Top 100 Movie Review: #1 – Citizen Kane (1941)

Easy to Enjoy This Seminal Movie

The cinematography, the art direction, and the chopped storyline of thousands of other movies owe their derivation to this original piece. 

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Orson Welles as the protagonist Charles Foster Kane.

American Film Institute Ranking: #1/100
Academy Awards: Received nine nominations, but only winning for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

So the best movie of all-time, eh?

A movie with that distinction has rightfully been sliced and diced from a million different angles, and with having such an interesting figure in the middle of it all (Orson Welles) there is plenty of of wood to stoke the fire when discussing this piece of significant Americana.

First and foremost, the movie is very enjoyable. From the get go you realize this isn’t run-of-the-mill, early Hollywood; the movie opens up with an electric use of film angles and art direction, creating amazing intrigue with nothing more than ingenious camera work. This is followed with an inverted story, jumping back and forth between present and past in a way Quinten Tarantino would approve. Then, the fascinating main engine that keeps everything runningL the search for what “Rosebud” means.

What materializes is a move that has a little bit of everything: an intriguing story, well-written characters, a period piece of 1940s America, and a commentary on life, capitalism, power and fulfillment.

[Spoilers with a special warning: the whole point of this movie is to discover the meaning of Rosebud, which I discuss below. If you have not seen it and want to, there is no way you can find out that piece of info and still enjoy it on the same level.] Charles Foster Kane, the powerful magnate that influenced the world through his newspaper empire and wealth has just passed. On his deathbed, he whispers the words “Rosebud.” A newsreel obituary is put together, but the editor believes it is missing something: what or who was this “Rosebud” that captured his final thoughts? Here is a man so powerful that could buy anything he wanted, but his final moments were entranced with something that no one knew anything about. To figure out the mystery, he assigns one of his journalists to go uncover the significance of Kane’s final words.

While the newsreel showed us the overview, the interactions the journalist has with Kane’s closest relationships show us the in depth story to each portion. This includes the memoirs of a prior guardian (Walter Thatcher) and conversations with prior friend (Jebidiah Leeland), prior business partner (Mr. Bernstein) , and prior lover/wife (Susan Alexander Kane). From these four perspectives, we learn the entire arc of Kane’s life, from a no-name boy in Colorado all the way to isolated, lonely tycoon we are introduced to at the beginning of the movie.

We come to find out that Charles Kane was taken away by his family by the banker Thatcher because his family had come into a large amount of money by owning the land home to an unexpected gold mine. While his mother did this to protect him from his father and give her son a chance at a better life, Kane despises the idea. The stipulation for Thatcher to oversee the child is not only to raise him but to fulfill a fudiciary duty to manage a trust fund formed from the new source of money which would be released unto Kane on his 25th birthday.

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A young Charles Kane played by Orson Welles. 

So, Kane moves to NYC with his trust manager and grows up living a new life of luxury, traveling and attending many colleges (which all eventually kick him out). On his 25th birthday, now in control of his trust fund, he purchases a newspaper: the New York Inquirer. He uses this newspaper to benefit the general people, exposing the fraud in the city, many times involving his own trust fund manager Mr. Thatcher.

This is the high point of Kane’s moral arc though. For the rest of the movie, we are exposed to how the power and influence completely ruins him. The downward trajectory shows us his disregard for the people he is supposed to represent, intentionally misleading them on issues for personal gain. This then leads to the ruin of his personal relationships, as those within his sphere are nothing more than objects to be manipulated. His final moments are at his estate called Xanadu, surrounded by towering buildings and endless gardens filled with statues and art from around the world but completely empty of any meaningful people or connection.

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*rosebud*

The only meaning Kane has to latch on to in all this isolation is Rosebud. So what is it and what does it all mean? [SPOILER REMINDER] Rosebud is the name of the sleigh he is riding when the banker Thatcher takes him away from his poverty-stricken family in Colorado.

Upon reflection, this is the only time in the entire movie that Kane is actually happy. The backdrop of the adoption scene is Kane outside playing as a child – completely carefree and unconstrained. While there are other moments he is elated in the movie, they are always with strings attached: expectations, pressure, and peppered with manipulative motives. His adult life is a confluence of professional success but with requisite necessity to prove himself to others.

The movie’s magic does not happen during its 2 hour run time, but after its ending: we do not discover Rosebud until the very end, and with that knowledge, the previous hour and 59 minutes takes on a completely different coloring. This leaves you having to do some extra leg work afterward to appropriately place what you just saw. This leads me to share my favorite cut of the entire movie:

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The many reflections of Kane.

This scene happens near the end when he is at his utmost low, and it captures a multitude of Kane’s reflected in a mirror as it recesses to the horizon. The movie leaves us with many reflections of Kane as we travel throughout his life, but there really is only one true one — the Rosebud version. All the posturing and positioning of a man’s entire life was a rebuttal to this childhood event.

It ultimately makes me question my own adult motives as I pursue my own personal happiness and satisfaction. Numerous times while writing this blog, I have projected an audience in my head and have redacted or changed things because I thought it might be more pleasing to this imaginary circulation. Really this blog is nothing more than a personal hobby where I wanted a space for that pure expression that we have as children. But even with that motivation, I still let the pressure and expectations of adulthood seep into personal projects.

It also reminds me of moments from my own childhood that are immensely powerful. I became very interested in music around the age of 15, and there are still songs today that hit me hard, able to wring me out emotionally double the years later. Are these experiences so powerful because they are the first ones, or is it because our adult minds become too bone-crushingly rational to enjoy the pure enjoyment of life?

Citizen Kane captures this irony of life: our endless attempts to capture that childhood happiness by doing things quite inimical to its success. We somehow trade freedom, expression and unabashed sincereness for societal position, power and control and think by doing so we can regain that comfort of childhood. Like Kane, I feel myself reflected a dozen times over in the mirror, all projecting one thing or another, but I have my Rosebud too, and I need to do a better job of honoring it.

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