Citizen Kane, January 8th, 1941: Hearst vs. Welles-Kane in Heavyweight Tilt

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Orson Welles

William Randolph Hearst

 

Orson Welles was at his best when his art created controversy; we see that in practical application with his 1938 radio production of “The War of the Worlds”, gendering panic at the most and at the least confusion. Then with his first film project (his best and maybe the best period), “Citizen Kane”, 1941, Welles brought the wrath of William Randolph Hearst down upon the shoulders of his first venture into the movies; January 8th began his battle with the newspaper titan, which he would initially lose.

Columnist Paul Walker wrote “William Randolph Hearst doesn’t like Orsen Wells’ (his misspelling) first picture, ‘Citizen Kane.’ Even the tag line that ‘any resemblance to any one in real life is purely coincidental’ doesn’t seem to keep him quiet.”[1] Finally the behind the scenes story of the Hearst-RKO-Welles battle was made public near the end of January;[2] the alarm that was prevailing in Hollywood and theater-chains was likened to the panic caused by Welles,’ The War of the Worlds, radio broadcast;[3] NEA correspondent Paul Harrison predicted a “campaign of suppression” with the advent of Hollywood trades turning on Welles.[4]

Hearst wielded considerable power in print, forbidding his papers to carry Kane, also, he pressured (blackmailed) certain of Hollywood that particular stories that had been held from print as favors would now be released if Kane were supported. Some movie house chains would not show Kane and with little advertising available Citizen was destined to gain few attentions early on.

Welles maintained that Kane would be released in New York, as scheduled, on February 14, 1941;[5] that was not to be. For the next two months RKO refused an opening. Hearst made a public announcement at the end of March saying that the reports that he would prevent Citizen Kane from being released was “some more of that propaganda from Mars” and as far as he was concerned Kane could open at any time.[6] Within days RKO publicized that Kane would be released within a month.[7] At the April 9, 1941 preview, the showing was a complete success, with six-hundred film-critics offering unanimous praise; spreading their plaudits from the supporting cast to the photography and the film’s unique story-telling perspective.[8] Quickly, announcements flew across North America that May 9, was set as the beginning of Kane as a Roadshow,[9] and that the picture would premiere in Hollywood, on May 8, at the El Capitan Theatre; May 6 was scheduled as the Midwest premiere at the Woods and Palace theaters in Chicago but its first general-public bow came in New York on May 1, 1941 at the RKO Palace, at 8:30 PM.[10] A nationwide release was scheduled for September 5, 1941.

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Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, May 1, 1941

 

The near four-month fight did not leave Citizen Kane or Hollywood unscathed. In a year that Citizen Kane should have swept the Oscars, it won but one and when its nominations were announced at the 1942 Academy Awards, it and Welles were booed. Welles had made no secret of his disdain for Hollywood and now Tinseltown made no effort to champion the erstwhile stage and radio auteur. By the by Citizen Kane has not, as so many pictures have, grown in esteem through the years, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s, Vertigo, or even Welles’ own, The Magnificent Ambersons, Kane was immediately recognized as an enormous achievement from the first. John Chapman said that Kane was the best motion he ever saw and he relayed that many people with a “wider knowledge of films” than he, claimed it to be the best movie ever made. Now, seventy-four years later the claim to greatness for Citizen Kane still remains… And the title of “best” is difficult to apply to any other celluloid work.

Welles-Kane found, on that early January day, that battling giants, like tilting with windmills, makes you liable to get whacked and knocked from your steed; and so it went in January of 1941 for Orson Welles and his finest film, beaten in those “opening” rounds before the bell rung and the bout begun, but the tilt at the last belonged to Kane.

citizen-kane(2) citizen-kane-poster

 

By C. S. Williams

 

[1] Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) January 21, 1941

[2] Long beach Independent (Long Beach, California) January 25, 1941

[3] Mount Carmel Item (Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania) January 28, 1941

[4] Mount Carmel Item (Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania) January 28, 1941

[5] Winnipeg Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) January 25, 1941

[6] Lubbock Morning Avalanche (Lubbock, Texas) April 1, 1941

[7] Brooklyn, Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) April 5, 1941

[8] Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) April 10, 1941

[9] Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) April 16, 1941

[10] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) May 1, 1941

 

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