Producers found a 'horrible roundness'
in a clash of major 1940s personalities
Heavyweight match: Welles takes on Hearst
Originally published in Current, Jan. 15, 1996
By Deborah Uebe
''The Battle Over Citizen Kane,'' the Jan. 29 offering of The American Experience, is the latest sign of a resurgence of interest in the late Orson Welles, Kane's creator. Recent film festivals have featured Orson Welles: One Man Band, Oja Koda's exploration of the filmmaker's career. Audiences are still awaiting Don Quixote, Welles's final dream project. Although it remains incomplete, the film is currently being restructured for release and may have a limited run within the year.
"There's been a confluence of events,'' says "Battle'' producer Thomas Lennon, noting that his documentary is unique because it focuses on Welles's early career. Moreover, the documentary examines an aspect of that career that has never before received significant attention: newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's successful effort to suppress Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled and brutal portrait of his life. Pieces of the Hearst-Welles conflict had come to light over the years, Lennon says, "but there was no single place where the story [had] been put together in [print] or film.''
Lennon and co-producer Michael Epstein themselves only stumbled upon the story while researching the life of Hearst for a prospective biography. The work was an outgrowth of the duo's earlier Frontline documentary, "Tabloid Truth,'' which used the Michael Jackson sex scandal to explore the tabloidization of network TV news. After they completed the Frontline program, it was a natural progression to look into the yellow journalism of the early 20th Century. "It's hard not to see some of those echoes in Hearst and Pulitzer.''
The producers' interest in Welles and Citizen Kane was piqued when they discovered just how completely Hearst had managed to thwart the film. The film that has been hailed in recent decades as an American movie masterpiece literally garnered boos at the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony and received an Oscar in only one of the nine categories in which it was nominated.
The conflict more than 50 years ago was so fascinating to Lennon and Epstein that when they met with American Experience Executive Producer Judy Crichton to discuss their proposed Hearst biography, they spent much of the time speculating about the fight between Hearst and Welles. Concerned that Hearst's life story was too big to condense into a two-hour program, Crichton suggested concentrating on the Kane episode.
Crichton's suggestion was both thrilling and intimidating, recalls Lennon. "We didn't know a whole heck of a lot about [the Kane conflict] at that point.'' Information about the incident was difficult to find because the story had received only cursory treatment in previous works on Welles and Hearst--and much of that was rumor mixed with legend. Welles himself was not a reliable source, and was given to perpetuating his own fable.
The producers nevertheless managed to discover tactics Hearst employed to quash the film. Fearful of losing the invaluable publicity afforded by Hearst's great newspaper empire, Hollywood executives led by Louis B. Mayer rallied around the 76-year-old publisher and tried unsuccessfully to buy the film so they could burn the negative. Hearst supporters intimidated exhibitors into refusing to show the movie, privately blackmailing Hollywood insiders while Hearst's newspapers conducted a very public smear campaign against Welles.
By far the most pernicious claims were that Welles was a Communist, Lennon believes. The allegations added a deeper dimension to Hearst's vendetta, as he and Epstein discovered when they obtained FBI files on Welles from historian James Naremore. "The real turning point was when we got FBI files [on Welles]. They reveal that Welles's [later] problems with the authorities began with Citizen Kane,'' Lennon says. Welles's own strong political expressions helped confirm the smear campaign.
More important than political ideology, however, were personality traits, and the documentary explores these in great detail. Lennon and fellow scriptwriter Richard Ben Cramer characterize Welles as "a brilliant, brash 24-year-old,'' whose proud and ruthless genius was comparable to Hearst's.
Like Oliver Stone with his Nixon, Welles brilliantly used the controversy about his film as a promotional tool "to sustain his artistic ambition, i.e., get people mad about it, get people riled up, get 'em into the tent,'' Lennon said at the press tour last week.
Lennon believes that Welles instinctively welcomed the fight with Hearst because so much of his success before Kane had depended on tweaking authority and pushing boundaries. Welles used an all-black cast for his production of Macbeth and set the story in Haiti. His Julius Caesar became a modern drama about fascism. His legendary radio reading of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds caused so much terror and uproar that Welles himself felt his career was over. Instead, he made the cover of Time magazine and received a Hollywood contract giving him complete artistic freedom to create two films--an unprecedented degree of license in that era.
"Welles was both envied and loathed in Hollywood,'' Lennon says. Difficult to work with and inclined to display his temper, Welles could generate tension among his colleagues. Kane screenwriter and Hollywood veteran Herman Mankiewicz, for example, came to feel that Welles was taking the credit for his accomplishment.
The documentary reveals that Citizen Kane was Mankiewicz's idea and that he felt a close attachment to the Hearst story. "My father ... was probably writing a book or a movie about Hearst for maybe 20 years, in his head,'' Frank Mankiewicz told the filmmakers. It was the resentful screenwriter who ensured that Hearst got a copy of the screenplay before the film's release.
Nowhere are the parallels between the lives of Kane and Hearst more apparent than in the film's character Susan Alexander, a caricature of Hearst's longtime lover, the actress Marion Davies. The infatuated publisher lived with her at his mansion and featured her on the front page of his papers, earning derisive snickers from a public he once had held in the palm of his hand. Scandal aside, Davies was not the shrill, untalented alcoholic that Welles pictured in Kane. Many had remarked on her natural comic ability, and she proved loyal to Hearst until his death; when he fell on financial hard times, she sold many of the gifts he had given her so that he could pay his taxes. Lennon believes the harsh portrayal of Davies helps explain the bitterness of Hearst's attack on Kane and Welles.
Welles ultimately won. As Richard Ben Cramer observed last week during Los Angeles press tour interviews with TV critics, the story of Hearst and Welles has "a kind of horrible roundness, because although Hearst literally crushed Welles and his career, and did the man tremendous damage, in the end Hearst could never get past what Welles had done to him. Welles hijacked the man's story and replaced it with his own.''
The once-invincible publisher's achievements are so little-known today that Lennon had to spend much of "Battle'' in flashbacks to Hearst's real life, explaining Hearst and his immense influence on American history. "It's easy to lose touch with his greatness, much of which has been obliterated by Citizen Kane,'' Lennon says. "When Hearst's son [passed away], the headline read 'Son of Citizen Kane Dies.' ''
Lennon refuses to see such events as evidence that Welles won the battle over Kane, however. The ordeal turned Welles into a Hollywood outsider, who spent the remainder of his life taking bit parts and soliciting money to make movies. Citizen Kane was painful for both men, says Lennon. "That film weighs on both men even in their graves.''
The old film became one of the three characters in the documentary, along with Hearst and Welles. "Battle'' took two long and difficult years to complete. Editor Ken Eluto's work was key to balancing the intertwined stories of the three characters.
The approach also posed a challenge in that it forced Epstein and Lennon, two confirmed social historians, to work with the medium of art film. Their unfamiliarity with art film, however, may prove the documentary's greatest asset in offering audiences new insights into the much-studied movie.
"Kane's been embalmed as a great piece of theatrical art, and rightly so, but [we tend to] lose touch with the film as an act of social and political effrontery ... This [film] was a great Bronx cheer at Hollywood and American tycoonism,'' Lennon says.
For Lennon, however, the story of Citizen Kane is more compelling for the personal tragedy it presents. Lennon believes that Welles's artistic vision made it inevitable that he would fail in Hollywood.
"That's part of the poignancy. It's almost like the story of Icarus,'' Lennon muses. "Welles flew higher than any other filmmaker of his day.''
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