Less than two weeks after the principal photography on Citizen Kane wrapped up and just days after a rough cut of the film was screened for a very select group of movie columnists, The New York Times’ Hollywood reporter Douglas Churchill focused his regular column on the storm that was already brewing over Orson Welles’s first picture. In his January 19, 1941 piece, titled “Orson Welles Scares Hollywood,” Churchill suggests that the “controversy over the possible suppression of ‘Citizen Kane,’ Orson Welles’ first film venture, is developing into one of the most serious disputes in Hollywood’s turbulent history. From evidence, factual and circumstantial, the town is threatened with embarrassing publicity unless the picture is withdrawn by RKO … ”  The film was in jeopardy and so was the filmmaker’s future after William Randolph Hearst took umbrage at the similarities between the “fictional” Charles Foster Kane and himself, and his supporters rolled out their campaign against Citizen Kane—which included a blackout on coverage of RKO pictures in all Hearst-owned newspapers and magazines, repeated attempts to blackmail Hollywood studio heads, redbait Welles, and buyout (and destroy) the original print. As Harlan Lebo remarks in his meticulously researched study, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey, the “principal casualty” of Hearst’s campaign “was Welles’ [sic] long-term prospects as a producer and director in Hollywood.” This “conspiracy to destroy Citizen Kane [also] damaged the film’s popularity and financial success during its initial release,” and repeated delays pushed the film’s premiere back by nearly three months. With ill-timed publicity, lost momentum, and lingering threats to exhibitors, the film did not see the wide release it should have, and quietly disappeared from American theaters for the next decade. In the face of Citizen Kane’s worldwide acclaim, it is difficult to imagine that the film could have been a box-office flop in its own time. The Hearst organization’s very public vendetta against Welles and his film has likewise been obscured by the passage of time.
While Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is one of the most beloved and frequently taught and dissected works in American film history, Lebo is careful to remind readers that the film’s success was anything but a foregone conclusion. After inspiring heated debates between scholars and fans alike and topping critics’ lists for the better part of six decades (including an unbroken 50 year stint as Sight & Sound’s “best” film of all time, and top billing in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies), the film’s tumultuous production and post-production histories tend to recede from view. Even as Lebo recovers these stories, he is careful to separate the myths surrounding this larger-than-life production from reality—even those myths that were perpetuated by Welles himself. In the first and decidedly larger part of Lebo’s comprehensive study, he reconstructs the story of Welles’s unique working relationship with RKO and his cast and crew, and details setbacks faced during the filming of Citizen Kane, as well as the many artistic and technical innovations inspired by the film.
Lebo takes the filmmaker’s commentary with a grain of salt, admitting that Welles was a “font of erroneous information who would correctly recount the substance of an incident but often shape the characters and locations to suit his audience.”
Lebo, a senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, is quite evidently an avid fan and appreciator of Welles’s artistry. Nonetheless, he is able to take the filmmaker’s commentary with a grain of salt, admitting that Welles was a “font of erroneous information who would correctly recount the substance of an incident but often shape the characters and locations to suit his audience.” He accordingly offers his own correctives to the stories that Welles spread about Citizen Kane, including the director’s claim that he had single-handedly produced some three hundred pages of the script before screenwriters Herman Mankiewicz and John Houseman even began their work. He also debunks Welles’s oft-repeated story that none of the actors in central roles in the film had ever before appeared in a Hollywood picture, when he points out that both Dorothy Comingore, who plays Susan Alexander, and George Coulouris, who plays Thatcher, had previously appeared in major film productions.
The author’s attention to detail is very welcome in these instances, but at other moments it is difficult to determine whether his intended reader is a die-hard Citizen Kane fan or a casual viewer, since he oscillates from simple plot summary in the introduction to shot-by-shot breakdowns of entire scenes, and dense technical discussions. His focus on minutia verges on the excessive at times (particularly when he describes Toland’s cinematography and Ferguson’s set design), and seems to be more the stuff of online fan communities than scholarly debate. This is certainly the case when he spends the better part of a chapter enumerating all of the points of similarity between Charles Foster Kane’s and Hearst’s biographies. Lebo also provides a lengthy plot overview of Mankiewicz’s initial version of the script (tentatively titled John Citizen, USA). While this detour consumes nearly nine pages of space, the reader is left to sift through the details provided and determine the significance of the changes made to this draft of the screenplay without much guidance. (N.B. While I have viewed Citizen Kane over a dozen times in the last decade, I found myself wishing that I had screened it again before attempting to parse the details in this section. To be fair, Lebo does open his study with the recommendation that “a fresh viewing will reinforce the most important point[s] of this book.”)
Unlike Robert Carringer’s 1984 study, The Making of Citizen Kane, which made extensive use of interviews with Welles himself, Lebo spoke with a more representative selection of cast, crew, and parties involved in the making of the film, including the film’s editor Robert Wise, actors William Alland and Ruth Warrick, and Welles’s personal assistant Kathryn Popper. These interviews, conducted over the period from the late 1980s until the 2010s, are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the book—at times too seamlessly …
Unlike Robert Carringer’s 1984 study, The Making of Citizen Kane, which made extensive use of interviews with Welles himself, Lebo spoke with a more representative selection of cast, crew, and parties involved in the making of the film, including the film’s editor Robert Wise, actors William Alland and Ruth Warrick, and Welles’s personal assistant Kathryn Popper. These interviews, conducted over the period from the late 1980s until the 2010s, are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the book—at times too seamlessly, making it possible to overlook Lebo’s valuable work in preserving the history of Citizen Kane. Extensive archival research also enriches the project, including the use of over four thousand pages of RKO studio files, the Orson Welles Collections at Indiana University, and the William Randolph Hearst Papers. Interestingly enough, Lebo also encourages readers to enter into this discussion, and includes a personal email address in the book’s introduction in his attempts to promote exchange.
While the author is careful to take in a larger range of perspectives on the filmmaking process and Citizen Kane itself, he always insists upon the particularity of Welles’s talents and the freedoms he was allowed at RKO. Lebo rightly highlights how groundbreaking the film was and insists that Welles’ placement as a Hollywood outsider made much of this innovation possible: “Citizen Kane remains a fabulous aberration, the potent proof that a film of greatness could be produced—even within the studio system—if led by an individual whose ideas and methods clashed with the conventional thinking.” His enthusiasm for the film is understandable (and contagious), but at times he frames his discussion in somewhat grandiose terms, as is the case when he describes Citizen Kane as the “most prominent and controversial motion picture of the year—or any year,” and deems its creator “a youthful prodigy,” whose “many exceptional qualities” established him “as a national figure and an artistic wonder boy.” However, Lebo rightly notes just how unusual it was for anyone (let alone a newcomer) to be granted the level of creative control that the 23-year-old Welles was, as he set about writing, producing, directing, and starring in his very first film: “Never did an individual serving in a major studio receive such control of the final product … until Welles arrived.”
Most notable is a speculative and amusing discussion of potential sources for the name “Rosebud.” Lebo confides that “‘Rosebud’ may have been Hearst’s personal nickname for [his mistress Marion] Davies’ genitalia—a bit of gossip that Mankiewicz supposedly learned from silent screen star Louise Brooks.” Or, it could have been the “nickname that Orrin Peck, a friend of William Randolph Hearst’s gave to Hearst’s mother Phoebe,” or even taken from the 1914 winner of the Kentucky Derby, “Old Rosebud.”
The final (and most compelling) chapters of the book introduce readers to the story of how the film was delayed and almost “killed” by William Randolph Hearst’s army of loyal reporters, lawyers, and gossip columnists—among them Hollywood darlings Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Lebo is not the first to tell the story of Citizen Kane’s suppression and the battles waged between the newspaper mogul’s supporters and RKO, which have been briefly analyzed by Robert Carringer and Laura Mulvey in their studies of the film. Nonetheless, his account is by far the most detailed, interestingly rendered, and accurate to-date, combining verifiable facts with delectable lore. Most notable is a speculative and amusing discussion of potential sources for the name “Rosebud.” Lebo confides that “‘Rosebud’ may have been Hearst’s personal nickname for [his mistress Marion] Davies’ genitalia—a bit of gossip that Mankiewicz supposedly learned from silent screen star Louise Brooks.” Or, it could have been the “nickname that Orrin Peck, a friend of William Randolph Hearst’s gave to Hearst’s mother Phoebe,” or even taken from the 1914 winner of the Kentucky Derby, “Old Rosebud.”
At the end of the day, there was little ambiguity for Welles: “‘It didn’t mean a damn thing … We inserted that as a dramatic gimmick, nothing more.’”