The Story of Citizen Kane: The Mercury Theatre and Other Players

mercury cbs

I hope that in reading the introduction to this series of essays on Citizen Kane, you—the reader—went and rented the movie and watched it, or at least wanted to.  I want to write so much about the movie; but to not watch the movie until I am done writing would, I think, be detrimental.  Part of that is because the movie is known for its important ending, which I would hate to spoil.  However, to not write about the ending would be to not write about the whole movie.  It puts me in an awkward situation.  So, go watch the movie.  Then, I won’t feel bad in throwing around some spoilers.

In thinking about the best way to go about explaining the movie’s various facets—all of which contribute to the film in giving it that title “Greatest Ever”—is to begin with its historical foundations.  Who wrote it, and who made it?  Why did they make it?  What inspired them?  When was it released?  How was it received?  These questions and more I hope to answer in the next two blog posts.

This post will focus on Orson Welles and his compatriots at the Mercury Theater.  I will focus on the company, the production, the screenplay, and the history of the movie.

The next post will focus on the political ramifications of the film, particularly focusing on the characters and events that inspired the movie.

Citizen Kane is so significant partly because of its influence in the film industry.  In many ways it is one part “indy-film”, one part Hollywood production.  This manifestation of the combined powers of an independent project and the monetary contributions of a production agency is the paramount example of the role of both art and money in cinema.  On one hand an independent film is detached from the pressures of advertising lobbyists and consumer-based executives.  In this regard, a movie-maker or team of movie-makers is able to make their own decisions, and their artistic views are not compromised by the influences of those less concerned with the art of the story.  They are not required to accommodate their vision to the “lowest-common denominator” in the consuming public.  They make the movie because they want to make it, not because they need to.  On the other hand, a corporately-produced film is concerned with the general public, and is able to make a movie that appeals to many, not just to a few.  The opportunity to unify a viewing audience is a powerful one, one that enables ideas to be permeated into society in ways that independent films never could.  They are not limited by sparse budgets but at the same time, through the skill (or art) of practicality and efficiency, are often able to shred the unnecessary fat from the bones of a picture; independent films are often overly-indulgent.

The production of Kane was a little bit of both.  It was independently constructed and inventive.  It didn’t care too much about the political pressures of a corporation.  Actually, it was quite disillusioned by them.  It was focused on the art and style of it’s makers.  At the same time, it was largely financed, capable of building elaborate sets, utilizing illusionary and experimental innovations, and hiring the very best people in the business to complete the production.  Without such production, the release of the movie may never have happened.

The movie was written (sort of), directed and produced by Orson Welles. He also played Charles Foster Kane, the main character.  Welles was the independent filmmaker who had, through an appeal to his own notoriety, received a virtually blank check from the most important production agency in the business to make whatever movie he wanted.  How was it, then, that Welles was able to get such a deal while maintaining his own independent standing?  And how did he go about using all that dough?  In order to understand this, one must understand who he was.

Orson Welles

Welles, by 1939, had become the most famous entertainer in America, but not for his role in film.  He had never attempted a movie before Kane, at least not a feature-length one.  His dabblings with the camera before Kane will be discussed a little later.  Welles was, instead, famous for his dominance in two media: the theater and the radio.  Welles had created a convergence of these two media with his Mercury Theater, and had become a household name through his dominance of the airwaves and his artistic intellectualism in his approach to radio theater.

Welles was an orphan by fifteen and spent time studying at a boarding school for boys.  After turning down a scholarship at Harvard, he decided to travel the world.  In those travels, it is said, he stumbled upon an Irish theater and entered the staging area saying that he was an accomplished Broadway star.  For whatever reasons, they let him in and he performed in their rendition of the Jew Süss, based on the 1925 novel, Jud Süß, by Lion Feuchtwanger.  This was the beginning of a thriving career as a theater actor, which eventually led him to New York City.

Welles had two gifts that helped him to stand out—and which led him, inevitably, to his career as the “golden boy” of American entertainment.  First, was his charisma.  Second, was his voice.  The charisma can be seen from the earlier example of that instance in Ireland, and is manifest throughout his entire career.  As his career in New York City blossomed, that charisma allowed him to stage drama festivals when a play’s schedule didn’t work out (most famously, he organized a drama festival with the Todd School after his tour of Romeo and Juliet was cancelled.  This turned out to be a good move, since the reputation he garnered at the festival led the play’s revival the following year to superb success.)   People flocked to Welles.   Though part of this may have born of his obvious artistic talent, it seems that the young Welles was a natural leader, he was a barrier-breaker and an innovator.  The voice was that second gift.  It was less significant than the more intangible gift of charisma, but it was still very important.  Welles had a perfect voice, round tones that echoed of London, but a lexicon that was decidedly American.  It was deep and masculine, yet had a softness about it that was far less heavy than other significant deep voices like those of Vincent Price or George Sanders, which made easy to listen to for long periods.  As a matter of fact, Welles was George Lucas’ original pick for the voice of Darth Vader, but he was afraid that the voice was too recognizable to use.

These two gifts inevitably led Welles to the public sphere.  The theater allowed him to access and utilize his artistic talent, but it was the radio and all its associated publicity that gave him the general populace and allowed him to grace the common man with his wisdom and art.  I would compare Welles’ initial radio endeavors with this blog: he had a desire to introduce the world to art.  And introduce them, he did.  He got his first radio job in 1934 and worked as a radio actor on such programs as The March of Time (remember that, it’ll be important later on) and The Columbia Workshop with a special group of people, a group that would eventually become his Mercury Theatre Players.

The Mercury Theatre

The Mercury Theatre was established in 1937 after Welles and his producer John Houseman broke away from the Federal Theater Project to start their own, more private, theater company.  Welles and Houseman had recently teamed up for a production of Macbeth which set the play in Haiti with primarily African players.  This—and others—was enough critical fuel to get Welles and Houseman a workable artistic reputation.  The theater was repertory, and would include the same players: Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Martin Gabel, Vincent Price, Anne Baxter, Judy Holliday, George Coulouris, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Dolores del Río and Everett Sloane.  Many of these players (not Vincent Price, Anne Baxter, or Judy Holliday, obviously) would later be featured in Citizen Kane.

In 1938, CBS Radio decided to hire Welles on for a radio drama show that would be called First Person Singular, where Welles would star in leading roles of various adaptations of famous films or plays. Welles was happy to take the job under condition that his Mercury Theatre players performed the other roles.  This proved to be great publicity for the theater company.  The “Mercury Theatre” name took off, and the show was quickly renamed Mercury Theatre on the Air.   Some of the first adaptations included The 39 Steps, Treasure Island, and Dracula.  Really, these early adaptations were not terribly popular; ratings were low despite critical acclaim.  One adaptation would really spark a massive following: The War of the Worlds.

In this, the most famous radio broadcast of all time, Welles and his team changed the face of entertainment.  By this time, Houseman had handed over the writing reins to Howard Koch, who would later help write the script for Casablanca.  Koch, Welles and Anne Froelick wrote the adaptation of H.G. Welles’ classic The War of the Worlds for a Halloween episode.  They felt that it would be more entertaining in a Halloween-ish sense to make the famous literary alien invasion more contemporary, and took a page from Welles’ earlier work in The March of Time, deciding to tell the story in the form of a news broadcast.  What happened next was most certainly not expected: viewers, mostly tuning in late after enjoying comedian Edgar Bergan’s opening bit on his more popular radio show (remember that the Mercury Theatre on the Air had pretty low ratings), were shocked to hear a news broadcast detailing the arrival of alien invaders in Manhattan.  This was before, and the no-commercials presentation seemed far too legitimate to be a hoax.  The truth was, it was neither hoax nor news, it was a theatrical adaptation of a literary classic.

The reaction was intense.  Jack Paar’s radio show (yes, that Jack Paar, the one who preceded Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show) was later inundated with listeners’ phone calls about the recent invasion.  Paar’s attempts to quell the panic merely met rebukes from the callers later on in the show, who said he was trying to cover up the truth.  In following days, newspapers including The New York Times had headlines like “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact—Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid from Mars’—Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells [sc.] Fantasy”.

The newspaper reaction to the broadcast is significant in the context of Citizen Kane.  Several revisionist historians have posited that the reaction to the broadcast was overblown, and that in reality the newspapers utilized a technique called “yellow journalism”—a technique that had been on the downturn over the past three decades—to encourage circulation.   In this regard, the reaction of the newspapers to War of the Worlds becomes an important player in creating Welles’ fame.  Now, this concept of yellow journalism is somewhat too tangential at the moment for me to go into detail, but I’ll talk about it in significant depth in my next post.  This could be very meaningful.

While the newspaper reaction may have contributed to Welles’ fame in untrue ways, the reality is that there was a public reaction.  The reaction was so significant that it warranted an impromptu press conference by Orson Welles wherein he apologized for the events.  You can see this on YouTube probably.  I don’t think Welles was all that sorry.  I think he was milking it.  He knew what this was going to get him.  He was no longer limited to the theatrical elite in his fame: he had become the king of radio and theater entertainment overnight.

George J. Schaefer

Following the action of The War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles was approached immediately by George J. Schaefer, who had been recently hired as President of RKO Pictures.  RKO had come to be a significant production company, competing with David O. Selznick and Paramount Pictures to be one of the most significant production agencies in Hollywood.  Already, RKO had produced Cimarron, King Kong, The Gay Divorcee, Swing Time, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bringing Up Baby, and Gunga Din, and was about to produce Pinocchio.  (To highlight the significance of this agency, I will add that Snow White, if you adjust income to inflation, is ranked #10 on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time, making approximately $1,746,100,000 by today’s dollar.  That was a very good job on the part of RKO).

Schaefer was eager to strike a deal with entertainment’s new poster boy, and it was a perfect opportunity for him to follow through on his own mission: to recruit independent producers that would distribute through RKO.  This would mean that he would have to find new talent; the biggest and most successful directors would sign on to production companies for extended contracts, and were, therefore, unavailable.  David O. Selznick had Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount had Cecil B. DeMille, and RKO would need the next “big thing”.  I am reminded of the Houston Rockets’ quick trigger pull to bring in Jeremy Lin from New York a few years ago.  Phenoms have a tendency to cause owners to jump and offer up big contracts, particularly, it seems, phenoms out of NYC.

The contract that Schaefer provided Welles led to two of the most artistic and critically-acclaimed films in Hollywood history, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.  In this regard, Schaefer’s legacy was significant, and his willingness to give Welles the ability to make a movie makes him a very important player in cinema history.  However, the movies were both incredibly expensive and, though they were certainly popular films, they were unable to make up costs in the box office.  This financial blunder would lead to Schaefer’s resignation in 1942.

The contract was, in essence, a blank check for Welles (and, by extension, the Mercury Theatre).  The money aside, that blank check included artistic license from the metaphorical bank.  He was given full rights to production, writing, direction, and acting.  He was also given rights to the final cut, which was absolutely unprecedented.  In essence, Kane is the example of what you get when you give a director everything he wants.

Let me get back to the point I made earlier about Kane being a movie from two worlds, the independent world and the corporate world.  The pros that belong to both spheres apply to Kane, and the cons are nullified.   This huge contract, with its associated benefits, placed Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre in position to make history.

Bernard Herrmann

After the contract with RKO was finalized, Orson Welles would bring fifteen players from the Mercury Theatre to join him in Hollywood to star in Kane.  He would also bring Houseman, his producer.  He would also bring along another important cohort from his work in Mercury Theatre on the Air, a man who would come to use Citizen Kane as a springboard into one of the most illustrious careers every had in his profession.  His name was Bernard Herrmann.

Herrmann would eventually go on to make movie music for thirty-five years in films like The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Obsession, and Taxi Driver.  But, before Kane, Herrmann was a radio man.  Hired on as a studio conductor for CBS, Herrmann’s career would lead him to directing in the Columbia Workshop, and eventually into his own contributions to the Mercury Theatre.

Welles and Herrmann first met in collaboration on Columbia Workshop, a dramatic theater program that had been established—though it was mostly an experiment—as a symbol of CBS’s devotion to education and the arts.  Herrmann’s success after meeting Welles would eventually lead him to becoming Chief Conductor of the CBS orchestra.  Welles and Herrmann would continue to work together in the Campbell Playhouse series, but it seems that Herrmann’s position as conductor for the Mercury on the Air programs—including the War of the Worlds broadcast—cemented his position as the destined composer for the Mercury Theatre’s first film.  Bernard Herrmann’s contributory score for Citizen Kane is one of the most significant elements of the film’s historical influence.

Herman J. Mankiewicz

While Welles was bringing his team, including Herrmann, from New York to Hollywood to produce Kane, he knew that he needed to enlist help from the industry capital.  Two people were brought in that are most significant to this recounting: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland.

In regards to Mankiewicz’s role in the film, I would recommend reading Pauline Kael’s long essay entitled Raising Kane.”  This is the most in-depth and telling essay on Citizen Kane ever written, and is required reading for anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with—as this particular blog post is titled—“the Story of Citizen Kane.”  The primary goal of Kael in this essay was to give Mankiewicz his much-deserved dues.  Mankiewicz has often taken a backseat to Welles when the story of Kane is told, and that is unfortunate.

Herman Mankiewicz was the man who wrote Citizen Kane.  Perhaps the most telling demonstration of his overshadowed work on the script is the fact that Orson Welles only ever won one Academy Award.  He won the Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).  It is ironic that, of all the awards he deserved to win, he won the one that he probably did the least amount of work to do.

Welles’ writing credit, and the extent to how deserved that writing credit is, has been a subject to much of the controversy surrounding Kane.  Welles himself said that he wrote the majority of the script, but it seems that he was exaggerating significantly.  I, personally, feel like Mankiewicz wrote pretty much all of the script, and that Welles deserves his credit because of his creative contribution during production as well as his auteurism in the picture.

Mankiewicz’s role as a writer was huge for the film, since the entire movie—particularly in 1940—had a very unique writing approach, and therefore, a unique overall approach to production.  Kane is told through perspectives of various characters, whose own inclinations lend to an interpretation of Kane’s character with a certain bias.  It is also a satirical rebuke of newspaper politics, particularly of a handful of real-life characters.  These real-life characters were people that Mankiewicz had come to know and interact with personally, and his intimate understanding of the world about which he wrote was a necessary element of experience which brought special validity to the movie.

Mankiewicz was a screenwriter in an era that can be fairly defined as the era of screenwriters, just as the 1960s and 70s is known as the era of singer-songwriters.  Consider this quote from Kael: “If the first decade of talkies—roughly, the thirties—has never been rivaled in wit and exuberance, this is very largely because there was already in Hollywood in the late silent period a nucleus of the best American writers, and they either lured their friends West or were joined by them. Unlike the novelists who were drawn to Hollywood later, most of the best Hollywood writers of the thirties had a shared background; they had been reporters and critics, and they knew each other from their early days on newspapers and magazines.”  Novelists are often guided by symbols, motifs, and various literary conventions that supersede dialogue.  These “reporters and critics” of the 30s were masters of the quick word and the catchy interchange.  The great American writers of the thirties were to be found in Hollywood, practicing a form of professionalism that Kael dubbed a “joyous prostitution” of their talents.  The particular form of comedy that they put forward can fairly be called “30s Comedy”, and Citizen Kane is meant to be seen as its culminating masterwork.

Of all these writers, an argument can fairly be made that Mankiewicz was the finest of these screenwriters.  His career began with work in various magazines and newspapers, including Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York World, Women’s Wear, The Chicago Tribune, and The American Jewish Chronicle.  His writing spanned from theater criticism with The New Yorker to political exposition and commentary for the Tribune.  He wrote plays, including The Good Fellow with George Kaufman, and collaborated on Round the Town, a revue, with Dorothy Parker, Heywood Brown, and Robert E. Sherwood.  Kael wrote that Mankiewicz would never have progressed doing this sort of work, and attributed that opinion to Mankiewicz’s heavy drinking.

Mankiewicz was destined for Hollywood, it seems, particularly after Alexander Woollcott, the influential commentator for The New Yorker, called him “The Funniest Man in New York.”  The misfortune for Mankiewicz’s legacy is that much of his writing was done in production, as opposed to pre-production, and he was therefore usually uncredited for his jobs.  The reason why he was often brought in later was to “fix” problems in film scripts.  With that being said, common understanding has included him as a writer on many significant 1930s-era comedies.  Kael herself said that “Mankiewicz had, in fact, written (alone or with others) about forty of the films I remember best from the twenties and thirties (as well as many I didn’t see or don’t remember).”  Some of these films include The Wizard of Oz, Ladies’ Man, Dinner at Eight, the original Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (not to be confused with the Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell remake), and several Marx Brothers pictures, including Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and MonkeBusiness.

“Who did what?” is the primary question in examining the story of Kane, but the truth seems obvious: the story’s life is indebted to Mankiewicz, the man who not only was a comic genius, but also an “inside-man” into the world of power politics, news media, and the entertainment elite.  His history as a newspaper man will be discussed later on in my next post.  But, before I move on to my next post, I have to talk about one more important person.

Gregg Toland

I have already mentioned that Orson Welles took many of his Mercury Theatre cohorts with him to Hollywood, but despite the help, needed to enlist the help of two very important people, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland.

Toland was the cinematographer for Kane.  He had, leading up to filming Kane, done significant cinematographic work on a few Academy-Award nominated productions, including Les Misérables, Dead End, and Wuthering Heights.  Toland was the perfect contributor to Welles in this picture, as both provided necessary creative ideas into the film’s overall productive designs.  Welles has often been given credit for the visual style of Citizen Kane, referring to past stage productions that invoked a certain respect for lighting and stage direction.

However, this was a movie, and movies are not the same as the theater.  Welles needed the technical prowess that Toland could provide.  Welles’ belief in lighting and contrast inevitably would require a black and white picture (and Welles’ best films—Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, The Trial, and Touch of Evil—attest to this).  Toland’s work was focused on preliminary notions of indicative lighting (exactly what Welles was looking for) and a principle that he called “deep focus.”  I will do another post later on about the technical achievements of Kane, where I will be able to discuss the advantages to deep focus, but it suffices in this post to tell about its development.

Toland only lived for a few years after Kane was released, but the period directly preceding Kane’s production to his death was marked by his experimental development of what he called the “ultimate focus lens”, a camera that would record foreground and background shots (or near and far shots) with equal detail on the same frame.  This cinematographic prowess would lead Toland to work with such prestigious directors as Welles, John Ford, William Wyler, King Vidor, Howard Hawks, and Erich Von Stroheim.

In essence, Toland was the perfect match for Welles, whose ideas leading up to Kane’s filming were revolutionary.  Only Toland could have made Welles’ conceptual designs come to life, and without Toland’s help, Welles’ directorial duties could never have been fulfilled.  Welles himself said that “Toland was advising him on camera placement and lighting effects secretly so the young director would not be embarrassed in front of the highly experienced crew”.


The Mercury Theatre, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Gregg Toland teamed up to create the greatest movie ever produced.  Each piece of this human puzzle was needed for it to come to life, from the production company’s lucrative contract to the creative conceptions of the movie’s creators, Citizen Kane represented the cumulative effort of geniuses.  Several short films were made leading up to Kane, and a few scripts had been scrapped that would have led to movies that would replace Kane (including adaptations of The Smiler With a Knife and Heart of Darkness).  But, in the end, each person was needed to make this movie come to fruition, from the literary talent of Herman J. Mankiewicz to the technical mastery of Gregg Toland, to the production help of John Housman to the musical contributions of Bernard Herrmann, from the production funding of George Schaefer to the acting chops of Mercury Theatre players like Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorhead.  And all of them coalesced behind the charismatic directorial hand of a young and entertaining guru of the industry, Orson Welles.   Together, it seems, no other movie could have been made than the movie that was made.

4 thoughts on “The Story of Citizen Kane: The Mercury Theatre and Other Players

  1. Pingback: My Introduction to a Series of Essays on Citizen Kane | A Slice of Cake

  2. Pingback: Kane the Man | A Slice of Cake

  3. Pingback: Kane the Movie | A Slice of Cake

  4. Pingback: My Introduction to a Series of Essays on The Rules of the Game | A Slice of Cake

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