending was not what the public was looking for.

Attempts to edit the film were complicated by the fact that Welles was in Brazil as the picture was premiering, making a film for the war effort (financed by Nelson Rockefeller) that was designed to mend fences between North America and parts of South America that were leaning culturally and politically towards fascism.

Welles absence from Hollywood further hurt his chances and he and the bosses at RKO soon parted company. He continued to have a long and amazing career, but never was he able to direct a successful film with the public in America despite great efforts. (His career and critical reception in Europe was more favorable.)

With Orson Welles one might wonder what might have become of him had he made a less controversial film at the onset of his film career. But anybody who has seen "Citizen Kane" can only regret the potential loss of such a masterpiece.


  1. For more background on the near undoing of "Citizen Kane" and the titanic battles between two unique American giants:

  2. A magnificent film - proof that the best of human creativity is also controversial....

  3. Quite true Will. Welles broke rules in front of and behind the camera. Part of the power of this film that it achieved the level of an American-style Shakesperian tragedy, was audaciously topical and as a bonus, heralded new methods of cinematic storytelling that inspired a generation of new artists (and still does).

  4. I'm reminded of "Spartacus" - and the little-known fact that this was the film which broke the back of the Hollywood 'blacklist', and did away for good and all with the notion that creatives were first beholden to some political standard.

    All it took was for Kirk Douglas to insist that Dalton Trumbo be given credit where it was due.

    Sometimes, a simple act is all that's needed to end injustice - that; and the courage to say 'no more'.

  5. A good point, Will. If the evils of censorship and fear could never be overcome Trumbo would have been "persona non grata" for the last fifteen years of his life instead of being able to ply his trade in some major films. And all American movies would forever be on par with "Singing in the Rain". (i.e., all fluff and no substance) or simply the simple revenge naratives of something like a Chuck Norris vehicle.

    Kirk Douglas will have a special place in Heaven--and one can take that literally or figuratively--for what he did there in 1960.

  6. I couldn't agree more!

    (He's gonna have to die first, though - isn't he somewhere near a million years old now?)

  7. LOL! Give or take a century. :-)

  8. That one word says a lot for the reputation of a 70 year-old movie. :-)