Kane Mutiny

The industry's initial reaction to Welles's masterwork should serve as a lesson to WorldFest filmmakers

Legend has it that the first time he visited a Hollywood movie set, Orson Welles, a posthumous honoree at this year's WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, described the amalgamation of magic-making machinery as the greatest toy train set ever designed.

And then, with all the rash, breakneck enthusiasm of a child captivated by a new plaything, Welles set the machinery a-spinning. Already a living legend at the age of 25, he blithely disregarded the advice of his elders whenever they told him something was simply impossible to do. In his case, ignorance wasn't bliss -- it was exuberance.

Much like some indulgent father who continually signs the checks and brings home newer, more lavish toys, RKO Pictures gave Welles carte blanche to pull the levers, blow the whistles and chug-chug down the tracks as recklessly and rapidly as he desired. Just as long as he delivered the final product he promised: a new and exciting motion picture titled Citizen Kane.

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Employing the best technicians Hollywood had to offer, the finest actors he could import from New York, and the most dazzling effects from the triumphant theater and radio dramas that had attracted RKO's interest in the first place, Welles broke most of the moviemaking rules, and even a few that had not yet been made.

What's that? You say you never show ceilings in a room because it's easier to light a scene with nothing overhead? Balderdash! Put the camera down, way down -- hell, bolt it to the floor! -- and tilt upward. Then you'll have to have a ceiling! You'll have to have lots of them!

Say what? You have to break a sequence into individual shots so you can propel the narrative and direct the audience's attention? Hah! Meet Gregg Toland, ace cinematographer and maverick risk taker. Welles knew Toland could shoot entire scenes in deep focus, enabling the audience to see foreground objects, middle-ground drama and background activity all at once, all with equal clarity. That way, Welles knew, he wouldn't have to cut -- entire sequences could be played out before an immobile camera, and the audience could decide what to watch, much as it would during a stage play.

(Check out the scene where young Charlie Kane's mother and her lawyer are in the foreground, deciding the boy's future, while Kane's father huddles in a corner and, outside, on the other side of a rear-wall window, Charlie plays in the snow, blissfully unaware his childhood is about to end.)

Citizen Kane appears to have been made in one single, spontaneous burst of creative energy by collaborators -- Welles, Toland, co-scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz -- clearly intoxicated by the sheer power of their medium. Intoxicated, yes, and impatient with their era's customary niceties of film narrative. Right at the start, Citizen Kane shocks by cutting immediately from Kane's somber, highly stylized death scene to a shrill, March of Time-style newsreel. The transition is audacious, but no more so than the clever use of the newsreel itself -- it provides, highly compressed, all the exposition the audience needs to make sense of the flashbacks that follow.

The newsreel ends, journalists banter in a shadow-streaked screening room, someone mentions "Rosebud" -- and the chase is on. Whether you're seeing it for the first time or savoring it again after dozens of viewings, you're hopelessly, helplessly hooked on following the movie wherever it races. (Should you lay out cash to watch Citizen Kane one more time? See page 36.)

It's altogether appropriate that Citizen Kane is being screened (as a benefit for KUHF-FM) during the 2001 edition of WorldFest/Houston. Indeed, you could make the case that Welles's masterwork should be screened as a public service at every film festival to inspire both the filmmakers attending and the would-be auteurs in the audience. François Truffaut said it best when he claimed Citizen Kane is "probably [the film] that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers."

But another Welles classic on the WorldFest/Houston program, Touch of Evil, is in some ways every bit as instructive as Citizen Kane. The latter film launched Welles's career. The former pretty much wrecked it.

Citizen Kane may very well be, as a recent American Film Institute poll proclaimed, the greatest movie ever made. In its time, however, it was a box-office fizzle that received wildly mixed reviews. (The worst reviews, not surprisingly, appeared in newspapers owned and operated by William Randolph Hearst, the publishing tycoon who recognized himself as the real-life role model for Charles Foster Kane.) The RKO brass quickly decided to stop pampering their boy wonder. While Welles was off on location in Brazil for It's All True, a project he would never complete, the studio seized his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, and drastically recut the drama after a disastrous sneak preview. Approximately 45 minutes of footage were irretrievably junked, without Welles's input or approval. The movie remains, even today, tragically incomplete.

During the next 16 years, Welles -- burdened with a reputation for unreliability, high-handedness and reckless free spending -- found only sporadic work as a film director. And the few films he managed to complete -- including the brilliantly bizarre Lady from Shanghai and the small-budget, high-concept Macbeth, both released in 1948 -- did little to wash away the stigma of being box-office poison. Although rarely at a loss for work as an actor, he continued to be viewed as a tarnished golden boy who couldn't or wouldn't direct movies that significant numbers of people wanted to see.

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