Every film geek worth their salt knows about the story of Citizen Kane and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. But thanks to a new book it appears the billionaire’s vendetta ran a lot deeper than was previously suspected.
As a recap, in 1941 Orson Welles released Citizen Kane, a movie that would become known as a watershed in cinematic history. It employed entirely new ways of cinematography, storytelling and more. Even though the film has aged quite a bit in the 75 years since, it remains a pillar of movie history and an absolute must for any film student.
For that matter, I think it’s a must-see for any fan of the medium. Stories about a remake have even been bouncing around for years, but that would be a terrible idea – at least in my opinion. The movie’s power is not only in what it was, but when it happened and what it stood for.
Citizen Kane was based largely, but broadly, on the life of Hearst, then one of the most powerful men in the world (it is said that he constantly fought rival Joseph Pulitzer, and between their media empires they started wars by printing total fiction as fact). The script was outlined by Herman J. Mankiewicz, someone who was once close to Hearst and had since grown a real hatred of the man. Welles and his people always denied this connection, even though it was blatantly obvious, mainly to avoid legal harassment from Hearst.
When the movie was finally released, it also unleashed the wrath of Hearst. He was credited for its utter box office failure and near destruction, though history would come to remember Welles and his movie more than Hearst. Let that be a lesson to all you coveters of legacy.
But just how involved was Hearst personally? Accounts varied, though there had been a consensus that most of it was the work of his over-eagre minions.
Well, not according to a new book. Its author dug up a lot of new details, including letters that show Hearst had a very direct hand in many of the plots against Welles and Citizen Kane. This also went far beyond strong-arming cinemas into not showing the movie and refusing any coverage of Citizen Kane across Hearst’s media outlets.
New details show that there were attempts to paint Welles as a communist, which would have been a very serious accusation back then, and Hearst’s people even colluded closely with the US government along those lines. An even more startling revelation: apparently there was an ambush planned with a 14-year old girl hiding in Welles’ hotel room, along with photographers to capture the incriminating moment.
The book goes a lot deeper, also exploring the difficult creation of the movie and the fallout from Hearst’s nearly successful campaign. Citizen Kane was a big flop and Welles’ career destroyed. Its only victory, but a great one, was that history would go on to paint it as the greatest film ever and Hearst as one of the past’s worst villains.
Which, if you think about it, worked out pretty well!
Last Updated: March 29, 2016