It’s a “Citizen Kane” Life!
Orson Welles’ famous motion picture is an interesting, if sad, character sketch.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the film Citizen Kane (1941), perhaps it would be best if you watch the film first. Don’t worry though, the film Citizen Kane is clean with no (or at least very little) language, no violence (other than a slap across the face during an argument scene) or defiling scenes, except for some immodestly dressed showgirls in one scene. This does not make it a film that is Christian, or free from besetting problems; that is something practically unavoidable, this side of heaven, therefore, the review continues beyond, “it’s clean”. There is a tendency, especially within Christian circles, to declare any movie that has no language, violence or sexuality, automatically a good film. We dare not fall into that pit. So let’s take a look at the story, the message and the themes inside Citizen Kane.
Interesting to note before we get going is the fact that Citizen Kane has been named the #1 movie in America on the American Film Institute’s list of best movies. The film was innovative technologically, and also in its story devices and development of character; it has certainly endured as a cinema classic, both in public reception and critical acclaim. This being said, I myself wouldn’t have named Kane as the best film in the nation, though I would be hard pressed to come up with any film, currently, that could fill that prestigious honor. However, Orson Welles’ film is a remarkable and well-crafted motion picture and is worth a watch. One of the major complaints one hears of about contemporary movies is their lack or neglect of character development. This is not true of Citizen Kane. The main plot of the film is, in fact, character development.
The movie opens to ominous shots of an exotic palace, eerie and dark. An old man lays on his deathbed, clutching a single object, a snow globe. With his last breath he utters one word, “rosebud”, and then the lonely man dies. Following this, we view a newsreel that shows us the “highlights” of Kane’s life as a businessman, a newspaper-publishing tycoon, lover, husband/father, and public figure. The reel ends, and we are in a smoky room filled with reporters getting feedback from their chief. He doesn’t like it. The reel tells the basic overview of the man’s life, but it doesn’t tell us about the man himself. “What about his last words?” The reporters are sent on a quest to investigate the meaning and significance of “rosebud”, if any; and to discover who was Charles Foster Kane. This leads us into a series of interviews. The reporters track down anyone who would have known Kane intimately: family, friends, rivals and enemies, those that loved him and even those who detested him. Through each interview we relive the series of major events, from the speakers perspective, gaining new insights into the life and the person of Mr. Kane. We see his happy childhood broken by abdicating parents who wish him “a better life than they can offer”. He has inherited a tremendous sum of money and his mother wants him to live an “important” life. They send him away with a banker, a man who could never train him the way his mother and father could, because of a misplaced notion that he’ll have a better life that way. This may have been sacrificial of the parents, but is seen to be a decision for the worse. Kane is then left to grow up essentially on his own, devoid of any familial attachment. This portrayal of the family (throughout the film) is negative, but it is shown as the result of people’s selfish decisions, which becomes a running theme – the danger of living for self.
This film shows the sad results of such a legacy, as Kane grows into an incorrigible and prodigal youth. Taking on a crumbling newspaper company as a project, Kane brings it back into the public eye and gains prosperity by printing lies and fabrications. Life for Kane becomes about doing things, and making other people do things, his way.
Upon inaugurating his newly acquired newspaper, Kane rights up a Declaration of Principles, but these he doesn’t adhere to, because Kane is a law unto himself.
We watch his rise to fame, his success in business, and how he comes to be married to the lovely President’s niece, Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick). But, their romance doesn’t last as workaholic and self-absorbed Kane spends little time at home. There love runs cold. Again a negative family-life. He has aspirations of one day holding public office, and he sets about making that happen. His campaign for governor is expensive and full-blown, and Kane is bold about his criticism and slander against his incumbent opponent. Everything is going perfectly, everything is going his way, when all of a sudden disaster strikes. Charles Foster Kane had been spending time with a young girl Miss Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), an opera student with no voice, alone. They met inadvertently one night, and continued to see each other, though the film is not clear on whether their relationship was adulterous or not. Regardless, Kane should not have involved himself with this girl. His opponent gains knowledge of their affair, and on the eve of the election he sends word to Mrs. Kane, telling her to come to the girl’s apartment. There, Kane and Susan are confronted by Kane’s wife and political opponent. He is told he has two choices: he can either save his marriage and leave the country immediately, thus forfeiting the election, or he can stay, continue with the election campaign, and watch as his opponent prints a scandal story about his affair with Miss Alexander in every major newspaper (except for Kane’s, of course). This should be an obvious choice. Repent, save his marriage, sacrifice his political hopes and relinquish his adulterous relationship. But Kane will not abide anyone telling him what to do, and he will do things his way, no matter what the cost, so he stubbornly stays. The story is printed, the public rejects him (as they should), he loses the election and his wife divorces him. Everything is taken from him, except for Susan and his newspaper. He marries Miss Alexander, goes on an expensive honeymoon and continues to embellish and manipulate through his paper. Wealthy and infamous, Kane never attains his dreamed-of public office, but he forces his new wife to become an opera “star” in order to prove to the world that he made no mistake in ruining his marriage in his love for her. She is a horrible singer, and the public can’t stand her, but Kane is insistent. The opera continues on its tour, drawing tons of negative criticism from every newspaper except his. Susan hates life in the spotlight, knowing she is a laughing-stock. But her husband cares more about his image and desires, than his wife. He drives her to attempted suicide. Only then does he give in to her and drop the façade of opera singing. They retreat to “Xanadu”, Kane’s palatial castle, an exotic estate filled with luxuries unimaginable (Kane has long been a collector of statues and art and other valuables) built for his wife. He has come to find his identity in his wealth. He believes that he can buy the love of his wife with expensive tokens, but he never sacrifices for her. Kane lives for himself, and himself alone. Susan soon cannot take it any more, trapped inside the impregnable fortress of Kane’s iron will, surrounded by empty lavishness; she leaves him.
Charles Foster Kane, for all his wealth and importance, ends life alone, world-renowned and unloved by any other. Grasping hold of a snow globe, which portrays a serene little winter cottage, he utters one word “rosebud”. But what did that mean? Why was that snowy scene in the snow globe so important? Was there any connection? The reporters conclude that while there may be a connection, they won’t find it because men’s lives are to complex, that they are unsolvable puzzles. They leave Xanadu quite befuddled as to their original intent in interviewing those closest to Kane. The film comes to end, we watch workmen as they clear Kane’s possessions out of his palace. They are throwing furniture into a large furnace, and the last thing we see before the screen fades to black is Kane’s childhood sled, which bears the inscription of “rosebud”!
So all that searching and figuring for that! In the end, rosebud meant something so simple and basic to all men: the longing for an innocence given up long ago. Really, Kane lived a child’s life, he never matured, but deep within, he yearned for something more than the hollow life he’d lived. This journey we’ve been taken on warns us about the misuses of wealth, ungodly stewardship of resources for malicious or self-seeking purposes, megalomania, narcissism and it teaches that truth in the Scriptures: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
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