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The Battle over Citizen Kane

By all accounts, Orson Welles was a prodigy like no other. And this was despite a difficult childhood. Welles lost both of his parents while still a teenager, but his talent was soon recognized as a student, where he excelled in the theater. Ambitious, perhaps even beyond his own remarkable talent, he arrived in New York, barely out of adolescence, and became an overnight sensation by producing an all-black version of Macbeth at Harlem's Lafayette Theater (set in Haiti, the production was nicknamed the "Voodoo" Macbeth), which was funded with Depression-era WPA dollars. Before long Welles established his own company, the Mercury Theater, and while he became a popular radio performer (he was the voice of "The Shadow," amongst innumerable others), he produced a version of Julius Caesar with the famous columns of light that Albert Speer used to make Hitler's Nuremberg rally world-famous. As with his Macbeth, the play was not without controversy, but both his theater reputation and the Mercury's infamous radio production of H.G. Welles' The War of the Worlds (done in a news format, the broadcast set off a national panic) had Hollywood calling. RKO brought the 24-year-old Welles to California in 1940 with the best contract in town — full control over his films and approval of the final cuts. The contract was the envy of every director in the movie colony — even David O. Selznick didn't grant Alfred Hitchcock, recently arrived from England, such power. Welles originally wanted his first film to be an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, but before long he was drawn to a script by Herman Mankiewicz that was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful newspaper publisher in America. Hearst, then in his late '70s, ruled his empire with an iron fist, and he also had dabbled in politics (he tried unsuccessfully to run for president) and movies. But the newspaper business was his forte and first love — something he decided on as a young man when he took over a struggling San Francisco daily that his father, a wealthy mining magnate, owned but didn't give a second thought. Sensational stories drove circulation, and Hearst's desire to both create news and control public opinion made him one of the most feared men in the country. However, late in life Hearst became a recluse on his massive California ranch, San Simeon, where he lived with Hollywood starlet Marion Davies. It was at San Simeon where Mankiewicz met Hearst, and where he whiled away many weekends with Hollywood's celebrity class. And it was at San Simeon where Mankiewicz first came up with Citizen Kane. When Orson Welles decided it was to be his first RKO picture, two men of enormous means, and even more enormous egos, were set on a collision course in what has become one of the most fabled stories in Hollywood lore. The Battle over Citizen Kane, a 1996 documentary by Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon, chronicles the lives of Hearst and Welles, and their headlong rush to conflict, and while it does nothing innovative in the time-tested documentary format, it tells its two-hour story with great skill and economy, in the best tradition of PBS documentaries. In fact, while (at this writing) Citizen Kane has yet to appear on DVD in Region 1, The Battle over Citizen Kane offers the first glimpse of segments from the film on disc, including the famous opening sequence and whisper of "Rosebud," the photograph of Kane's journalists that comes to life via a near-flawless dissolve, and Kane's destruction of his wife's bedroom towards the end of the film. But it's still a far cry from the whole thing, and when Kane appears on disc in North America, The Battle over Citizen Kane will be as invaluable a companion as Hearts of Darkness is to Apocalypse Now. Epstein and Lennon unfold their story with a generous amount of background information, leading up to the script for the still-unfinished Kane finding its way into the Hearst empire, and Hearst's one-man (or one-newspaper-empire) war against Welles and RKO, as Hearst papers refused to accept RKO advertising and theaters around America were pressured into not exhibiting Kane (Welles, ever the vainglorious optimist, suggested RKO should show the film in tents, confident people would still pay to see it, but his young career had been permanently derailed). In addition to an enormous amount of archive sources, both still photos and filmed materials, interview subjects in The Battle over Citizen Kane include Kane editor Robert Wise, Welles's colleague and confidante Peter Bogdonavich, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., journalist Jimmy Breslin, and Welles himself, who in a remarkable interview late in his life admits "I would have been more successful if I'd have left movies immediately (after Citizen Kane). I have wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paint-box, which is a movie. And I've spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making movies. It's about 2% movie-making and 98% hustling. It's no way to spend a life." The DVD edition of The Battle over Citizen Kane, distributed by PBS-TV affiliate WGBH in Boston, has little in the way of features, which is often the case with documentaries on disc. An Orson Welles filmography is on board, as is a weblink to the official website. The film is also presented in the original PBS format, as part of "The American Experience" historical series, and an introduction is provided by historian David McCullough. Keep-case.
—JJB



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