This was no standard-issue movie contract. Nay, this contract likely made other filmmakers a bit envious: RKO guaranteed Welles complete control over his projects. This, even though he had never before made a film! And he was only 24 years old!
RKO took a calculated risk. Welles wasn’t an entirely unknown quantity, even though he lacked experience in feature films. The “boy wonder” was something of a cause célèbre in New York. He produced and directed a stage version of Macbeth with an African American cast, as well as a Broadway adaptation of Julius Caesar that was a thinly-veiled jab at 1930s’ fascism.
Of course, he was also the driving force behind Mercury Theatre, the same group that brought us the notorious radio-play adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
It seemed there was no performance or publicity he couldn’t overcome. He was a wellspring of creativity and energy.
There also wasn’t a sacred cow in Welles’ world. So, with his first film at RKO, he began production on a scathing pseudo-biography of the great newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. This became the acclaimed film Citizen Kane (1941).
As for Mr Hearst, he loathed the very idea of this film.
Hearst himself was, in his youth, a brash young genius who built an empire that changed the newspaper business. He knew the kind of salacious details that have always sold news.
For example, in 1897, Hearst sent artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to produce sketches of an upcoming war. But Remington discovered there was to be no war. Undeterred, Hearst famously cabled his reply: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
As you know, Hearst became a powerful man who knew how to influence public opinion. He was unafraid to take risks, and was confident he could squish anything that came at him.
Remind you of anyone?
We recently viewed the PBS documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), a film about the Hearst vs. Welles Collision of Egos. It’s also a well-researched exploration of the news media in the early 20th century, and a real insider’s view classic Hollywood filmmaking.
David McCullough, in the film’s introduction, notes, “In his time, each of our protagonists [Welles and Hearst] was the acclaimed master of his medium. Both vaulted to the pinnacle as boy wonders, each in turn catching the wave of revolutionary changes in mass communication and mass entertainment.”
Two things are clear in this documentary. First, with two oversized personalities like Hearst and Welles, things were not going to end well for anybody.
Second, Hearst knew exactly how to fight Welles. These two men, after all, were more similar than either would admit.
Even though Hearst’s personal fortune and newspaper empire were in decline in the early 1940s, he still held considerable power in Hollywood. His papers refused to accept paid advertising for Welles’ film, and there were certainly no favourable reviews.
Critics loved Citizen Kane, but it wasn’t a box office smash. The Battle Over Citizen Kane blames Hearst for this, but we (as in, yours truly) are not convinced it was entirely Hearst’s fault. Welles’ film is ultimately a bleak look at the meaning of one man’s life, which may not have suited audiences in the uneasy global atmosphere of 1941.
If you’re not familiar with Citizen Kane, or the controversy it caused, we highly recommend The Battle Over Citizen Kane. Even if you aren’t a classic movie buff, the history alone is fascinating.
The Battle Over Citizen Kane: Narrated by Richard Ben Cramer. Directed by Michael Epstein & Thomas Lennon. Written by Richard Ben Cramer & Thomas Lennon. Lennon Documentary Group, 1996, 108 mins.
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