The Academy Award winners 1940s

(Best films)

REBECCA - Selznick International Pictures

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY - 20th Century Fox

MRS. MINIVER - Metro Goldwyn Mayer

CASABLANCA - Warner Bros.

GOING MY WAY - Paramount




HAMLET - J. Arthur Rank-Two Cities Films

ALL THE KING'S MEN - Robert Rossen


The Academy Awards 1942. Orson Welles, the genius and young director who is nominated for four Oscars this year, is about to be publicly booed, almost scourged for his masterpiece of cinematography: Citizen Kane (1941). That's a scene very rarely experienced at the awards and it has a certain amount of incomprehensibility about it, a pitiful scene. Orson Welles receives a joint award only for best original screenplay, together with the renowned screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and that's it for Citizen Kane.

The best movie of the year, according to the Academy, was "How Green was My Valley" - 20th Century Fox.

That low-point of Academy history aside -- how can a 25-year old brat from New York, do such an excellent and ingenious movie? The contract he was given early on at RKO was extraordinary. They quickly considered him to be a genius of unique proportions in Hollywood, dangerous perhaps and unscrupulous too to say the least, but a genius all the same.

Mercury Theatre, the famed theater group headed by Orson Welles as a project of innovation, had only years before in 1938 shocked the Orson Welles with H.G. Welles American people with their radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds". The haunting piece of fiction by H. G. Wells, dealing with spaceships and spooky occupants coming from the planet Mars to take charge of poor earth. It has been said in retrospect that Welles and the others in the group intended it to be just a simple and harmless Halloween prank, but it resulted in hysteria and pandemonium since it was so convincing. Already at this young age the public learned the hard way he wasn't likely to be the least reserved in shamelessly exposing his unique, daring and decisive talent unto the American radio and theater scene whenever he was given the chance to do so. Moreover he didn't even seemed to care one bit about the turmoil or how the baffled public would react to such a scheeme.

Nevertheless, RKO probably thought, in signing this unprecedented contract with Orson Welles, that they now could rest assured and that they were more then ready to cash in some huge, spectacular money. In short that they were on their way in all aspects of the word, heading like lightning to a certain success with this prodigy.

Dangerous reports however began to leak from the studio regarding the subject of his new project Citizen Kane. The contract Orson Welles was in possession of gave him free hands to do whatever he wanted with two films, but reports were he was having a very hard time finding a suitable subject. First he tried for quite some time to do something with Heart of darkness, the Joseph Conrad story, which turned out to be in vain since it never got through. In this troubled situation help and cooperation was appropriately found in the form of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a celebrated scriptwriter who could do just about anything with a script. 250 pages he had written, lying on his back after a back injury.

The script he'd written went under the working title: "The American." This became the working material and backbone for the film and the subject to deal with was in place for Welles after that, the slightly polished biography of the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. To reflect on this choice now might be difficult, but it's like picking the best known media person in the U.S. at this instant-- whoever that might be -- do an unrelenting movie and exposing the secrets of that persons life as hard as you can, projecting it on the screen for all the public to see. That's a tough load to carry on a set. Keep also in mind that Orson Welles at the time was a debutante at the movies and had never even acted in front of a camera before. He'd been on the radio and the theatre for years of course and had among other things done some amazing Shakespeare productions in New York, but never in front of cameras on a movie set.

That's whichever way you look at it someone clearly willing to risk his reputation, his entire career even.

The work at the studio with this new script evolved smoothly and scene after scene were shot on the set with a unique spontaneity. Many things have been said about the techniques, the groundbreaking methods and the tricks they used. They didn't break every ground in techniques, many things they used had actually been done before, but they certainly refined it together and managed some amazing effects. Gregg Toland's hand with the cameras was especially instrumental for the result, unquestionable so, also Welles's visual journey through the years of Charles Foster Kane, the aging masks used in his face, was something brand new in make-up art. The way in which they hacked out floors to sink cameras deep down under floor level to get an extremely low angle, the way they showed ceilings, the way they worked with lights and shadows. In summary we can easily say that Welles and the others were in the process of seeking new inventive forms of how to make movies.

Regardless of how we appreciate the importance of Citizen Kane today, it must be futile to deny the impact it had in these inventive areas of moviemaking. Something unique and important was achieved without question -- it was a pure statement in cinematography.

William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who lived at San Simeon in California, clearly influenced William Randolf Hearst Charles Foster Kane's character. That's obvious when we're going through the film and follow Kane around as a journalist, as as a politician, as owner of the pleasure ground Xanadu. Had it not been a William Randolph Hearst we'd sit here today with an entirely different story no doubt. The irony of this is that William Randolph Hearst actually got the terrible message of what was in the making from a gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, who early on in the realease process had seen a preview screening. In addition to this we also have words to say that it's possible that Hearst got notice from Mankiewicz who sometimes visited Hearst at San Simeon. Whatever way, it's clear that the fierce attack that followed is, as far as I know at least, unsurpassed in movie history.

There has rarely been a more determined man than Hearst during this period, attempting, no demanding to stop this movie from ever seeing the light of day. Also the people in Hollywood were shocked. Louis B. Mayer, a Hollywood executive, joined effort with Hearst and was looking for every conceivable way to get rid of it. They were ready to buy off Citizen Kane and burn the negative. To get rid of this ugly picture fast was by now considered to be the most perfect, noble and American thing to do.

There were more to it -- blackmails were being issued, threats of F. B. I. investigations were handed down and for every person who wanted anything to do with this movie reprimands were planned. These battles were quite detrimental to most of the people involved, and I'll think that many of the difficulties that followed Orson Welles throughout his career, financial and others, actually were repercussions from these early scandals that continued with so much ferocity long after the premiere of Citizen Kane.

The reactions at the Academy Awards 1942 were with certitude direct results. Orson Welles of course had never been someone who shied away from turmoil and scandals. He actually seemed to thrive on them. But these horrible battles fought over Citizen Kane and the dangerous encounters with the powerful Hearst was too much even for Welles's liking. Also for Hearst they were certainly unwanted publicity. After the premiere there were some clear, unmistakable remarks that coudn't be missed. The pleasure-ground San Simeon blown out of proportions, his California estate, where so many celebrated stars in U. S. history had dwelled -- Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and the rest, blown up and projected on the white screen as Xanadu, with extraneous flavor of craziness.

Once George Bernard Shaw described San Simeon in the following terms: "San Simeon was the place God would have built -- if he had the money." There were also personal attacks on his private life to be sure. Hearst's companion in arms -- the showgirls Marion Davies -- was presented quite unmistakable as the mistress and then the second wife of Charles Foster Kane in the film.

It is quite probable that Orson Welles never expected this kind of dreaded reaction. Certainly, in all awareness, he must have seen some of it coming, projecting the powerful Hearst in that way, but possibly not the unprecedented torrent. One can be easily tempted to make comparisons with the radio broadcast that had erupted just a few years before, the fascinating H. G. Welles story that in a matter of speaking sent American public roaming in the streets flabbergasted to literary take cover from Martian attacks. Welles held press conferences after that event showing no contrition to plead his innocence concerning intent, that is to honestly say that there was no malice involved and that it was just a show, which of course it was. In 1940 preparing his debut in movies after this crashing experience and shooting his role as Charles Foster Kane, he must likewise have understood the potential danger, but might not nearly have grasped the gale he had released.

Now we must not forget that the movie was released and that it did draw considerable appreciation. There were noticeable critics like Boshler Crowther in the New York Times and John O'Hara in Newsweek who almost immediately saw its greatness. The release however was diminished in the sense that it didn't played in a normal national way because of boycotts, presumably many of the Academy Awards audience hadn't even seen it on Oscar night. Notwithstanding this reaction and the consistent resistance it was obvious to most viewers who saw it that they were witnessing a jewel, a provoking contemporary statement of blunt cinematic brilliance.

The career of Orson Welles became indeed not easy after 1942. Directly afterwards huge problems hit him hard when his sequel The Magnificent Amberson was on its way out, to conclude the contract he had with RKO for two films. First problem faced was the difficulty in finding a workable script. After the script was chosen there was more trouble lurking, Welles had to resign on the point of his freedom that was granted him before for Citizen Kane when they were off to revise the contract he had made with RKO. They should now posses script and casting approval over him and it was obvious that the screws were meant to be tighter from now on. When the shooting was finished, and Welles already working on another project in South-America, a man named Wise was entrusted to do the last editing. Things were mad along this way that clearly contradicted Welles's intent and it was savaged.

Many directors and films have passed our way through the years of cinema, but few have left the impression that Orson Welles and Citizen Kane has. Here we have a man who early on in life made something quite unique for which he paid a heavy price, but for which he later on received so much appreciation and admiration. How many filmmakers have not seen it, learned from it and used it as a measurement for what films can be like at the peak of creativity? The quite obvious over-weighted, bearded Orson Welles with cigar and cigar-smoking man has indeed found many admirers to follow his thread. Although Welles never enjoyed the trust from Hollywood again, always had difficulties in finding financing for any of his other films and many projects cancelled as a result thereof, he never failed to amaze. He filmed Kafka, he played a corrupt police on the Mexican border and did numerous other fascinating roles. Orson Welles died October 9th 1985 and he could by then look back on quite an amazing career. The flick to remember above else, I submit this, is with no doubt Citizen Kane which stands certainly among the top few and the absolute best in the history of cinema, winning new audiences as time goes by. The purest sense of breath-taking, inventive cinematography, a brilliant script and terrific acting all through 119 minutes are here for us, created by a fearless debutant of 25 years who would stop at nothing hammering this art form to an unknown hight, surpassed by few.

To give this film the chance it deserves is just a very obligatory thing to do. The American Film Institute's Top 100 has it right on top of the scale, as do so many other lists of great films. The irony is of course that it took so long to get the broad public to enjoy it, to see it without the discriminate viewing many were inclined to see it with during the 1940s.

An estimate is that it took about a quarter of a Century for it to really be freed of the chains that were attached to it. That's just proof once again that true art can and will gain ground through the ages, conquer obstacles and poor taste of the times, a they're the ones that are destined to be one of the classics.

Orson Welles is known to have said this:

"When I die they'll be picking over my creative bones... The films will suddenly get financing; the films will get restored, old scripts that we couldn't get financed, they'll find the financing for some kid to direct. There will be biographies of me, and documentaries. It's just inevitable."

How true these words are, tragic in a sense but there are still true words.





Other Links :

The Official Academy Awards Site

The Battle of Citizen Kane

William Randolph Hearst


June 2000



    © The Unofficial Citizen Kane Page (Kent Wall, Sweden) Photographs are licensed for use: CORBIS