“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a great man.” – Citizen Kane – Best Pictures of 1941 (#1)

Orson Welles both directed and starred in his classic "Citizen Kane

I’m sure choosing Citizen Kane as the best picture of 1941 is about as surprising as bananas in a banana cream pie. It’s impossible to discuss the best movies of 1941 and not at least consider Orson Welles’s groundbreaking classic – though I’m perplexed by anyone who doesn’t agree that it is the best film of the year and, probably, the decade. (I won’t get into whether it is the best film ever made.) Even today it is fresh and exciting, so we can only imagine what it must have been like to see this in 1941, a year when studios fed U.S. filmgoers a heavy diet of brainless slop like the Betty Grable musical vehicle Moon over Miami, the lifeless Deanna Durbin pic It Started with Eve (with Charles Laughton no less), and those god-awful Charlie Chan movies.

It’s something of a chore to come up with anything original to say about Citizen Kane. I think more ink has been used on this movie than any other, though Birth of a Nation may be a close second. And it’s easy to see why. Orson Welles was a young, unproved director and by all the rules of Hollywood really should have never been able to make this movie with the absolute control RKO gave him. But the product he turned in is superior on every level to most of what was coming out of Hollywood. The story is tight, the acting is superb, the photography is crisply creative, and the direction is nothing short of visionary. Welles proved that he would be a force for decades to come, though he might have been more productive if he hadn’t been so difficult to work with. Nevertheless, Citizen Kane still stands as his crowning achievement.

A taste of Gregg Toland's gorgeous black and white cinematography

It wasn’t always so, of course. Like so many films now considered classics, it pretty much bombed at the box office. Much of its failure in 1941 can be blamed on William Randolph Hearst – on whom the character of Charles Foster Kane is based – and his zealously loyal national newspaper employees who waged a furtive campaign against not just Citizen Kane, but RKO as well. They stopped publicizing their pictures or, maybe worse, only published negative reviews. The most vicious was Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons who it has been rumored strong armed other studio heads into shutting Citizen Kane out of their theaters by threatening to reveal the dirty little secrets of them and their starts. Brenda Blethyn played Parsons in RKO 281, the 1999 dramatization of Welles’s struggle to make and distribute the film. She has a deliciously frosty scene where she spreads out 8 by 10s showing the explosive evidence of what she could expose to the horrified heads of Hollywood. It’s unlikely Parsons ever actually articulated any threats, though the studios probably knew they oughtn’t to annoy the Rupert Murdoch of their age and locked the film out of their theaters on their own steam.

But Citizen Kane did make it in their theaters when RKO’s head George Schaefer threatened the other studios with lawsuits. Hollywood moguls were never ones to go too far out on a limb, so they reluctantly allowed their theaters to screen the film, but by the time it finally got to audiences the initial rave reviews were muddied by all sorts of aspersions that it got a reputation as being – gasp! –  artsy, a death sentence to the popular success of a picture. It wasn’t until it’s re-release in the late 1950s that audiences who had only heard vague rumors of Welles’s masterpiece (or squinted at shoddy bootlegged 16mm prints) were able to assess the movie’s value – and it went on to earn a reputation of greatness.

That reputation can often turn off casual filmgoers, but it shouldn’t. I’ve heard people who haven’t seen it worry that it will be boring, because aren’t all great movies highfaluting nonsense only accessible to educated –read snobby – people? Citizen Kane is far from boring. The “mystery” of Rosebud shakes out to be a silly gimmick, but Welles uses it to illuminate a life corrupted by power. We are immediately sucked into the mystery, gimmick or not, and we become entranced by the journey this character makes from innocent Colorado schoolboy to media mogul. There is nothing boring there. Or I’ve heard people worry that they won’t understand it, like trying to read James Joyce. Great movies shouldn’t be enigmatic or obscure and Citizen Kane is an accessible classic of the Hollywood era. Maybe it isn’t as crowd pleasing as the smash hit Gone with the Wind, but audiences don’t walk out of theaters scratching their heads like they just sat through David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I’ve also heard some complain about it being in black and white and, well, there isn’t much reasoning that can be done with people who are that dopey.

Citizen Kane is the best movie of 1941 and probably of the entire decade. Some call it the best picture ever made and, if I didn’t believe that to be a rather silly designation, I would at least concede that it is at least on the short list for the title. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest breaking down and giving it a try. You can knock out a classic and you will probably find it better than its reputation for greatness led you to believe it to be.

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18 Comments

Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Pictures

18 responses to ““If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a great man.” – Citizen Kane – Best Pictures of 1941 (#1)

  1. Indeed, this one is in the shortlist for the best movie ever made. No matter how cliché it would sound, but this movie is truly magnificent, and the recent takedowns for this film, calling it overrated or even (gosh) a bad movie? Is just out of the question, you could just point at them and say “wrong”, based on the flawless execution in every aspect of the filmmaking process. The acting, the cinematography, the sets, the little things that make it wonderful. Excellent article on it, and the perfect spot for it. I also learned a lot with this one, thanks, I didn’t know half of these things.
    Well done!

    • Thank you Jaime. Normally I don’t call people’s opinions about movies wrong. It is, after all, so subjective. But this is one case where I would have to agree with you. This movie is not bad or overrated — and I think I can assert that those are objective facts.

  2. Unquesionably one of the greatest American films of all-time, though many consider it the greatest film ever from any country as Sight & Sound’s decade pollings have confirmed. Noted for its chiaroscuro lensing by Greg Tolan, one of the great casts ever assembled (Welles, Cotten, Moorehead, Warrick, Sloane, Collins, Comingore, Coulouris) and an unforgettable score from Bernard Herrmann. The essence of the film lies in its tory, comparable to a great modern novel, and in its predominant expressionist style. Kane is discerned from every aspect, especially his egotism and loneliness. There are sequences which today stand among the most extraordinary in film history: The “Mrach of Time” newsreel, Kane’s childhood in a snowy family boardinghouse managed by his mother, Kane’s cmpaign meetings under his huge portrait, and the surreal sonorous emptiness of Xanadu.

    This is absolutely Welles’s masterpiece (I laugh whenever someone tries to stand apart and pick TOUCH OF EVIL, which doesn’t even rate with AMBERSONS nor CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) and far and away the best film of 1941.

    Fantastic essay, though I was expecting as much from you.

    • Jon

      Haha Sam I guess you have to laugh at me, cause I said just the exact thing about Touch of Evil! I usually preface my choice for that one with it’s my “Personal” favorite Welles. I would have a hard time arguing for it being better than Kane in the grand scheme of things, but it’s more of an emotive, personal response from me.

    • You are right to highlight the cast and Bernard Herrmann’s score, neither of which I talked much about. This is a near perfect movie so every element works and its easy to overlook one or two parts. The sequences you mention do indeed stand out and there are so many more: like the progression of breakfasts through the years between Kane and his wife, the opera lesson/performance sequence, and, one of my favorites, the projection room scene. I love the way it’s shot and its overlapping, vibrant dialogue.

      I guess you are going to laugh at me though because I love Touch of Evil. For me it is certainly one of Welles’s best. Obviously though not as good as Citizen Kane. As you will see in 1942 I am no fan of Ambersons though.

  3. Jon

    Jason, yes indeed this is the best film of 1941 and one of the essential and greatest of all films. You write an informative review, including some aspects about the distribution I did not know about. Welles created an innovative film in many ways and it is still technically astounding today. It’s not even my personal favorite Welles film though. Touch of Evil draws me in even more with it’s emotional power and is my own favorite, and I know Chimes at Midnight has a great following as well. That being said, there’s nothing like Citizen Kane and is his most complete and intact masterpiece.

    Here’s my top 5 from 1941:

    5. Sergeant York (Hawks)
    4. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
    3. Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges)
    2. The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
    1. Citizen Kane (Welles)

    By the way what do you think of Sergeant York and The Lady Eve? I was a bit surprised you didn’t include the latter considering your penchant for comedies.

    • If you are interested in anything I wrote about I would pick up something about it. There is a lot more I didn’t include, like Louis B. Mayer’s offer to buy the film for something like $800,000 so he could destroy all the prints and negatives. Pauline Kael wrote a great series for the New Yorker about this back in the 1970s.

      I like both Sergeant York and The Lady Eve, but not quite enough to make my top ten. There is much of York that is quite good, especially some of the early scenes. Later it just gets a little too jingoistic for my taste and is a clear argument against what they would have considered goofy conscientious objectors. I say let them object. There were plenty of men itching to fight after Pearl Harbor. But it is a good film otherwise.

      I have little patience for movies that want me to believe that its characters are dumber than the actors playing them so Eve gets a little shaky for me when Henry Fonda falls for that silly twin sister story in the back half of the film.

      And I share your enthusiasm for Touch of Evil, though I still think Kane is his best.

      • Jon

        Hmm yeah The Lady Eve does take some liberties, however Preston Sturges usually was not into realism outside of Sullivan’s Travels. I think it’s funny stuff, but that’s just me I guess.

        • I don’t demand realism, but I can’t stand comedic situations manipulated just because it would be funny. I could buy Ginger Rogers passing as a 12-year-old in The Major and the Minor frankly because Ray Milland never seemed all that bright to me. And I could buy Claudette Colbert pretending to be a Baroness in Midnight because John Barrymore was paying her to play the part. Neither case is realistic, but the situations were grounded in reality, making them, for me, all the more funny.

  4. It’s a long time since I’ve seen ‘Citizen Kane, but i do remember how great it is – to me the ‘Rosebud’ revelation worked well, since in the end anything would have been an anti-climax anyway, and it works as a search for the past. Anyway, another great essay which has me wanting to revisit this masterpiece soon.

    I do mainly agree with you about both ‘Sergeant York’ and ‘The Lady Eve’ – I love the whole early part of ‘York’ with Gary Cooper as a brooding local drunk riding through the hills, but feel it gets rather heavy on the propaganda later on, although I suppose that is not surprising given the date that it was made. In ‘The Lady Eve’ the whole twin storyline just had me glazing over because it made Fonda so stupid, and I wondered if I’d lost my sense of humour.

    Other films from 1941 that I like include Litvak’s ‘Out of the Fog’, Carol Reed’s ‘Kipps’ and Raoul Walsh’s ‘The Strawberry Blonde’ (yeah, I know, Cagney again.)

    • You’re right about the Rosebud revelation. There was no way it could have lived up to the hype. I called it a gimmick, but I should clarify, I think it is an effective gimmick. Maybe device would have been the more appropriate word to use.

      And no you didn’t lose your sense of humor. The twin business was just not funny. (But this is coming from someone who dislikes Top Hat because the mistaken identity bit is terribly overdrawn. I never could believe Ginger Rogers could be that dumb.

      I also liked Kipps. Michael Redgrave gives a nice performance in it. The Strawberry Blonde is also good, but I really liked Olivia de Havilland in it. She has a great scene early in the picture that made me laugh out loud. She is trying to convince Cagney how broad minded she is. The looks on her face as she tries to smoke and advocate for free love are priceless.

      • As well as the twin business in ‘The Lady Eve’, I also don’t find Fonda falling over particularly funny… but as it happens I’m currently watching loads of Astaire and Rogers and must say ‘Top Hat’ is probably my favourite at the moment, so don’t agree with you on that one. I know the plot is ridiculous on the face of it, but the dances are the film’s real plot in my book.

        Totally agree with you on de Havilland in ‘The Strawberry Blonde’, she’s great in it – and I also like Alan Hale as Cagney’s dad.

  5. jeffrey

    my top ten of 1941

    Maltese falcon
    Citizen Kane
    Sullivan’s Travels
    Lady Eve
    Meet john doe
    All that money can buy
    Suspicion
    I wake up screaming
    Hold back the dawn
    Strawberry blonde

    • Good list. I’m especially happy to see All That Money Can Buy, which just missed my own list. It’s a wonderfully quirky movie that is sadly not remembered all that well today. I’m a huge fan of Walter Huston and he makes a great devil. He just loves being evil.

  6. I’ve never heard of this Citizen Kane before! What’s all the hubbub?

    I’ll always argue there isn’t much substance to the story (it is all rather clichéd and I didn’t care about any of the characters – though admittedly that isn’t a prerequisite for a great film) but the STYLE in which the story was told and the revolutionary cinematic techniques (many of which have now become overused and clichéd) are all worthy of the praise this film gets.

    And damn, the cinematography in this – tres magnifique!

    Citizen Kane was decidedly modern – a film of style over substance…a film whose substance was its style and a perfect example of how with some great films it’s not the story that ultimately matters, but how the story is told.

    And I would say, when it comes to Welle’s canon, I “enjoyed” Touch of Evil a bit more.

    http://theschleicherspin.com/2008/05/12/a-review-of-orson-welles-citizen-kane/

    • Oh David I absolutely disagree with you that Citizen Kane is style over substance. I find the story completely compelling and think it is a sharp comment on how power corrupts, no matter how well intentioned. It’s also a probing examination of the trajectory of U.S. history in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Yes, the story matters quite a bit. There is an absolute boatload of substance here!

      • Jason – what’s that you say? Power corrupts? What a shockingly original insight! Seriously, I jest, I know many a great tale have been built and will continue to be built on that powerful theme – and I do think there is plenty of substance in the style, and I would argue the real story is the substance in that style and not the story itself – but you say To-may-toe and I say Ta-mat-oh.

        • OK, yeah. I’m not sure I get the distinction, but as long as you recognize its greatness I won’t push the point. Oh, and how do you know how I pronounce tomato? 🙂

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