Thursday, March 7, 2013

Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, and the film that brought them down.

"If I hadn't been rich, I might have been a really great man,"muses Charles Foster Kane at one point during Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. Though Welles kept the set of his film tight with a small crew in order to prevent any leaks to the press about the inspiration for the film Citizen Kane, it eventually was revealed during a 1941 limited screening of the film that the movie was based on the life of none other than William Randolph Hearst. Welles channelled all the greed, arrogance, and ambition he saw in Hearst into the central figure Charles Foster Kane. Kane initially appears as a megalomaniac, extremely wealthy due to his strategic take over of the newspaper industry, yet as Kane longs for something more, his life begins to crumble. Charles Foster Kane spends much of his later life alone in a magnificent mansion  he has a torrid affair with a woman, and is humiliatingly defeated during a run for political office, all reminiscent of events that occurred in Hearst's life.  Most egregious of all, Welles had the audacity to portray Kane's death as a pitiful of one, with the old fat man dying alone in his home, filled with regret for the childhood he lost, and without any friends left who still care for him. Hearst would not let this aggression stand, and he launched a campaign to degrade both Citizen Kane and Orson Welles, and he half succeeded. While Welles used the medium of film, Hearst used the medium of the newspaper, and together they pulled both of their names through the mud.

Hearst, already 78 years old at the time of the film's release, went on a widespread tear, blocking any mention of Citizen Kane from the nearly 20 newspapers he owned. Hearst also made sure that the movie theaters he owned did not play the film.  Although mention of the film was prohibited, Hearst's papers went out of there way to attack those connected to Citizen Kane, particularly Welles. Hearst's papers began to write an expose on Welles, questioning his love life, as well as indicating he may be a draft dodger. Hearst took it a step further than just going after the Citizen Kane film, he called Welles' play 'Native Son,' "Propaganda closer to Moscow then to Harlem." This attack was so powerful that in the following week, an FBI investigation was launched to probe Welles' background. Two weeks later, papers by Hearst openly called Welles' play "communistic." The accusations were so intense they led to Welles being labeled a communist by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Hearst's media blackout on Citizen Kane took it's toll on the success of the film, as the movie made significantly less than expected at the box office. Kane also failed at the 1941 Academy Awards, where it lost 8 of the 9 awards it was nominated for, which put RKO studios, who produced the film, out of business. Hearst and Welles pulled each other down from the good graces of the public. Welles had publicly called out Hearst with Citizen Kane, and in Hearst's attempt to sabotage the film upon release he forever entwined himself with it. Welles however, did not take the brunt of Hearst's assault smoothly, and within 5 years he found himself unable to find a job as a director, since Hollywood had virtually blacklisted him due to the perceived failure of his film and degradation of his character.                                                                                  

Citizen Kane scene featuring Welles as Charles Foster Kane.    

While it is somewhat ironic that Hearst spent so much of his time on trying to erase a film from the human conscience, only to be remembered for his connection to it, it is Welles' demise that truly ends on a note of dramatic irony. Orson Welles created his greatest character, Charles Foster Kane out of bits of himself, as well as William Randolph Hearst, and while Kane's early life is a mirror to Hearst's, his end years mirror those of Welles. It was Welles who experienced a meteoric rise to fame, only to died a fat old man, spending his last years penniless and alone. In the end, it is the film Citizen Kane that remains, long after those who fought for and against it have died, and it is a film many consider the greatest ever made.

Orson Welles interview on Hearst's attempt to besmirch Kane.


Welles, Orson. "Orson Welles Interview."Monitor Now. BBC Four. 1, London: 19 Feb. 1960. Television.

The battle over Citizen Kane. Dir. David G. McCullough. Perf. Orson Welles. WGBH Boston Video, 1996. Film.

Welles, Orson. "Orson Welles." Parkinson. BBC One. London: 17 Nov. 1973. Television.

Allen, Nick. "Citizen Kane 'feud' between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst thaws after 70 years - Telegraph." - Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph - Telegraph. The Telegraph, 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. <>.

Higham, Charles. The films of Orson Welles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Print.

The battle over Citizen Kane. Dir. David G. McCullough. Perf. Orson Welles. WGBH Boston Video, 1996. Film.

Kael, Pauline . "Raising Kane." Welcome to Paul Rossen's Homepage. The New Yorker, 20 Feb. 1971. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <