Variety (April 16, 1941)
FILM REVIEW: 'CITIZEN KANE’
By John C. Flinn Sr.
Orson Welles, who nearly scared the country half to death with his memorable broadcast of a blitz by invaders from Mars, has uncovered for press review his initial production, of which he is co-author, star, director and producer, following an advance publicity barrage that has made it the most widely exploited entertainment of the season. When its plan for exhibition finally is set by RKO, probably as a roadshow attraction in key spots, it is certain to draw heavily at the box office. Welles has found the screen as effective for his unique showmanship as radio and the theatre.
Citizen Kane is a film possessing the sure dollar mark, which distinguishes every daring entertainment venture that is created by a workman who is a master of the technique and mechanics of his medium. It is a two-hour show, filled to the last minute with brilliant incident unreeled in method and effects that sparkle with originality and invention. Within the trade, Kane will stimulate keener creative efforts by Hollywood’s top directors.
Although the public generally will find it wholly satisfactory as living up to its unusual advance ballyhoo, the film is a job of picture producing that will make indelible impress on contemporary production. It might have been of conventional design and still qualify as a big grosser. It happens to be a first-class film of potent importance to the art of motion pictures.
Audiences, of course, will seek in the film’s story of a multi-millionaire newspaper publisher, political aspirant and wielder of public opinion such incidents that may be interpreted as uncomplimentary to William Randolph Hearst, since the protests against the film release, which have been kept alive for the past three months, were made by executives and employees in his organization. There is, in part, a parallel of the exciting, early years of the Hearst career and the adventures of Welles’ hero, Kane. But any observer of the film who possesses some slight knowledge of the private life and business activities of the publisher can scarcely interpret the screen character as a deliberate, unkindly handling of the Sage of San Simeon. It cannot be denied that Hearst has played an important role in the American scene for the past half-century, which is the period of the film’s story. And it is accepted generally (or, perhaps, soon will be) that the era which produced such colorful figures as Hearst and a score of other hardy and audacious individualists in American life, is swiftly passing into history. The central character of the film is a composite, rather than either portrait or caricature.
One cannot help but wonder what all the shooting was about.
Swift moving world events since before the turn of the century until the present furnish the background for Citizen Kane. Story is credited jointly to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles. Its unfolding is unusual and original to films, inasmuch as it is related through the experiences of five separate characters, other than the main figure. It is a narrative technique not infrequently employed by novelists. Wilkie Collins told the story of The Moonstone after this fashion.
Thus the early, rebellious, youthful years of the powerful Kane are described by the family attorney, who neither understood nor had any deep affection for the young man. The thread is picked up by Kane’s faithful business manager, then by his second wife, by his only earnest friend and finally by his butler. Each account spans an extended period of time, providing a different point of view and varying estimate of character. Pieced together, like a jigsaw puzzle, the parts and incidents omitted by earlier narrators are supplied by others.
When completed, the authors’ conception of Kane is a man who had every material advantage in life, but who lacked a feeling of human sympathy and tolerance. It is a story of spiritual failure. While the case is well-drawn and relentlessly expounded, the over-emphasis of harshness and selfishness militates against complete audience enjoyment. So intent is the effort to prove Kane a frustrate that no allowance is made to picture him as a human being. On this account he is not wholly real. Neither he nor his associates is blessed with the slightest sense of humor. There aren’t half a dozen snickers in the film.
Welles portrays the chief character with surprising success, considering that the picture marks his debut as a film actor. His associates are selected from his Mercury Theatre’s actors, few of whom have had previous screen experience. It would seem that their marquee obscurity might react unfavorably among prospective customers. The contrary is more likely, because whatever else Citizen Kane may be, it is a refreshing cinematic novelty, and the general excellence of its acting is not the least of its assets. Outstanding performances are given by Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart and Fortunio Bonanova.
Technically the film benefits by Gregg Toland’s fine photography and Vernon L. Walker’s special effects, which include new uses of montage. Musical score by Bernard Herrmann is dramatic. The professional polish which brightens the production indicates that the RKO studio is capable of the highest standard of output.
Citizen Kane is a triumph for Orson Welles, who overnight, so to speak, joins the top ranks of box office film personalities.