What Makes Citizen Kane So Special?

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Uncle John first saw Citizen Kane in 1967, projected on the living room wall of Professor Lowell Bodger. It was pretty good. It took the rest of the world a while to catch up, but in 2000, Kane was voted the best film of all time by the American Film Institute. Good Choice. Hi, Lowell.


When Citizen Kane premiered on May 1, 1941, the New York Times film critic called it "far and away the most exciting motion picture in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood."

But in early 1941 it seemed like the film would never even make it to the theaters, let alone win public acclaim. Newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the film's main character, Charles Foster Kane, waged a no-holds-barred campaign to destroy the film. He offered RKO president George Schaefer $800,000 to burn the negative and all the prints in a bonfire; Schaefer refused. When that failed, Hearst tried to prevent it from being widely released.

For the most part he succeeded: because of Hearst's influence, the major theater chains refused to book it, forcing Kane to premiere in smaller, independent theaters. The film was a commercial flop, and Orson Welles -the genius who made it- never recovered from the disaster. RKO never again gave him the artistic freedom he'd held in making Citizen Kane, and most of his later film projects were commercial failures.


To the few who saw Citizen Kane in its initial run, it was a masterpiece. To the rest of America, it was quickly forgotten. As Harlan Lebo writes in Citizen Kane: The Fiftieth Anniversary Album,

Through 1950, Citizen Kane played here and there, principally in the scattered revival theaters in larger cities that showed "oldies." But that was all. Citizen Kane disappeared in the United States almost entirely, and it didn't emerge again for more than five years.

In the United States, Citizen Kane finally reappeared in 1956 -on television. And there it developed a following. "It's time had finally come with the general audience," Lebo writes. "Several polls of film fans placed Citizen Kane at the top of the picks of screen favorites."

Citizen Kane's TV showings made it a hit with a new generation of film critics. Over the next several years, the film's stature continued to grow. In 1962 the British magazine Sight and Sound released a critic's poll of the best films of all time. Citizen Kane was #1.


In a world where no one can agree on anything, most serious critics seem to agree that Citizen Kane is the best film ever made. Why?

For one thing, "talkies" had only been around for 14 years when Kane made its debut, and in that time filmmaking had become predictable. Virtually all movies used the same stale camera angles, the same lighting, and the same types of sets. Citizen Kane broke all the rules. It introduced avant-garde storytelling and cinematography methods to Hollywood. And the film was crafted with Welles' incredible attention to detail, from the music to the lighting.


* Before Citizen Kane, most films were organized chronologically: they began at the beginning and ended at the end. Kane famously begins at the end, when a dying Charles Foster Kane whispers "Rosebud." From there, the film moves back to Kane's childhood, and tells the story of his life… from the perspectives of five different people. Welles explains: "They tell five different stories, each biased, so the truth about Kane, like the truth about any man, can only be calculated by the sum of everything that has been said about him."

* Welles also compressed most of Kane's life story into a fictional newsreel segment that was incredibly realistic for its time. Editor Robert Wise blended 127 different clips of  film into the newsreel: Some were clips of actual news footage, others were staged shots of Welles and other actors. Welles "aged" the news footage by dragging the negatives across a concrete floor, giving them authentic-looking scrapes.

* In another famous sequence, Welles illustrates the breakdown of Kane's first marriage with a montage of scenes of Kane and his wife at the breakfast table. The first shot shows the newlyweds madly in love with each other; over the next several scenes, they age gradually, denoting the passage of time, and become increasingly distant. In the last scene, they sit at opposite ends of a long table in stony silence. The sequence is less than three minutes long, but it took six weeks to put together.

(YouTube link)

* Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland spent weeks setting up Citizen Kane's scenes and planning camera angles. "This is unconventional in Hollywood," Toland wrote in Popular Photography in 1941, "where most cinematographers learn of their next assignment only a few days before the scheduled shooting starts."

* Toland used "deep-focus" camera techniques, including special film, lenses, and lighting developed especially for Citizen Kane, that made everything on screen appear in focus at the same time, an unheard-of practice in Hollywood. "The normal human eye sees everything before it clearly and sharply," Toland wrote. "But Hollywood cameras focus on the center of interest and allow the other components of the screen 'fuzz out'… The attainment of approximately human-eye focus was one of our fundamental aims …in some cases we were able to hold sharp focus over a depth of 200 feet."

Musical Score

It was no accident that the musical score fit the film like a glove: unlike other films, Citizen Kane and its music were created side by side. "I worked on the film, real by reel, as it was being shot and cut," composer Bernard Herrmann wrote in 1941. "Most musical scores are written after the film is entirely finished, and the composer must adapt his music to the scenes on the screen. In many scenes in Citizen Kane, an entirely different method was used, many of the sequences being tailored to the music."


Since the story takes place over 50 years, the actors age greatly throughout the film; Kane, for example, ages from 25 to 78. Makeup artist Maurice Seiderman invented many techniques to age the characters in the film. Rather than just cover Welles with latex wrinkles and gray hair, he made a complete body cast and used it to create custom-fitting body pads and facial appliances that show Kane aging gradually over 27 different stages of his life.

The level of detail is astonishing: Welles wore special milky bloodshot contact lenses to make his eyes look old, and 72 different facial appliances, including hairlines, cheeks, jowls, bags under his eyes, and 16 different chins. Some pieces even had artificial pores that matched those in Welles' own skin.


If you look for ceilings in most movie scenes, you won't find them. The powerful lamps needed to light a scene are usually hung above the set, where a ceiling would normally go. But scenes in Citizen Kane used a cloth canopy that simulated an actual ceiling. "The sets have ceilings," Toland wrote, "because we wanted reality, and we felt it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture. Furthermore, lighting effects in unceilinged rooms are generally not realistic because the illumination comes from unnatural angles." Since ceiling lights were not possible, most shots were lit using floor lights.


* Most of the actors in Citizen Kane, Welles included, had never been in a movie before. They had only appeared on stage and on radio as members of Welles' Mercury Theater company. They were not a part of the Hollywood culture and did not feel bound by the conventions of 1940s filmmaking.

* Citizen Kane had almost no close-up shots of the actors, which was extremely common at the time. But the Mercury actors were used to performing with an audience at a distance. Welles was afraid their exaggerated gestures and boisterous theatrical acting style -which was calculated to be seen and heard in the most distant seats of a large theater- would look artificial at close range. So he left the close-ups out.


"Fifty years later, Citizen Kane is as fresh, as provoking, as entertaining, as funny, as sad and as brilliant at it ever was. Many agree it is the greatest film of all time. Those who differ cannot seem to agree on their candidate." 

-Film critic Roger Ebert

(YouTube link)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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