Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) dies, alone in Xanadu, his enormous mansion. His last word is the mysterious “Rosebud.” A newsreel gives us the highlights of his life, the wealthy young man who became an influential newspaper magnate and political candidate, who married first the niece of the President and then, after a scandal that led to the end of his political career, a singer. As the lights come up in a screening room, an editor says, “It’s not enough to tell us what a man did. You have to tell us who he was.” One of the reporters, Jerry Thompson, goes off to find out who Kane really was.
He meets with five different figures who were important in Kane’s life to try to understand the small mystery of Kane’s last word and the larger mystery of the man who was capable of both integrity and corruption, and who seemed to have no sense of peace or happiness.
Thompson begins by reading the journals of millionaire Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), now dead, the trustee who oversaw Kane’s early years. He explains that Kane’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) was a landlady who became wealthy when a prospector who had not paid his bill left her the deed to his mine. The mine turned out to be one of the world’s richest sources of silver. Mrs. Kane believed that her son would do better if Thatcher, a bank executive, took charge of his education and upbringing. She wanted him far away from his bully of a father.
Kane was a rebellious charge, and as soon as he reached his majority, he bought a failing newspaper, which he used to criticize Thatcher and the rest of the financial elite.
Next, Thompson speaks to Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), who worked with Kane at the newspaper. He talks of Kane’s high ideals, and his devotion to the individual struggling against the powerful. He also speaks of Kane’s first marriage and its disintegration (shown in a stunning series of scenes set at breakfasts over the years).
He then talks to Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), once Kane’s best friend and the drama critic for Kane’s newspaper, who tells him of Kane’s second marriage, to Susan Alexander (Dorothy Commingore), a nightclub singer. Kane was determined to make her a success as an opera singer. When Leland wrote a bad review of her performance, Kane finished writing it for him, printed it, and then fired him.
Thompson visits Susan Alexander, now an alcoholic. She tells him about the isolation of her life with Kane, and her decision to leave him. Neither she nor the butler at Xanadu is able to tell Thompson anything about “Rosebud.”
The viewer, however, is permitted to solve the smaller mystery of Rosebud, but the answer only proves that there are never any simple answers to the complexity of the human spirit.
Kids who watch this movie can never know how revolutionary it was. Every one of its dozens of innovations, from the flashback structure to the use of sets with ceilings for additional authenticity, has become all but standard. No problem–there is time enough for them to study these aspects of the film’s brilliance if they decide to learn more about film history and criticism. For their first viewing of this brilliant work, (and for purposes of a family discussion) just let them focus on the story, the dialogue, and the characters, which remain as compelling and contemporary as they were more than 50 years ago.
Like Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men,” Kane begins as a populist and dies corrupt and alone, and we cannot help but hope for some explanation of how that happened, as Thompson does. Importantly, both Kane and Stark were based on real-life figures. Kane, of course, was based on William Randolph Hearst, the almost-impossibly wealthy heir to the largest gold and silver mine owner in America, who became a powerful publishing magnate. Kane might also have been based on Welles, only 25 years old when he co-wrote, directed and starred in this film, who then spent the rest of his life coming up with one excuse or another for why he never came close to that level of achievement again.
As we see in flashback, Kane was taken from his parents when he was six, and raised by the bank, or by Thatcher, who was close to the same thing. This created an emotional neediness and a deeply conflicted view of money and power that is one factor in his downfall. As soon as he had control over his money, Kane bought the newspaper, perhaps for the same reason Welles went to to work for a Hollywood studio; he said it was “the greatest electric train set any boy ever had.” A rebel by nature (as we see when he hits Thatcher with his sled, and in his glee in getting the staff to remake the paper over and over), he enjoys what H.L. Menchen referred to as the purpose of a newspaper: “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Afflicting the comfortable is great fun for him, especially comfortable people like Thatcher and his colleagues and his wife’s uncle, the President of the United States.
Like Stark, though, Kane’s taste of power makes him feel that the rules do not apply to him. He begins to feel that the ends justify the means. He does not just want to sway the electorate in favor of the candidate of his choice; he wants to be that candidate. As we see in a striking scene, with Kane in front of the enormous poster of his face, he loves the adulation of the crowd.
But as we also see, he is drawn to Susan Alexander (whom he meets as he is on his way to sit among his late mother’s effects) because she responds to the private Kane, the one who can wiggle his ears and make hand shadows. When he finds that he cannot have both Susan and public acclaim, he makes the critically wrong choice to try to make her into a publicly acceptable figure, an opera star. Leland writes an honest review (after getting drunk for courage). Kane’s last shred of integrity requires him to print the review, but he cannot bear to face Leland again.
Indeed, he cannot bear to face anyone. He retreats to Kanadu, where Susan Alexander spends her night working on jigsaw puzzles. She cannot bear it any more either and finally leaves him; he hardly notices, except to become even more isolated. That private self which she responded to, and which once mattered so much to him, has become as completely inaccessible as the little house inside the snow globe that crashes to the floor when he dies.
Families who see this movie should talk about what they think of Kane’s pledge on the first page of the newspaper. How do the scenes at the breakfast table tell you what is going on in Kane’s first marriage? Why do you think he said “Rosebud?” Who if anyone in the movie is satisfired with his or her life? How can you tell? Why does Kane change?
Fans of Phoebe Tyler on television’s “All My Children” will enjoy seeing a young Ruth Warrick as Kane’s first wife.
It is hard to say who is the more interesting real-life character, William Randolph Hearst or Orson Welles. There are many biographies of both, and they are fascinating reading for families to enjoy. The biographies of Hearst detail his reaction to this movie. His efforts to use his newspapers to discourage people to see the movie were just what Kane himself might have done. Everyone should make an effort to see San Simeon, the model of Xanadu, now open to the public in California.
There are also volumes of material about this movie, probably the most honored ever to be produced in Hollywood, and always at or near the top of critics’ surveys on the best film ever made.