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.
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.