Movie Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

Hello Everyone,

Today I will be reviewing the classic film, Citizen Kane starring Orson Welles.

By William Rose – Scan via Heritage Auctions. Cropped from the original image., Public Domain,

I’ll admit, I have been reluctant to watch Citizen Kane since it is considered to be one of the best films of all time. I also didn’t really know very much about it until my husband happened to watch it on a flight a few months ago. First, I was intrigued that my husband had enjoyed it so much, and second, that it was partially inspired by William Randolph Hearst, who I’ll be honest I only knew who he was because of Hearst Castle.

One of my main worries going into a movie like Citizen Kane is whether I will enjoy it or not. Will it live up to the “hype” and expectations I have set in my head? Or will I be left sorely disappointed and wondering why it is considered one of the best films of all time. However, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed the movie. While it isn’t a movie that you can just sit back and enjoy, it does have a lot of weight to it. In fact, some of the symbolism that appears near the end of the film made my inner English major nerd get really excited. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every movie I watch will have this affect, in fact, I’d argue that I have several ways I enjoy a movie. Sometimes it’s just that they’re fun and/or entertaining to watch, other times it is because of the depth of the movie and in some ways the hidden meanings that are in a film. I would say that Citizen Kane is definitely the latter.

Before I continue, I would just like to give a warning that there will be major spoilers for the film, as well as an acknowledgement that while these are my thoughts, I do acknowledge that there are many others who have come to similar conclusions or have had similar thoughts.

First, I should start with a brief summary of what Citizen Kane is about. Citizen Kane follows the life of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, starting with his death in 1941, and then working backwards to show viewers his life as a child to man he was before he died. However, we discover this along with a reporter who is interviewing various people who were close to Kane to find out what his dying word, “Rosebud” meant. Through these interviews we learn that Kane spent some of his childhood in Colorado before being sent to live with his guardian, Thatcher, who also oversees his trust fund, which has been set up by his mother. When he turns 25, he has come of age to take over all of his assets, however Kane informs Thatcher that he only wants possession of one of the newspapers, the New York Inquirer, which is languishing. However, with is friend Jed Leland, and manager, Mr. Bernstein, they soon turn things around, overtaking the most successful paper, the Chronicle. He then marries. However, over the years he and his wife drift apart, and while running for governor, he becomes involved with a young woman named Susan Alexander. He is outed by his competitor and his marriage is destroyed by his willingness to bring his affair to the public. After his divorce from his first wife, he marries Susan. Early in their relationship she had expressed the desire to become a singer, and helps her pursue those dreams despite the fact that she is not that good.

I think it’s interesting to see how Kane treats his “guardian”, Mr. Thatcher, with almost contempt. And in some ways I wonder if it is almost and Oedipal reaction. His resentment and contempt to Thatcher is not just because he had to grow up in privilege but in order to do so he was ripped away from his mother, who, from the few minutes she is on screen, we see he loves very much. However, it is interesting that while she is trying to give him the best life possible, she rather sets him up for the misery he experiences later on in life.

Next, there is the topic of “Rosebud”, which in the end we discover is the name of his sleigh. I think it’s also interesting that his memory of Rosebud was triggered by the snow globe he found in Susan’s room after she left him. It’s almost as if in the midst of some of the deepest hurt, he comes across something that reminds him of not only his childhood home in Colorado, but also of his sleigh. I would argue it reminds him of the carefree and innocent days of his youth before he was sent away with Thatcher to live a life of luxury. In remembering Rosebud, I think he wishes he could go back to those days where he wasn’t alone, wasn’t craving to be loved, and he hadn’t in a sense lost who he was as a person. I believe it also makes both Kane, as well as the viewers, wonder what he would have been like as a man if he had been allowed to stay with his parents, and Rosebud. Would he have turned into the aloof, callous and taciturn man he dies as, or would he have still had more of his innocence, or rather had gotten to experience life with more innocence. In a way, while his mother meant well, I don’t think she ever intended his wealth to corrupt him the way it does. She just simply wanted a better life for her boy, but her preconceived notions of better, ended up making him a bitter man.

One last element of the film that I would like to touch on is the scene right after Kane has ransacked Susan’s room, and he walks past a mirror. And as he walks past we see endless reflections of of him. In some ways, I believe that represents the different versions of himself he has been over the years. From a young boy playing in the snow, to the eager college dropout who wanted to have the best newspaper in the city while still sticking to his principles, to callous and lonely old man who has lost everything do to his power and his greed. Although, it could be argued that his power and greed were a substitute, albeit a poor one, for the love he craved all his life. As a viewer, I felt sorry for him. But I could also relate. In my own life there have been times where I have felt like I needed to earn love from others, or rather try and force them to love me, which Kane does in the case of Susan. However, thankfully I have learned that it is impossible to force people to love you, because eventually they grow to resent you. Not that I’ve had any relationships get to this stage, but it is something that can be seen on the screen. Again, we see Susan, who is forced into isolation in Xanadu with Kane, longing for the exciting life of New York, but not allowed to leave. Eventually her isolation brings her to the point where she feels controlled by Kane and it causes her to look on him with contempt and resentment. Despite all his wealth, he once again loses the most important thing to him, love. Then there is the fact that there is a version of Charles Foster Kane that no one, not even himself will know, and that is the version that never left Colorado. As I mentioned before, who knows how different he would have been if he had been allowed to continue to grow-up with his parents, as opposed to a world of riches.

Overall, Citizen Kane is a film rich with symbolism and meaning. I can see why some refer to it as the greatest movie of all time. Visually, it is a great film. The score captures the essence of every scene. And the actors portray their characters very well, especially Orson Welles, who made me believe that Charles Foster Kane was a real person. I think this is a movie that is worthy of many people’s time and is definitely one to add to your list if you haven’t seen it yet.


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