Newsreel: This Sunday, May 1, is the 70th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s debut at the Palace Theater in New York. Scandalous gossip, rumors of litigation, and the hostility of the Hearst press had delayed the premiere for months, and Radio City Music Hall withdrew its invitation. The Palace, fabled for vaudeville, was fitted with a towering, lighted figure of Orson Welles as Kane and the promo line “It’s terrific.”
Despite great reviews, the kaleidoscopic film about a Hearst-like press tycoon was shown by few theater chains. Too sardonic, complex, and darkly satirical to be widely popular, it went into RKO’s 1941 ledger as a loss of about $150,000 (about the cost of a Brangelina makeup budget today). As a treasury of creative tactics and challenging showmanship, Kane remains our gutsiest movie. It long ago turned a profit, topped Ten Greatest lists, and has, ironically, sustained the legend of William Randolph Hearst. It also makes most of our multiplex offerings seem vapid and childish.
How brazen was Orson Welles at 25? One clue: RKO asked him to remove the small images of prehistoric pterodactyls from a King Kong shot that was used as atmospheric backing for Kane’s picnic, but he kept them because he liked them. The movie, scarcely aged, still entertains deeply. The richest readings on Kane are Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” (in The Citizen Kane Book), Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles, Robert Carringer’s The Making of Citizen Kane, James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles, and John E. Walsh’s Walking Shadows.
Reviewed in this week’s listings: Exporting Raymond, Water for Elephants.