Citizen Kane, Written in 1940 by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Uncredited contributions from Roger Q. Denny, John Houseman & Mollie Kent
Citizen Kane is routinely nominated for The Best Film Ever awards, and is a legitimate classic in the small (but impressive) canon of American Art House. As such, the words ‘pretentious’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘dull’ probably don’t get bandied around nearly enough… so let me put them up the front.
Charles Foster Kane dies alone in his impressive zoo/museum/castle/fortress. He whispers his last breath – ‘Rosebud’ – and a snow dome falls from his hand, smashing on the marble floor.
Unhappy with the newsreel made to commemorate the great man’s passing, a journalist is sent on a psychological tour of duty to interview friends, enemies and ex-wives of CFK. His mission is to discover what made the big man tick; what drove him to over achieve; what fulfilled him; what ruined him; and, most importantly, what the fuck is ‘Rosebud’.
PLOT: The Abstract
The plot has a deconstructed, circular narrative that drills down from the outside in. The film starts with the public (outside) facts, and then enter his inner circle and meets (and re-meets) family, friends and associates. Ultimately the plot delivers the Kantian (or is it Wittgensteinian) idea that we are limited in our knowledge by being human. Or as Thompson, the journalist says, ” I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life”
PLOT: The Long Form
A 10 min newsreel introduces us to the public life of Charles Foster Kane: Born to humble origins; CFK inherited a gold mine under unusual circumstances; was raised by guardians; received his fortune at 25; bought a newspapers; revolutionized tabloid journalism; married well; ran for the senate; failed due to scandal; married the scandal; built a gilded cage for his scandal; spent his fortune; divorced and died a lonely old man.
In a post-modern twist – this film flickers and falters. It’s been a ‘film within a film’ and only now can our ‘real’ (deconstructed) narrative begin – as faceless men debate the merits of the newsreel …
RAWLSTON Thompson, you've made us a good short, but it needs character --
SOMEBODY'S VOICE Motivation --
That's it -- motivation. --
What made Kane what he was?
for that matter, what was
he? -- What we've just seen
are the outlines of a career
-- what's behind the career?
the man? Was he good or bad? --
Strong or foolish?
or silly? Why did he do all
What was he after?
(then, appreciating his point)
Maybe he told us on his death bed.
THOMPSON Yes, and maybe he didn't.
SOMEBODY'S VOICE (hesitant) What were Kane's dying words?
THOMPSON (with disgust) Rosebud!
A little ripple of laughter at this, which is promptly silenced by Rawlston.
RAWLSTON That's right.
A VOICE Tough guy, huh? (derisively) Dies calling for Rosebud!
Here's a man who might have been President.
He's been loved and hated and talked about
as much as any man in our time -- but when
he comes to die, he's got something on his
mid called 'Rosebud'. What does that mean? *1
By page 27 there is a style note on the script:
(NOTE: Now begins the story proper -- the search by Thompson for the facts about Kane -- his researches.. his interviews with the people who knew Kane.)
The note goes on to say that Thompson himself is not a character… but the personification of the search for ‘truth’.
In this way the writers set up a very post modern narrative… bouncing around in time where necessary to tell a story from several different points of view:
1) Firstly from that of ‘Susan’ – CFK’s second wife – who is drunk in a bar, and refusing to talk to the media.
2) Then via the ‘memoir’ of CFK’s legal guardian the monolithically cold Mr Thatcher. Here we learn that the young CFK was playing on a sled the day his life changed forever and that his hard as nails mother and his sentimental father gave their windfall goldmine to their son, and the management of both to Thatcher until his 25 birthday.
We also learn that Kane used his money to buy a newspaper (The Enquirer) and drive down the value of every investment Thatcher made for him. Plainly – Kane hated Thatcher.
3) The next interview is with Kane’s good friend and managing director Bernstein. He jumps to the end of the story – about the break up of the three friends Bernstein, Leyland and Kane over the review of Kane’s second wife’s opera career.
He then jumps back in time to the beginning of The Enquirer – painting a portrait of a lively, hungry and arrogant young Kane taking on the world.
We see the ‘three musketeers’ build up the circulation of the newspaper and take over competition.
By Page 92, while other films are winding up their narrative – Kane write his ‘declaration of principles’ and good friend Leyland keeps them for the future.
He then goes on a world tour (which we don’t see) and returns to America 8 pages later with a bride – the niece of the President of the United State – Emily Monroe Norton, wife number 1.
Bernstein tells Thompson that Emily Kane was no ‘Rosebud’ and suggests he talk to Leyland if he wants more information.
4) The next point of view is that of hardened cynic, journalist and aging Charles Foster Kane BFF Leyland.
He observes that Kane’s moral and ethical values were skewed. He eventually picks up the narrative where Bernstein left it, telling Thompson that Kane married his first wife for love:
LELAND All he really wanted out of life was love. -- That's Charlie's story -- it's the story of how he lost it. You see, he just didn't have any to give. So how does that tie in to "Rosebud"?
Not so fast buddy – we’re only at page 125 – half way through the script at the tipping point – as Kane starts to undo any good he may have done…
…undermining The President in his newspapers, not even stopping after an assassination attempt
…running for political office,
…having an affair with a cheery singer,
…losing the political race when the affair is discovered,
…divorcing his wife over the matter,
…losing custody of his son (Junior),
…marrying the lover,
…imposing an Opera Career (yes, capital letters) onto her,
…and supporting Leland’s awful review of her debut – by completing and printing it,
…and finally breaking with Leland over the romantic ideals of love and to be loved,
5) Now the persistent Mr Thompson goes back to Susan – wife Number 2. This time she talks.
We go back to the beginning of her relationship to see how Susan and Charles met. It’s cute. We see him doing shadow puppets for her (it’s a duck!) We learn about her innocence (naivete, stupidity) and see that she is (kinda) adorable.
We also see how he foistered the opera career onto her, how she was humiliated by it. Tried to commit suicide – so they…
…retired to Xanadu – a lonely cold prison for her. She drinks for company. They fight about her drinking. She leaves.
6) We’re nearing the end now – as Thompson takes us to Xanadu (CFK’s stately pleasure dome!) and meet Raymond – the butler. He tells us that when Susan (wife number 2) left him – CFK trashed her room – and among the things that survive his tirade was a glass snow dome. We see Kane shake it – as a point of clarification in the film he whispers, “Rosebud”
Roberts also tells us about the death of Kane’s mother and family – confirming that he was, in the end, alone…
7) Now we are in present time, and the place is being dismantled and sold off or burned like a funeral pyre.
The reporters from the beginning gather again – no-one has discovered the meaning of “Rosebud”
THIRD NEWSPAPER MAN I wonder -- you put all this together -- the palaces and the paintings and the toys and everything -- what would it spell?
Thompson has turned around. He is facing the camera for the first time.
THOMPSON Charles Foster Kane.
Another flash bulb goes off. The photographer turns to Thompson with a grin.
PHOTOGRAPHER Or Rosebud? How about it Jerry?
Thompson's final summary of the man:
THOMPSON Well - it's become a very clear picture. He was the most honest man who ever lived, with a streak of crookedness a yard wide. He was a liberal and a reactionary; he was tolerant … but had no use for anybody who disagreed with him on any point, no matter how small…
…he was in short a contradiction and Thompson has not found the key.
They leave the workmen to their job – and the final image is of a sled being fed into the furnace with the word “Rosebud” blazoned onto it. We, the gentle reader, are left to draw the conclusion that the turning point of his life – the receipt of the fortune and the denial of love – the moment he was torn away from his parents and denied love – is at the core of the man known as Charles Foster Kane.*1: Rosebud: William Randolph Hearst was infuriated by this movie, which he viewed as being based on his life. According to Gore Vidal, who was quoting contemporary rumours, “Rosebud” was Hearst’s name for long time mistress Marion Davies’ clitoris. But Joseph Makiewicz (the brother of screenwriter Herman J.) told journalist Andrew Sarris that the name was taken from a bicycle the writer owned as a child. (Find me a boy’s bike called ‘Rosebud’ and I’ll believe the brother.)
The film is a classic for two reasons: the breaking of the three act structure and use of fractured narrative
And the art direction and cinematography which were both revolutionary. Particularly the use of theatrical devices such as forced perspective and painted backdrops.
It’s one of the first psychological thrillers – made around the same time as Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’ and ‘Rebecca’
Herman J. Mankiewicz was a tremendously influential screen writer – particularly in Hollywood in the 1930’s where he is credited with having spearheaded the “Broadway style of wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental entertainment” that we associate with the films of this period. His writing credits include working for the Marx Brothers, and his verbal style is evident in Citizen Kane
Thatcher What would you like to have been?
Charles Foster Kane Everything you hate.
Charles Foster Kane: I always gagged on the silver spoon.
Bernstein: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Switzerland... he was thrown out of a lot of colleges.
Charles Foster Kane: How did I find business conditions in Europe? With great difficulty.
Bernstein: Old age. It's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of.
Charles Foster Kane: "Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems. I'll provide the war."
Mankewicz also provides the odd prose poem of his own:
Bernstein A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t the germ of the idea for the whole film.
I am overwhelmed by the love others have for this film, particularly Roger Ebert for whom I have the utmost respect – but, honestly? If I were receiving this script today, I’d recognize the wit and complexity of the characters, but I’d probably reject it for being over-indulgent, over long and un-engaging. If it was being proposed by directors such as The Cohen Brothers, Aronofsky, or Paul Thomas Anderson – of course you’d pay attention, but based on the merits of the script alone? As proposed by the Writer’s Guild of America? No. I couldn’t.
COULD YOU FILM IT TODAY?
The Simpsons had a bloody good shot at it:
TOP 101 Scripts?
Not for me