The Story of Citizen Kane: William Randolph Hearst and the Kane Controversy


The story of Citizen Kane as already written in this blog—the story of Orson Welles, the Mercury Theatre, Gregg Toland, RKO Pictures, and Herman Mankiewicz—is all well and good; but the story has far more significance when examined from a different perspective.  Imagine, for a moment, that all those players about whom I wrote in my previous post—Orson Welles, the Mercury Theatre, Gregg Toland, RKO Pictures, and Herman Mankiewicz—are the “good guys”, the protagonists, in this story about the movie’s production.  Well, a good story always has a bad guy.

Now, I don’t mean to say that this post is about the “bad guys.”  After all, were it not for these players in this post, Citizen Kane never would have existed.  But there is, in this history, an antagonistic role to be played.  This role is—or was—played by a man named William Randolph Hearst.

I often claim to be an “expert” in some things, and I often preface statements by saying that I am not an expert in others.  Malcolm Gladwell said that one must spend 10,000 hours to be an elite performer, the best of the best.  By that estimate, I should watch my tongue.  But, Mark Twain said that an expert—not an elite performer in a field of elite performers—is merely “an ordinary fellow from another town”.  I have also heard that reading five books on a subject provides a certain level of expertise.  By these latter two estimates, I can feel fairly justified in calling myself an “expert” on the life, career, and politics of William Randolph Hearst.

I have attempted to maintain a degree of anonymity under some fantasy that men and women around the world will one day postulate at dinner parties “who is that elusive ‘FilmSage’?” and children will rush to call dibs on being the ‘FilmSage’ when they play “movie critic” outside with their friends.  But some things are revealed about my biography in this blog.  For example, it should be evident that I am a student.  Well, I am a student, about to graduate with a couple bachelors degrees with the intent to pursue either a JD or a PhD in American History.  My area of emphasis in American Studies is Progressive Era politics, and I have, just a few months ago, written substantially on William Randolph Hearst and his role in the Progressive United States.

Most recently, I wrote a 35-page historical article focusing on Hearst’s influence on foreign policy and attempted to demonstrate a politico-ideological continuity in his various social platforms.  This is a weighty claim, considering the fact that most historians see Hearst as a pragmatist (the nice word) and a panderer (the not-so-nice word), willing to sacrifice the ideological precepts of a previous platform to advocate for a new, more sensational one.  My thesis in this capstone work of my undergraduate career was that Hearst’s attitudes—particularly on foreign policy—were consistent, that he was a Jeffersonian pragmatist (as he understood it) who adhered to the Monroe Doctrine (as he understood it).  I proved this by approaching Hearst’s career in three watershed political movements: his advocacy for intervention in Cuba leading up to the Spanish-American War, his opposition to the controversial Haye-Paunceforte Treaty, and his antagonism towards joining the League of Nations.

Now, I don’t mean to go too far.  I don’t want my words to go over anyone’s head, because I feel like this is important for you to understand.  My fear is that I will speak too much about Hearst, and too little about Kane.  But, I want you to keep in mind why I am talking about Hearst, and why I am going to talk about even more people, in this post: these players make the story of Charles Foster Kane historically significant, artistically poignant, politically heavy, and satirically bold.  Boldness makes a satire more powerful, and begs the most questions.  Somewhere along the line, you have to decide whether or not you like the characters in the film, whether or not you see Charles Foster Kane as a gallant American, a tragic hero, or a forgivable “bad guy”.  I believe that understanding the story of William Randolph Hearst and the Citizen Kane controversy will aid you in this decision.

Who Was William Randolph Hearst?

I’ve already talked about this a little bit, but I think an approach to Mr. Hearst from a biographical and chronological perspective is of significant importance.

To put his significance as an historical character in context, I’ll relate a quick story.  More of an anecdote, really.  Or, as Owen Wilson in Midnight on Paris called it, a detail.  When I first started writing my historical article, I was assigned to a seminar group in my university wherein we conversed about and gave advice in regards to our respective capstone papers.  The focus of this seminar group was American foreign policy.  As we began the initial proceedings in regard to our projects, we spent a couple hours one day presenting our theses one at a time and accepting the feedback of our colleagues.  All this was mediated and overseen by a rather respected professor in the field of American foreign relations history.  When I presented my thesis to the class as well as my plans for how that thesis would be proven, I provided what is called a prospectus to the class.  The prospectus basically had in writing that which I was saying to the seminar group aloud.

After making my presentation, a member of the class said, in essence, “I would be careful about the way you word the claim you’re making.  It is inaccurate to say that one man influenced the entire American population like you’re claiming and so I would watch out for that.”

I responded with a sincere statement of gratitude and took the criticism in stride.

My professor, however, who specializes particularly in the Vietnam conflict, interceded.  “I wouldn’t be too careful as to not make the claim,” he said, again, in essence.  “If ever there was a single person in the history of the United States that carried the power to change the nation’s mind on something, it was William Randolph Hearst.”

Not only did I feel good about myself after being stood up for by a prestigious academic, I also felt my conceptions of Hearst deepen as I truly started to appreciate the power of this mammoth personality.  This was the man who, by some accounts, including my own, was responsible for the Spanish-American War.  He was indirectly responsible for the establishment of imperial policy in the United States and the annexation of the Philippines.  Were it not for him, the United States never would have built the Panama Canal, Theodore Roosevelt might never have been President, and Tammany Hall would have blocked FDR from ever running for office.  No Roosevelt Corollary, no New Deal, no Progressive America.

I do not think that I am giving Hearst too much credit.  As the great Acmeist Osip Mandelstam (one of the greatest poets of all time, I might add) put it, history is not “the mechanical movement of a clock hand,” but is, rather, the “sacred succession of interlinked events.”  It is not historically accurate, nor even logical, to give full import to Hearst in regards to the evolution of a progressive America, but it is certainly not outside of reality to say that without him American history would have played out surprisingly different.  He was a chain that linked eras.  He was also a chain that linked people, providing the American populace with a voice and an ear to the upper echelons of power politics to which they had long been ignorant.  And he understood his role as a link in history and society’s humanistic chain: he was able to play those people like an instrument.  At his peak, Hearst was able to make happen whatever he wanted to have happen by convincing the public opinion that he was right, even if that meant he would lie to them.

Hearst’s embellishments (and outright lies) were the key elements to what has been labeled as “yellow journalism”, the divisive and indulgent radicalism that defined the editorial and journalistic efforts of the newspaper magnates of the turn of the century, including Hearst and the great Joseph Pulitzer.  I am reminded of the opening titles in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, which introduce the movie thus: “It all happened in the ‘Dark Ages’ of the newspaper game—when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justified anything short of murder.”

The most legendary moment in Hearst’s career—the moment that high school textbooks still include despite the fact that they have mostly ignored this power figure of American history— is an anecdote from the first days of the Spanish-American War.  Hearst had hired the services of one Frederic Remington, a sketch artist and sculptor who had reached some renown for his mastery of the images of the American West.  The hiring of Mr. Remington was not happenstance, the encroachment on Spanish autonomy in Cuba was a contemporary manifestation of the westward expansion that Hearst saw as the romantic destiny (or Manifest Destiny) of America fulfilled.  Cuba was American frontier; at least, it would be once the Spanish were ousted.  Hearst had already secured the popular opinion in favor of invasion with his radical journalism, and early efforts on the island had already begun.  Particularly, a series of revolts against Spanish rule—likely reminding the jingoistic Hearst of the fabled tea parties in Boston—by the Cuban natives were increasingly allowing American intervention as a possibility.  Hearst sent Remington out to document as much of the conflict as he could visually, so as to use his images in Hearst’s newspapers.  It was 1897, one year before the official beginning of the Spanish-American War.

After only a handful of days on the island, Remington cabled Hearst with the following message: “Everything is quiet.  There is no trouble here.  There will be no war.  I wish to return.”

The now-famous reply from Hearst: “Please remain.  You furnish the pictures; I’ll furnish the war.”

This correspondence was later recorded in Hearst’s own memoir, which he compiled alongside editor Edmond D. Coblentz.  It has since gone down in the annals of media history, most recently utilized in the criticism of the media’s coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2002.  Certainly, the power of the press is a powerful one, and no one at any time has wielded that power with such dexterity as William Randolph Hearst at the turn of the 20th Century.

Parallels Between Hearst and Kane

This story about Frederic Remington in Cuba, and the ensuing response from Mr. Hearst, should sound awfully familiar to those who have taken my advice and watched Citizen Kane.  The scene in question:

Mr. Thatcher, Kane’s legal guardian and prime subject to Kane’s harassment via The New York Inquirer, slams the most recent copy of the Inquirer–-with the headline ‘Galleons of Spain off Jersey Coast!’ written in bold—on the desk in front of Kane, yelling “Is that really your idea of how to run a newspaper?…Charles, you know perfectly well there’s not the slightest proof of this!  Armadas off the Jersey coast?”

“Can you prove it isn’t?” Kane replies coolly.

Just then, Mr. Bernstein, the Jewish yes-man whose loyalty to Kane remains unchecked throughout the course of the film comes in with Kane’s close friend, Jedediah Leland, with a message.  “Girls delightful in Cuba, stop,” he reads, “could send you prose poems about scenery but don’t feel right spending your money, stop.  There is no war in Cuba, signed Wheeler.  Any answer?”

“Yes,” Kane interrupts before Bernstein can finish his sentence, all while preparing his pipe.  “Dear Wheeler, you provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.”

The scene goes on, and like all scenes in Kane, is incredibly important.  (One claim that Citizen Kane can fairly have is that there is not a single wasted second or shot.)  The clip can be seen here.

This is not the only similarity between Charles Foster Kane and the larger-than-life William Randolph Hearst.  There is no coincidence, either, that a full three-fold name was needed for the titular character of Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz’s masterpiece.  The parallel trochaic trimeter of both names, the famous interplay with a Cuban correspondent, and the newspaper business aside, one merely needs to look at the stunning similarities between Kane’s fictitious Xanadu castle and Hearst’s real-life San Simeon in California to see that Mankiewicz’s character was obviously inspired by Mr. Hearst.  Each had an affinity for collecting relics (Kane collected statues while Hearst collected castles), each were marked by an early surge to fame by literally starting a war, each eventually lost their popularity and failed to win key elections to public office, yet each maintained a sway over the general public that made them key third players in any electoral drama.

They each were collegiate drop-outs with something to prove.  They each fought primarily against corporate corruption and favored social justice—the international politics was not as big a deal as the social crusades.  As a matter of fact, for both, the only international politics worth writing about were those which they saw as decidedly social in nature.  They both stood for a Socially Darwinistic America, one on whom rested “The White Man’s Burden,” as wrote Rudyard Kipling.   They each were criticized for political inconsistencies, yet stood convinced of their own stubbornness.  They both met overseas with powerful leaders.  They both were hated stateside by powerful leaders.

Another significant, and often over-looked, example is that of the female protege.  Hearst’s most controversial relationship involved his extra-marital affair with famous screen actor Marion Davies, one of the first real beauties of the movie industry.  She was a rising star with much potential whose atmospheric rise was somewhat blocked by Hearst’s intrusion on her career.   He took over management of all her affairs, convinced that his great influence would take her places she could never reach on her own. Orson Welles himself, in defending Ms. Davies later on in his career, said that she was a brilliant talent who was nothing but hurt by her association with Hearst.

The protege on the fictional side (the Kane side) was named Susan Alexander (played wonderfully by Dorothy Comingore).  Unlike Davies, Alexander is characterized by a lack of talent.  She is Kane’s own project, as if he is convinced so much of his own power that he really believes he can infuse talent into an otherwise talentless suburbanite.  In essence, Kane’s self-delusion greatly exceeds that of Hearst in this regard.  Unlike with Hearst, who never married Davies, though she stayed by his side until the end, Kane ends up marrying Alexander—though she ultimately leaves him to die alone.

The Inside Man

This is where the back story of Citizen Kane gets interesting.  And I do not mean the back story to the movie’s plot, I mean the back story to the movie’s creation and production.  Just how could Mr. Welles and Mr. Mankiewicz know so well the inner drama of a powerful figure?  How could the most controversial, personal aspects of a monolithic man be so easily drawn out with such wit and depth?  How could anyone write this movie and get away with it?

Compare for a moment, the subject matter between Citizen Kane and Welles’ other great films: The Magnificent AmbersonsThe Trial, Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight), and A Touch of Evil.  While these other films are based mainly in adaptations (recall that Welles’ theatrical and radio success were also based on his mastery of adapting previously written material like Macbeth and War of the Worlds), and these films trigger a depth that is born not only of the source material but also the artistic expression of the adaptation decisions.  Kane, however, is far more shallow in that is a rather opaque recitation of facts.  Pauline Kael described the film as “a collection of blackout sketches, but blackout sketches arranged to comment on each other, and it was planned that way right in the shooting script.”  These sketches were “built to make their points and get their laughs and hit climax just before a fast cut takes us to the next (sequence).”  This style contrasts the narrative structure of these other films (though The Trial does not really pass as a “narrative” film), and further differentiates it from them.  But, above all, it is the subject matter that is most telling and distinguishing.  Again, I quote Kael: these other films weren’t “conceived in terms of daring modern subjects that excite us, as the very idea of Kane excited us.”  That is because Kane wasn’t only a movie about newspapers.  It was a movie written like a newspaper, with a “journalist’s sense of what would be a scandal as well as a great subject.”

The journalist whose “sense” it was that was capable of writing such a delicate screenplay with such humor and pith was, you guessed it, Herman J. Mankiewicz.  “There is a theme that is submerged in much of Citizen Kane but that comes to the surface now and then,” wrote Kael, “and it’s the linking life story of Hearst and of Mankiewicz and of Welles—the story of how brilliantly gifted men who seem to have everything it takes to do what they want to do are defeated. It’s the story of how heroes become comedians and con artists.”  With the immortality to which this film has now reached, we can say that the underlying and powerful theme/back-story is this interlinking tale of Hearst and Mankiewicz and Welles and Charles Foster Kane himself.

See, Herman J. Mankiewicz was, as was stated in the last essay I wrote in this series on Kane, first and foremost a newspaper man.  His mastery of satire and writing provided him a valuable “in” to the industry elite, and helped to forge a friendship with Hearst and a place at his right hand…literally, as Hearst would insist upon Mankiewicz’s presence right next to him at dinner parties so that he did not miss Mankiewicz’s timely contributions to whatever conversation was presently ensuing.  He was truly the life of the party, and Hearst—the man who always got what he wanted—would not miss it for a second.  Mankiewicz was also a regular guest at Hearst’s San Simeon state, where he would spend considerable time fraternizing with the Master of San Simeon as well as his mistress, Marion Davies.

Film Politics: A Complex Social Web

It was through Davies that Mankiewicz’s relationship with Hearst began.  Mankiewicz was close friends with one Charles Lederer, a child prodigy who was rising to great popularity on both coasts as a prolific writer. Already Lederer was garnering friends in high places, but one such friend, whom he held in the highest esteem was his aunt, Marion Davies.  Davies sister was Lederer’s mother, and had actually acted in musical theater and opera (which is another tie to Kane’s Susan Alexander).  Lederer had entered college at the age of 13, but dropped out to help work on Hearst’s papers.

Lederer’s relationship with Orson Welles was not merely through association with Mankiewicz, it went even deeper than that.  In 1940, shortly before the release of Kane, Lederer would marry Virginia Nicolson, the ex-wife of Orson Welles and mother to Welles’ daughter.

Lederer—now raising Welles’ daughter—was a bridge that connected the pieces of a complex social web, and was also a contributing force to the rise of the newspaper genre itself.  His most significant scripts predating the release of Citizen Kane in 1941 were The Front Page in 1931 and His Girl Friday in 1940.  Not only was Lederer enabling the story of Kane by propelling its creators into the inner circle of the newspaper elite, but he was also creating a critical and popular movement toward the very genre to which Welles and Mankiewicz intended to contribute.

There was, however, one more player to add to this complex social web (which, of course, only leads to adding more players).  This man was Louis B. Mayer, the head of production at MGM.  Mayer had enjoyed a relatively close relationship with Hearst because of his affiliation with Marion Davies.  Davies was one of MGM’s prize actors, and Hearst’s involvement—not unlike that of Charles Foster Kane in the movie—was financially helpful to the corporation, as he managed all of Davies’ affairs and even invested in the company.  Outside of the monetary support, it was the intangible help of Hearst’s vocal support that was of most value to MGM.  Hearst would run full page articles lauding Mayer and the team at MGM, and Davies’ face—despite the failure of a string of her films at the box office—was an important PR point for MGM advertising.

Mayer’s individual relationship with Hearst informed his decisions on how to approach the release of Citizen Kane.  In his time with Hearst and Davies, he had come to see just how delicately Hearst approached the affair with the valuable perspective of a third party.  Hearst was supremely cautious to avoid any public exposure of the affair, refusing to be in any photograph with Davies even at large events.  Supposedly, this was out of respect to his wife, though one could probably assume it was to save face for the possibility of another electoral run.  Newspaper barons could do whatever they wanted, but public servants had to toe the line.  Mayer knew this, and he also knew that the script in question, the script written by another man close to the affair, portrayed this relationship in a terribly negative light, particularly smearing the woman involved.

What scared Mayer was that, just as he had the “skinny”, as it were, on Hearst because of their close-knit association, so did Hearst have information and scandal on the entire industry.  He also knew that the man who started the Spanish-American War was not afraid to sensationalize a story.  So, even though Kane was to be distributed and produced by RKO Pictures, Mayer felt that MGM and every corporation in the industry would be brutally effected by Hearst’s wrath.  He and Nicolas Schenk, chairman of the board at Loew’s International, the distributing company associated with MGM, gathered a $900,000 fund from other concerned industry moguls to gift to George J. Schaefer and crew at RKO in exchange for a promise that Kane would be scrapped and the negative destroyed.

The offer was rejected, and RKO started the difficult process of distributing the film, a process made even more difficult by the fact that the company didn’t own as many theaters as other production agencies and was greatly dependent on the help of affiliates like MGM and others.  This allowed for the industry elite to, in essence, block showings of the controversial film and, thus, hope to get on Hearst’s good side as loyal disciples.  This greatly effected the overall success of the film.

Over the course of the last seventy-five years or so, this story has evolved into a mythical tale about how William Randolph Hearst directly crippled the release of the greatest film ever made, and that the greatest film ever made came into theaters as a box office flop.  This is not true.  As a matter of fact, the movie had rave reviews and was actually quite popular, though its limited theatrical release caused for it to never make a real profit.  This is understandable considering the fact that it was one of the most expensive films to come out of RKO to date. Hearst’s impact on the film’s success was indirect, born of the respect and fear he had caused to be developed in the hearts of any man or woman in any industry towards him and his powerful newspaper empire. Certainly Hearst went after RKO, but he never went after Citizen Kane directly, nor did he smear Orson Welles, nor did he close down any theaters.  All of that was done by other parties, parts of the complex social web that was Hollywood and all its politics.

Why is This Important?

The good question at this point is why all this information about the history of the movie is important.  After all, the story behind the scenes does not necessarily make a movie good.  A movie is good based on its own precepts and its own self, independent of the degree of interest the back story may provide.  After all, the perfection of Au Hasard Balthazar does not necessarily come with a compelling story about the complexities of its production.  On the other hand, the story of the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise can be very interesting but that does not save the film from all its many setbacks.

One thing that makes Kane so great is because the nature of its material is so closely associated with its origin story.  It is surprisingly self-aware of its own audacity, mixing its harsh criticism of Hearst-style journalism with its recognition that, without it, the film—as well as the careers of its creators—never would have existed.  It was exactly that sensational-style journalism that propelled Orson Welles into the upper echelons of the entertainment elite with their over-the-top coverage of his War of the Worlds scandal.  It was the channel whereby Herman J. Mankiewicz rose to prominence.  So, while Mr. Hearst decried Mankiewicz for what he deemed as outright betrayal and RKO Pictures for their misrepresentation of his character, he had to, eventually, look into the mirror of his own industry and realize that this was a creature of his own creation.

Such a significant political irony propels the movie forward, and is undoubtedly one of the ironies that Pauline Kael referred to when she wrote, “Though the political ironies are not clear to young audiences, and though young audiences don’t know much about the subject—William Randolph Hearst…—they nevertheless respond to the effrontery, the audacity, and the risks. Hearst’s career and his power provided a dangerous subject that stimulated and energized all those connected with the picture—they felt they were doing something instead of just working on one more cooked-up story that didn’t relate to anything that mattered.”  This movie mattered to those who made it, and their own self-involvement was evident in the film itself.

Take, for example, the story of Jedediah Leland, Charles Foster Kane’s closest friend and confidant in the film.  This character was deep in Kane’s empire and watched as Kane’s ambition spiraled him out of control and farther and farther away from the love for which he so desperately longed.  Leland was also the only one brave enough to confront Kane on his hypocrisies, and ended up receiving the full brunt of Kane’s wrath in return.  I find this one of the most powerful subplots of the Kane story.

Leland’s audacity before the Master of Xanadu castle was not unlike the intense confidence Mankiewicz manifested before the real-life power of the Master of San Simeon.  The entire team—perhaps Mankiewicz most of all—were sending a real message with this movie, one that would make or break their entire careers.

4 thoughts on “The Story of Citizen Kane: William Randolph Hearst and the Kane Controversy

  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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