Citizen Kane – widely considered the greatest film of all time – is a movie that inspired many famous directors in its wake.
It also set the bar impossibly high for young directors, considering Orson Welles directed it when he was only twenty-five. And now Citizen Kane is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a new Blu-ray release.
Joseph McBride knew Orson Welles well, and has written three books about him, Orson Welles, Orson Welles: Actor and Director, and What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? (McBride also penned an excellent biography of Steven Spielberg that I highly recommend). As Citizen Kane hits 70, he graciously shared his thoughts with us on one of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century.
Looking back on Citizen Kane today, McBride says what first comes to mind for him is, “How young it is. It’s a young man’s film alive with the potential of the medium, and that excitement comes across in every film. Welles’s seldom-remarked-upon sense of fun is also highly evident. It is obvious that he and the others had a blast making it. There is a daring too in his taking after Hearst. Perhaps the young filmmaker didn’t realize quite how damaging this audacious act would be to his Hollywood career, but he went ahead anyway and satirized one of the most powerful men in America.”
It was also recently remarked that looking at film today, Citizen Kane’s influence is so evident is so much that came after it, and McBride says, ”The sense of experimentation is often seen in the work of young filmmakers influenced by Welles and Kane – as practically all are. Unfortunately, too much experimentation today is merely technical. Kane’s experimentation is not merely technical. The technique is always in service of the storytelling and the themes. Too many films today are about nothing but camera and CGI.”
Thankfully, we also won’t have to worry about Citizen Kane being redone in 3D or being colorized. As McBride explains, “Welles’s contract was quite strict about forbidding any alterations after the fact. The only changes RKO was allowed to make were for censorship. They had to change a few lines and do some recutting to get it passed by the lawyers for the other film corporations.”
Of course, we’re lucky to have Citizen Kane because Hearst wanted the film destroyed. “It was a close call,” McBride says, and Robert Wise, who edited Citizen Kane and went on to direct The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still, told McBride that Welles gave the greatest performance of his life when he convinced the heads of RKO and the other major studios not to destroy the film at a private screening at Radio City Music Hall.
“Welles eloquently spoke about freedom of speech and how it was under danger from fascism throughout the world,” McBride says. “He urged the elite audience not to give in to the enemies of free speech and democracy at such a critical time. The hard-hearted businessmen and lawyers were deeply moved and let the film be released.”
McBride is definitely looking forward to the film’s Blu-Ray release, but adds that “No prints I’ve seen on home video (including DVD) look quite as sharp as the 16mm print I had in the 1960s. The negative was destroyed in a vault fire in 1970. In that 16mm print, for example, I could see the clear star-shapes of the lights ringing the stage when Susan sings. In all copies I’ve seen since then, the lights have been blurry. But it should be good seeing Kane on Blu-ray, as long as they don’t try to make it look ‘better than it did originally.’ That’s usually what companies say about home video prints. In this case it’s impossible to make it look as good as it did in 1941, and how could anyone ever have made it look better? Not for nothing did Welles share his director’s credit card with Toland’s cinematography credit, following Ford’s lead.”
Citizen Kane was considered ahead of its time, and it still stands the test of time, a film synonymous with masterful filmmaking. Here’s hoping with its Blu-Ray release a new generation of filmmakers in training will also find it inspiring, as it will show them where much of modern filmmaking vocabulary came from.