51: Citizen Kane

Today, Citizen Kane is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. However, when the movie Citizen Kane was released, the man who’s life inspired the film was outraged. He tried his best to keep the movie from seeing the light of day. What would spark such outrage? Let’s compare history with Citizen Kane:

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Episode Transcript

In 1938, the entire world had a heightened sense of awareness. Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany just four years before and the world was beginning to see the Nazi Party’s vision for it.

Capitalizing on this fear, on October 30th, 1938, a young actor, writer and producer named Orson Welles released a radio broadcast that was so realistic it caused a panic. War of the Worlds told the story of how aliens were invading in an innovative way. Instead of telling it like a story, it told the story through a number of breaking news segments that were interjected into regular broadcasts.

Without any other means of news, people had no idea it was fake news.

Despite the chaos it caused, War of the Worlds cemented Orson Welles as a household name. No doubt eager to play off this success, many tried to lure Orson to Hollywood with no success. That is, until Orson’s next two projects, both theatrical plays, were massive flops and left him nearly bankrupt.

So, on August 21st, 1939, Orson signed a deal with RKO Pictures to write, direct, produce and act in two films.

Despite having been contractually given full creative control over the films, his first two ideas never materialized. One of them because it would’ve been over budget and the other simply stalled after Orson started on a third idea.

This idea came from another screenwriter named Herman J. Mankiewicz. It was Herman who suggested to Orson the idea of creating a film based on the life of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood at the time—William Randolph Hearst. Together, the men started working on the screenplay.

Except there was one issue: Herman hated William Randolph Hearst because he’d been outcast by the media mogul.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that when Citizen Kane was about to be released, William Randolph Hearst himself tried to keep the film from seeing the light of day. And he almost succeeded.

Threatening to sue RKO if they didn’t release the film, Orson won out when Citizen Kane was released exactly 76 years ago today, on May 1st, 1941.

The lead role of Charles Foster Kane may have been a fictional name, but that didn’t stop Hearst from trying to keep the movie from being released. So that begs the question—was anything we saw in the movie Citizen Kane true?

The true story behind Citizen Kane

The movie begins with a close up shot of a No Trespassing sign. As the camera pans around to a rather foreboding home. Well, it’s more than just a home. It’s a mansion. There’s a couple monkeys in a cage that says Bengal Tiger—no tiger in sight—but there is an overgrown golf course.

There’s an overall sense of neglect and abandon as the camera takes us to the lone light in an otherwise dark and dreary mansion. Inside, we see a man holding a snow globe. Uttering a single word, Rosebud, the snow globe falls to the floor.

That man is Charles Foster Kane, and in the film Kane is played by the film’s director, producer and co-writer, Orson Welles.

As viewers of the film, we don’t really know who Charles Kane is until the next scene. That’s when there’s a news reel that explains it’s 1941 and Kane was a newspaper tycoon.

The character of Charles Kane is a fictitious character, but he’s based on a very real person—William Randolph Hearst. Like Charles Kane in the film, William Randolph Hearst was a newspaper tycoon who not only was insanely wealthy, but he owned the news. Historians today credit Hearst with being the father of sensationalist journalism along with one of his competitors, Joseph Pulitzer. Or, by another name, yellow journalism.

Simply put, Hearst wasn’t above doing what it took to tell a story in his papers that would help sell his papers. That included shallow reporting techniques, fudging facts or, in some cases, completely making up stories.

So the character of Charles Kane we see throughout Citizen Kane is very obviously based on Hearst. Except in truth, Hearst didn’t pass away until 1951, ten years after the year depicted in the film. Of course, Citizen Kane was released in 1941 while Hearst was still alive, so it was pretty bold of Orson Welles to base the film on a real person who was still alive, and open the film with a statement that he was dying that very same year.

Back in the movie, during the news reel that explains who Charles Kane was, there’s a passing mention of Hitler. The voice over doesn’t say anything about Hitler, but we see a shot with Orson Welles’ version of Kane next to a character who is obviously trying to be the Nazi leader.

This, too, is based on reality. As a quick refresher, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in the year 1933. The following year, in 1934, Hearst traveled to Germany to meet with Hitler.

The outcome of this meeting was Hitler being contracted by Hearst to write articles for Hearst’s papers. As shocking as this may sound, it’s also worth pointing out that Hearst contracted other world leaders, like Mussolini and Churchill as well.

But Hearst liked the nationalism of Hitler’s Germany, and even went so far as to start using a phrase that might sound eerily familiar even today: “America First”. It was a slogan that President Woodrow Wilson started using after World War I, and Hearst took it to campaign his own nationalist ideas.

While many Jews in the U.S. understandably started to think Hearst was an anti-Semite because of his associations with Hitler, on November 9th, 1938, an event would happen that would change all of that.

Today we know of it as Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass, and it took place during the night sometime between November 9th and 10th. That’s when Nazis and German civilians alike smashed Jewish-owned stores throughout the city of Danzig. Sadly, over 90 Jews were murdered and somewhere around 30,000 more were hauled off to concentration camps—their fates sealed.

Many considered this to be the first of what would ultimately be many attacks by the Nazis on the Jewish people. As for Hearst, once he found out about this he made sure to immediately stop any Nazi ideas from publishing in his papers. Instead, he made sure to publish German atrocities on the front page whenever possible while many other papers in the U.S. kept those stories for back pages.

But that’s not all he did as he transitioned into an unlikely ally for Jews around the world. Hearst advocated for a homeland for persecuted Jews and, according to one source, published an article stating, “Remember, Americans, this is not a Jewish problem. It is a human problem.”

So it would seem that despite his nationalist views that might have been on par with some of the same views from Nazi leadership, that’s about as far as it went.

Back in the movie, it’s during the opening news reel when the reporters putting together the reel find out about Charles Kane’s last word: Rosebud. That’s when one of the reporters, a character named Jerry Thompson, is tasked with finding out what the word “Rosebud” means. The character of Jerry Thompson is played by William Alland in the movie.

It’s as Thompson is digging into Kane’s life when we see a flashback of a young Charles Kane with a man named Thatcher. The gist we get from the film here is that Kane was born into a poor family, but he went to live with Thatcher at a young age. Thatcher, who’s played by George Coulouris in the film, is a well-off man who offers a better education for Kane.

Oh, and we also hear a line from Kane’s mother, who’s played by Agnes Moorehead, where she implies that Kane’s father physically abused their young son by saying something to the effect of Thatcher will help young Charles be brought up in a place where his father can’t get at him.

Although some film critics throughout history have suggested the line from Mrs. Kane in the film simply means she’s overprotective of young Charles and that is has nothing to do with physical abuse. That might be more in line with the real William Randolph Hearst, who’s own mother was very protective of him.

While most of the details we’ve seen so far have been pretty loose to history, the idea that Hearst was shipped off by his parents is pretty much all made up.

The real William Randolph Hearst was never sent off to live with a wealthy man like Thatcher. Hearst’s father failed at striking it rich during the California Gold Rush, but would later make a fortune mining silver in Utah. He then used that money to invest in gold and silver mines, so by the time young William was born, the Hearst family were millionaires.

So you could say both Kane and Hearst grew up in wealthy homes, although for Hearst it was his biological family.

Probably the most accurate depiction in the film is that both the fictional Charles Kane and the real William Randolph Hearst were extremely close to their mothers. For Kane, as viewers we’re left to assume the reasons, but for Hearst it was because his mother sheltered him from the world as a child.

That included hardly ever seeing his father, who traveled frequently between his businesses and his role in the California State Senate.

In the movie, as a grown Charles Kane builds his media empire, he indulges himself in the finer things in life. One of those is the massive mansion we saw in the beginning of the film on top of a man-made mountain. The mansion, which is called Xanadu in the movie, is complete with a golf course, gardens, a zoo and plenty of priceless works of art.

All of this was based on Hearst’s real home. William started building what’s referred to as Hearst Castle in 1919 on a 250,000 acre plot of land that includes the slopes of a 3,500 foot tall peak called Pine Mountain. Like the fictional Xanadu, Hearst Castle was massive. It is massive—it’s still around today.

To give you an idea of scale, Hearst Castle has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, tennis courts, an air strip, a movie theater, almost 130 acres of gardens, multiple swimming pools booth indoor and out, and, just like the zoo we saw in the movie, during William Hearst’s time, Hearst Castle had the world’s largest private zoo.

In fact, as of this recording, if you go visit Hearst Castle, which is now maintained by the state of California, you’ll still be able to see zebras roaming the grounds today. Those zebras are descended from those Hearst himself had brought in for his zoo.

In the movie, there’s a scene where Charles Kane makes a big deal out of publishing his declaration of principles. These principles include delivering the news honestly to the people of New York City.

As best as I can tell, this was never something Hearst ever promised to do. In fact, as we learned earlier, Hearst was never one to shy away from sensationalizing the story. That’s something Kane did as well, but the difference here seems to be that Hearst never tried to hide his intentions. Those intentions being to control the news.

While this isn’t mentioned in Citizen Kane at all, one of the biggest challenges to Hearst was another newspaperman who had exactly those same intentions. I’m speaking, of course, about William Randolph Hearst’s bitter rival, Joseph Pulitzer. We learned a bit more about him in the Newsies episode. Both being in New York City, it was a bitter rivalry that saw both Hearst and Pulitzer creating more and more sensational, and often fictional, headlines and stories to try to take subscribers from the other.

Another character we meet in Citizen Kane is Charles Kane’s girlfriend and then wife, Emily Norton. In the movie the character of Emily is played by Ruth Warrick.

This relationship is short-lived, though. At least as far as the movie timeline is concerned. We get the sense of sometime passing as Charles and Emily Kane have a son. But before long, Charles ends up having an affair with a pretty young singer named Susan Alexander. She’s portrayed by Dorothy Comingore in the film.

All of these characters are fictional, but as we’ve seen many times before there is some basis in truth.

It was in 1903 when William Randolph Hearst married a young singer by the name of Millicent Wilson. As the movie shows, the young couple was happy at first. But they didn’t have just one son like we saw in the film. Instead, William and Millicent had a total of five sons.

That was until Marion Davies.

We don’t really know exactly when William met Marion, but many historians have assumed Marion was the basis for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. The facts seem to line up. Marion was an actress not a singer, but in the film Charles Kane builds an opera house for Susan. In reality, William Randolph Hearst started a movie studio to help Marion’s budding acting career in 1918.
In 1919, William and Marion moved in together while he was still married to Millicent. We don’t know what the final straw was, but maybe it was like what we saw dramatized in the film. It was at some point in the mid-1920s, Millicent was fed up with the open affair and left Hearst.

Despite these similarities, Orson Welles denied that the character of Susan Alexander was based on Marion Davies. Instead, Welles said in one interview that he had a great deal of respect for Marion Davies as an actress. According to Welles, he felt Hearst’s attempts at helping Marion ended up doing more harm than good—she was always overshadowed by Hearst’s fortune.

Was she really a good actress? Or was she just getting roles because Hearst was paying for it? Those are questions that have always circled her career, even to this day.

Back in the movie, there’s a moment where we see Orson Welles’ version of Charles Kane making a passionate speech. Behind him on the stage is a massive poster with his face and simply the word “Kane”.

This is how we find out Charles Kane is running for a political office, as governor of New York. According to the movie, he’s doing well until his political career, along with Kane’s hopes of landing the office of governor, is dashed to pieces when his affair with Susan Alexander is publicized.

The true story for William Randolph Hearst was actually quite similar to what we saw in the film for Charles Kane.

Except there’s more to the real story than what we saw in Citizen Kane. It was 1900, or about five years after Hearst’s mom loaned him the money to buy his first newspaper on the east coast, the New York Journal, when Hearst entered politics. If you recall, his father was a politician, too, so many historians assume that’s where he got the inspiration.

After years of campaigning, Hearst would end up winning two elections for successive terms as a Democrat in the House of Representatives in 1902 and 1904. Although, interestingly, Hearst’s progressive political leanings at this point in his life would shift a few decades later when he started petitioning for an ultra-conservative viewpoint in the 1930s.

Those were the only political victories he’d garner. This is where the movie likely drew its inspiration, as after leaving congress, Hearst then proceeded to lose elections for the office of mayor of New York City twice and, like the movie shows, one bid to try to become the governor of New York in 1906.

In the movie, time passes as Charles Kane and Susan, now Charles’ wife, are living in Xanadu, their massive home. Susan keeps complaining with nothing to do but sit there and do puzzles.

According to Hearst’s own family and descendants, this whole vibe given off by Xanadu in the film is far from truth. This comparison of the fictional Xanadu with the real Hearst Castle came out in 2012 when Citizen Kane was shown at the theater at Hearst Castle for the first time—70 years after it was released. It would seem after all that time, the Hearst family buried the hatchet with the movie.

During the media buzz that surrounded the screening, William Randolph Hearst’s great-grandson, Steve Hearst, explained in an interview that Hearst Castle was always lively. That’s a far cry from the dark, depressing and sad feeling Xanadu has toward the end of the film.

Oh, and the Hearst family also confirmed that despite his rigorous campaigns to keep Citizen Kane from being released, William Randolph Hearst himself refused to see the film.

At the end of the movie, Thompson, the reporter who began the investigation into Kane’s final word at the beginning of the film, is at Xanadu. We’re no longer in the flashbacks of Kane’s life. Kane has passed and there’s an unfathomable amount of art and statues being boxed up and sold.

There’s some truth to this comparison here, too, because like the fictional Charles Kane, the real William Randolph Hearst was an avid art collector. Hearst Castle was littered with priceless art treasures from around the world. Well, not littered, they were very meticulously placed no doubt, but they were spread around the entire property.

In fact, Hearst’s love of art was something he was publicly criticized for when many people thought perhaps his art was originally owned by Jews. In the 1930s and 40s, countless Jews had their belongings stolen by the Nazis. Much of that was art that was either destroyed, simply disappeared, or were sold to new owners somehow. We don’t know for sure where all of the proceeds for these sales went, but wars aren’t cheap, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some of that money made its way to help fund the Nazi war effort.

As we learned earlier, Hearst was vehemently opposed to the Nazi party after Kristallnacht. So while Hearst bought, and no doubt had others buy for him, a massive amount of art, he seemed to have gone out of his way to try to ensure any of the art he bought wasn’t stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis.

In the movie, there’s some other reporters at Xanadu with Thompson who inquire about Kane’s final word, Rosebud. What did it mean? Thompson says he could never find out for sure. Thompson surmises that Kane was a man who got everything he wanted in life, but lost it all in the end. Perhaps “Rosebud” was the one thing he wanted but couldn’t get.

This analysis is one that has led to the term “Rosebud” being used by countless people to refer to something they want but can’t have.

In the very last shot of the film, though, we see one of the artifacts being cast into a furnace is a sled. It’s the same sled we saw Kane holding as a child in the last scene with his parents, before he went to live with Thatcher. On the sled is a single word: Rosebud.

So what of the real Rosebud?

For as many theories about what Rosebud meant in Citizen Kane, there’ve been even more theories about what the real Rosebud might’ve been. Some simple theories, like there is no real Rosebud. It’s just a metaphor.

Some more risqué, like when Orson Welles himself would laugh and say Rosebud was Charles Kane’s nickname for his wife’s genitalia.

The truth, it would seem, is much less racy, and perhaps more in line with what we saw in the film.

Alongside Orson Welles, the other co-writer of Citizen Kane was Herman Mankiewicz. The most historically plausible theory comes from Richard Meryman, who wrote a biography about Herman named MANK: The Wit, World and Life of Herman Mankiewicz. In the book, Richard explains a story where Herman was given a bicycle for Christmas in 1907. At the time, Herman was ten years old and he loved the bike he affectionally named Rosebud.

One day, Herman rode Rosebud to the library so he could study for school. When he came back outside, the bike was gone. Devastated, he asked his parents if he could get another one. They refused, blaming him for being too careless when he left it unattended out front of the public library.

Sadly, Herman passed away way too early at only 55 years old on March 5th, 1953, just a couple years after William Randolph Hearst. This has left decades for professional and amateur film critics alike to contemplate and theorize on exactly what Rosebud meant.

In 2011, a man named Dallas Adams, who happens to own his own bicycle shop appropriately named Citizen Chain, conducted an interview with Herman’s son, Frank Mankiewicz. In the interview, Frank confirmed that Rosebud indeed was his father’s bicycle.

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