Welles’s Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking

Orson Welles’s first film represented a powerful challenge to the Hollywood studio system. His career arguably suffered as a result, but over time the film came to be regarded as among the greatest films ever produced.

Summary of Event

Before 1940, Orson Welles was not a filmmaker. Ironically, this fact helped make it possible for him to make Citizen Kane (1941), one of the most controversial and influential films of all time. Welles was an outsider to the Hollywood studio system, a system in place between roughly 1917 and 1960. The studio system was designed to organize film production like any other industry, to maximize efficiency and profit. Despite his lack of familiarity with the industrial side of film production, however, much of Welles’s prior experience had prepared him for a career in film, an art that required the unique combination of visual, verbal, intellectual, dramatic, musical, technical, and organizational skills that he had developed. [kw]Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking (May 1, 1941)[Welless Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking]
[kw]Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking, Welles’s (May 1, 1941)
[kw]Traditional Filmmaking, Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with (May 1, 1941)
[kw]Filmmaking, Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional (May 1, 1941)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
Hollywood studio system;Orson Welles and[Welles]
Citizen Kane (Welles)
Hollywood studio system;Orson Welles and[Welles]
[g]North America;May 1, 1941: Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking[00200]
[g]United States;May 1, 1941: Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking[00200]
[c]Motion pictures and video;May 1, 1941: Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking[00200]
Welles, Orson
Toland, Gregg
Mankiewicz, Herman J.
Hearst, William Randolph
Herrmann, Bernard
Houseman, John

Since early childhood, Welles had acted in, directed, and adapted or written a variety of plays, and as he gained experience and confidence, his projects became increasingly experimental and innovative. For example, in 1936, he directed an all-black cast in what is sometimes referred to as a “voodoo” version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606), and his original production of The Cradle Will Rock (wr. 1936, pr. 1937) Cradle Will Rock, The (Blitzstein) , a radical anticapitalist people’s opera by Marc Blitzstein, had to be staged in a completely improvisational way when bills for costumes, props, and even theater space could not be paid.

Welles was also extremely active in radio Radio;drama work, partly to help finance his theatrical projects—especially the Mercury Theater Mercury Theater , which he and John Houseman formed in 1937—but also partly because radio offered remarkable challenges and opportunities. Through radio, Welles could tell stories in new ways, often playing several roles himself, and he could reach a mass audience. On October 30, 1938, the extent of that audience and radio’s influence upon it became apparent: Welles’s Mercury Theater performed a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) War of the Worlds, The (radio program)
War of the Worlds, The (Wells) . Thousands of people—tuning into the middle of the broadcast when programs on other stations ended—mistook the radio play for an authentic report of an alien invasion and panicked. Welles was struck by this tangible proof of the power of art when carried by a mass medium. He soon traveled to Hollywood to participate in the most powerful such medium of the time.

Film companies had already expressed interest in Welles before the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, but in its aftermath he became an especially hot property; he was the radio broadcast personality of the year, as well as a household name. George J. Schaefer, president of Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio-Keith-Orpheum[Radio Keith Orpheum] (RKO), was particularly interested in Welles’s high visibility and signed him to a two-picture deal on August 21, 1939. Welles was won over not only by financial backing that would allow him to keep the Mercury troupe together while making a film but also by a unique clause Hollywood studio system;directorial independence in his contract guaranteeing him complete creative control over his films once they were approved by the studio.

Welles went to Hollywood with the intention of making a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (serial, 1899; book, 1902), a story he had already presented as a radio play. Both Conrad’s novella and Welles’s planned adaptation involved the rise and fall of a larger-than-life person, as related by an unreliable narrator Unreliable narrators or witness to isolated events in that person’s life. Welles was particularly intrigued by Conrad’s theme, which inextricably linked greatness of character with murderous corruption and decay. Welles soon left this project behind, but he continued to brood over many of Conrad’s themes and narrative strategies as he turned to the project that was to become Citizen Kane.

Welles had written a three-hundred-page screenplay entitled John Citizen, U.S.A., which provided a starting point for Herman J. Mankiewicz’s radically revised script (worked on also by Welles and Houseman); the revision was initially entitled American. The central character in the screenplay, Charles Foster Kane, was rather transparently modeled on William Randolph Hearst, the head of a powerful newspaper syndicate who lived in luxurious retreat at San Simeon on the California coast. The intention of the film, though, was to use Hearst’s fictional analogue as a starting point for an analysis of the perils of a particularly twentieth century American style of greatness.

Citizen Kane depicts the life of Charles Foster Kane, who had wealth thrust upon him as a young child, which both raised and ruined him. The film is organized as a mystery, as a reporter attempts to determine the meaning of Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” on the theory that knowing what it means will reveal the essence of the man who said it. As a result, the film tells Kane’s life story through a series of narrators, each of whom knows only part of his story, and each of whom filters even that part through his or her own particular perspective. Cinema;narrative techniques As the reporter interviews each narrator, that person’s point of view is represented by a flashback Flashbacks in cinema in which a portion of Kane’s life is portrayed. Even when all the narratives are put together, the basic mystery of Kane’s life—who, ultimately, was he?—remains insoluble. At the end of the film, the meaning of “Rosebud” is finally revealed to the audience (and only to the audience—the characters never learn the truth), but it remains an open question what the solution to the puzzle actually reveals about the man.

Even before Citizen Kane was released, it encountered many problems. Because of his secretive and idiosyncratic working methods and the many delays in the film’s release, Welles was ridiculed by some journalists as Hollywood’s most famous director who had not yet made a picture. As Citizen Kane neared completion, reports of its allegedly slanderous treatment of Hearst were circulated, and there was great legal and media pressure applied to stop or hinder its release. Offers were made to buy the negative so it could be destroyed; when these offers were refused, the Hearst syndicate did what it could to shun the film and restrict its distribution.

Citizen Kane finally premiered on May 1, 1941, to great critical success, but it was initially a commercial failure and helped earn Welles a reputation as a troublesome, unreliable director. He would never again be granted both solid financial backing and total creative control, and although he made other innovative, even brilliant films, he would never again be in a position to make a film such as Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane challenged and expanded the conventional notion of what kind of story a mainstream Hollywood film should tell, how such a film should tell such a story, and what it should look like Cinema;Hollywood stylistic conventions . There had, of course, been earlier Hollywood films showing the corrupt side of powerful people, and there had been many far more radical films than Citizen Kane produced in the first forty-five years of cinema. Most of these experimental films, however, were produced outside the studio system altogether and therefore did not receive wide distribution. The majority of filmgoers had no conception of the wide variety of cinematic styles being employed in the world, because Hollywood films were the only ones they saw.

Traditional Hollywood films created an ideal position of total knowledge for a spectator. In other words, even if the films temporarily kept secrets (such as the identity of the killer in a murder mystery), by the end of the film, all ambiguities were resolved and all secrets were revealed: The audience knew everything it wanted to know. Welles aimed instead for what he called a “prismatic” style, Cinema;stylistic innovation consciously fragmenting Kane’s life by reflecting him through various characters, each of whom saw a somewhat different Kane. The various Kanes described by the various narrators never resolved into a single coherent picture, so the film left the audience with unanswered questions and ambiguities forever unresolved.

The formal style Cinema;cinematography
Cinema;editing of the film contributed to its narrative ambiguity. Two of Welles’s cinematic techniques are particularly important in this regard: “long takes” (shots that last for several minutes without editing) and “depth of field” (shots in which the foreground, middleground, and background are all clearly visible simultaneously). Because it is through editing more than any other single technique that directors control an audience’s interpretation of a film, long takes allow audience members more free play to decide for themselves how to interpret a given scene. Similarly, depth of focus allows a spectator to decide which part of the screen to pay attention to at any given moment, rather than being forced by more conventional focus to look at the object the director dictates. Cinematographer Gregg Toland was instrumental in this aspect of the film. Toland was an experienced and award-winning cinematographer before he met Welles, but he welcomed the opportunity to work with a new director, because it allowed him to experiment. He had used deep focus photography before, but never so insistently or adventurously as in Citizen Kane.

Sound Cinema;sound tracks as well as sight was extremely important in the film, and Bernard Herrmann’s music played a particularly important role in conveying the mood of key scenes. Music is not merely incidental in the film, it is central to the plot. Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander, is, by his design, an opera singer, and the music she sings—increasingly strained and hysterical—charts her response to Kane’s bullying. The music that surrounds Kane also helps dramatize his rise and fall, from the buoyant background music as he takes control of his first newspaper to the wailing jazz song that sets the tone for his final argument with Susan.

Welles’s themes and stylistic choices in Citizen Kane proved to be influential models for later generations of filmmakers, although it took several decades for this influence to become evident. Different subsequent directors took stylistic and thematic elements of Welles’s work in different directions. For example, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) Chinatown (Polanski) owed something of its lingering robber-baron ethos and metaphysical and epistemic uncertainty to Citizen Kane; Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990) Godfather trilogy (Coppola) was deeply indebted to Welles’s epic analysis of a hero who is both captivating and revolting; and even though such films as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975) perhaps owed more to later films by Welles—especially Touch of Evil (1948) and The Lady from Shanghai (1958)—their rambling, decentered narrative style also recalled sections of Citizen Kane. Outside Hollywood, the ability of Welles to realize his own vision despite working in an industrialized film industry inspired the French New Wave filmmakers, especially François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, when they began making films themselves at the end of the 1950’s.


Citizen Kane is consistently ranked as one of the best films of all time; in fact, over the years it has been voted the single greatest film of all time in several polls of critics, film professionals, and cineastes. Perhaps behind these rankings one may detect not only respect for the film’s technical virtuosity, stylistic variety, and probing analysis of a contemporary crisis, but also astonishment at Welles’s audacity and achievement. If Citizen Kane is basically a fable about the hollowness at the core of a man of power, it is also an illustration of the world of creative possibilities open to a man of great cinematic imagination.

Perhaps the deepest ambiguity surrounding the legacy of Citizen Kane, however, is precisely that it can be used both to prove and to disprove the theory that great films are produced by auteurs Auteur theory
Cinema;auteurism —invididual cinematic geniuses—rather than being the products of collaboration. On one hand, despite Welles’s reputation for independence, individuality, and boundless personal creativity, Citizen Kane can be regarded as in some ways the triumph of the studio system—perhaps not the conventional Hollywood studio system, but a system of collective enterprise and imagination nevertheless. The script was a collaborative effort involving Welles, Mankiewicz, and Houseman. The actors were primarily members of the Mercury Theater troupe who had worked together for several years, and the film was directed as an ensemble presentation rather than a series of individual performances. Finally, key members of the technical staff—especially Herrmann and Toland—were highly skilled, even “star” performers in their own right, and these experts were skillfully blended into the ensemble production.

On the other hand, without denying that the film could not have been made without such collaboration, Citizen Kane is often used as an example of how an auteur stamps a distinctive mark even on an ensemble production. Welles was by no means the sole creative force behind the film, but it was primarily his vision that was elaborated, and his contributions are everywhere. The myth in the film, its powerful story of the rise and fall of a modern hero, is matched by the myth of the film, its affirmation of the creative force of the independent film auteur working successfully in the midst of a mechanized, bureaucratized, and commodified industry and society. Citizen Kane (Welles)
Hollywood studio system;Orson Welles and[Welles]

Further Reading

  • Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Vol. 1. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. The classic articulation of film theory that celebrates long takes, depth of field, and ambiguity in cinema. Indispensable for placing Welles within the history of film theory and practice.
  • Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. Comprehensive, illustrated, and fully documented study of Welles’s life and career. Particularly good on Welles’s public and political activities. Contains an extraordinary amount of useful background material and quotations from primary sources, letters, and reviews of Welles’s productions.
  • Carringer, Robert L. The Making of “Citizen Kane.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Meticulously researched, carefully argued, balanced examination of the production history of Citizen Kane. Details the important contributions of many technicians and artists without denying the role of Welles’s talents. Contains many rare illustrations. Particularly interesting sections on art direction, special effects, and Citizen Kane’s relation to the Heart of Darkness project.
  • Heylin, Clinton. Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005. Explores Welles’s struggle against the Hollywood studio system, his successes and his failures. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Critical overview of Welles’s life and career that repeatedly blames Welles for his exile from Hollywood and failure to live up to his great potential. Useful corrective to the image of Welles as martyred by the Hollywood studio system, but contains many overstated and quirky judgments on Welles. Illustrated.
  • Kael, Pauline. The “Citizen Kane” Book. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Contains both the shooting script (the plan for the film) and the cutting continuity (a shot-by-shot description of the final form taken by the film) of Citizen Kane, illustrated with many shots from the film, as well as Kael’s long essay “Raising Kane.” Disputes Welles’s claims of how much of the film was his creation and emphasizes Herman J. Mankiewicz’s contributions. Many valuable comments comparing Citizen Kane to other films of its time.
  • Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Rev. ed. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989. Arguably the best critical book on Welles’s entire career. Contains separate chapters on each of his major films, including Citizen Kane. Gives recurrent attention to Welles as an illusionist, but balances this with continual analysis of the social and political aspects of his work. Illustrated with shots from his films.
  • _______, ed. Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Includes an interview with Welles by fellow director Peter Bogdanovich, as well as scholarly essays on the politics, style, and meaning of Welles’s film.

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