Almost all serious stories in the world are stories of a failure with a death in it. But there is more lost paradise in them than defeat. To me that's the central theme in Western culture, the lost paradise.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
—from "Mrs. Robinson"
—Simon and Garfunkel
As the first few months of 1991 begin to unfold and the disheartening events of the new year start to accumulate like so many shadowy clouds across a threatening sky, one searches for safe haven, wherever it may be found, in an attempt to provide a barrier against the anxiety of the moment. Some newspaper columnists have noted the greater attendance recorded at churches and synagogues across the country as evidence of Americans' increased interest in religion. Other social commentators have remarked upon the newly found closeness displayed by members of many communities whose ties to one another have been symbolized by the yellow ribbons encircling a large number of the nation's trees, especially in those towns or cities where military bases are located and the families of service personnel assigned overseas duties still live. In addition, various film critics have published articles crediting the troubling times for the surprising success of "escapist films" such as Pretty Woman, Ghost, or Home Alone. However, one might discover some sense of security in another sort of diversion.
Annually, as Hollywood begins its countdown of days to the Academy Awards ceremonies, film enthusiasts avert their attention from the troubling concerns of the moment to take a nostalgic look at movies and artists of the past that have earned the respect of Oscar, or to reconsider films and filmmakers that have been spurned by Oscar. This year, just such a backward glance seems more appropriate than ever, as the film industry will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles.
No film in cinema history has received as much praise and adulation as Citizen Kane. Throughout the decades since its opening in July of 1941, Citizen Kane has been revered by critics, scholars, and film buffs as the best film ever made. More has been written about this movie—its script, its cast, its production problems, its historical significance, its social commentary, its critical reception, and, of course, its director—than about any other work since the invention of celluloid film. Citizen Kane is the dominant example used to illustrate filmmaking at its finest in courses of film appreciation, film criticism, or film production. Even literature anthologies published for use in college English courses, such as Oxford University Press's Elements of Literature, include Citizen Kane alongside the other works of great literature that have helped define our culture. An international poll of more than 120 film critics conducted every decade by Sight & Sound, the official film journal of the British Film Institute, continually ranks Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. In fact, the survey for the 1980s indicated Citizen Kane's lead position was stronger than ever and the status of Orson Welles more solid, as he received more votes than any other as the greatest director in cinema history.
Nevertheless, as the 1991 Academy Awards draw near, one is reminded of the controversial treatment Citizen Kane and its director received at the Oscar ceremonies honoring the films of 1941. Citizen Kane had been universally praised by critics like John O'Hara, Gilbert Seldes, and 'Archer Winsten, as a truly great landmark film—in the words of Time magazine, "the most sensational product of the U.S. movie industry." Only those newspapers and magazines owned by William Randolph Hearst, on whom Kane's character is transparently based, declined to join the parade offering acclaim. Earlier, Hearst had attempted to buy the negatives of the film's master copy, offering to meet any price, in order to destroy the picture. In addition, the premiere of Citizen Kane, originally scheduled for Valentine's Day of 1941, had to be cancelled because Hearst had threatened the film distributors and theatres with retribution. Only after a lawsuit brought by Hearst against RKO failed did the studio release the film for public showings—although the studio did limit the film's screenings.
Citizen Kane received nine Academy Awards nominations (Best Picture .Director, Actor, Screenwriter, Editor, Cinematographer, Decorator, Score, Sound), but was honored only for its screenplay. As many publications have demonstrated throughout the last five decades, most prominently The Citizen Kane Book by Pauline Kael, Oscar Dearest by Peter H. Brown and Jim Pinkston, and Marion Davies by Laurence Guiles, Orson Welles and his film were victimized by the social politics of the time. As Brown and Pinkston point out in their book, "Welles's Oscar K.O. was a political defeat, not an artistic one, and that knockout was sealed the minute Hollywood realized that the doomed, alcoholic mistress in Citizen Kane was meant to be Marion Davies," Hearst's mistress and a mainstay of the Hollywood social scene. The film community, in denying Welles the recognition he deserved, succumbed to pressures to hold to a politically expedient line rather than to honor the film on the basis of its artistic merit. As columnist Hedda Hopper declared at the time, the Academy was willing to honor "almost any other film except Citizen Kane."
The atmosphere at the Academy Awards was so filled with rancor that each time a nomination for Citizen Kane was announced, boos and hisses could be heard throughout the auditorium. Even the awarding of an Oscar for the screenplay, which Welles was forced to share with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, was a slap in the face for Orson Welles, since many in the community considered Welles's credit for the scriptwriting as undeserved and saw this as an opportunity to display support for Mankiewicz over Welles.
At the time of the Academy Awards, Welles already was preparing two new films for RKO, The Magnificent Ambersons and It's All True. However, the studio, caving in to the political pressures brought about by the Hollywood community, withdrew its support of Welles's artistic freedom. While Welles was out of the country, RKO cut forty minutes from The Magnificent Ambersons and attached an inferior ending to the film previous to its release. Welles would later declare: "They let the studio janitor cut The Magnificent Ambersons in my absence." (Nevertheless, many critics still believe The Magnificent Ambersons, even with the poor editing by the studio, to be as accomplished as Citizen Kane.) Furious at the studio's interference, Welles turned his back on Hollywood rather than compromise his artistic vision. As an indication of his disdain for the studio system and the members of the film community, Welles remarked: "Hollywood is a golden suburb, perfect for golfers, gardeners, mediocre men, and complacent starlets." The second film, It's All True, rumored to be a remarkable film as well, was never released by RKO. Stored in the studio vaults for years, the only print of the film was eventually destroyed.
When Welles exiled himself from Hollywood to Europe in order to preserve his artistic integrity, he lost the financial backing needed to create films. Unlike other artists who simply need a paint brush, or a pen, or a pair of ballet slippers, or a musical instrument, a filmmaker cannot produce without substantial funding.which—in today's world—is measured in millions of dollars. Ironically, Welles's life imitated his art so closely that many fans of film began to confuse Welles with Kane, somehow blending the fates of these two tragic heroes. Like Kane, Welles represented the man who had spent his early years achieving the success that exemplifies the American Dream, a contemporary version of paradise, only to spend his later life confronting his loss of paradise and its accompanying pain.
In the same year that Citizen Kane was released, two other events, one in the summer and the other in the winter, occurred which, oddly enough, might be connected with the reminiscence of Welles's triumph and fall. In the summer of 1941, the New York Yankees' Joe DiMaggio strung together his record streak of batting safely in 56 consecutive games. Recently, New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson declared that DiMaggio's feat represented "baseball's most majestic record" and that it was "held by its most majestic personality." In the same manner that Anderson identifies DiMaggio with 1941 in the world of sports, film critics identify Welles and Citizen Kane with 1941 in the world of cinema. However, the baseball community will celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Yankee Clipper's accomplishments over and over this summer with a sense of pride and honor, since Joe DiMaggio has remained a cherished figure throughout the decades, embraced by the sport to which he contributed so much. At the same time, one wonders what amount of guilt and sadness instead will be felt by those members of the film community, particularly the older figures of the Hollywood establishment, who belatedly will celebrate Citizen Kane and Orson Welles this year.
Perhaps, some might argue, a better baseball comparison to Welles would be Pete Rose, who holds the National League record for batting safely in consecutive games and who has just been banned from consideration for Cooperstown's Hall of Fame. Like Welles, Rose had attained the American Dream and then lost it, finally exiled by the ruling establishments of his profession; however, Rose's exile has occurred after the achievements of a full and enriching career. Film critics will always wonder what great works Welles might have produced had the politics of Hollywood not turned against him in mid-career. To extend the baseball metaphor one step further, Welles, therefore, could be compared to Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the young phenom among the players banned from baseball for gambling on the World Series, ironically immortalized in filmgoers' minds by a recent movie, Field of Dreams.
other event that also characterizes 1941 is the December 7th Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor,
which brought the United States into a war its people had tried throughout the year to ignore—perhaps praying it would just go away. Many historians have written of the oppressive presence of the news from the European warfront on the daily lives of Americans in 1941. Most citizens were fearful of their nation's imminent entry into the conflict, but all were hoping there would be some way to avoid joining the battle. In the summer of 1941, Joe DiMaggio's extended batting streak offered Americans something to follow from day to day in their newspapers other than the battle victories or losses in Europe and the spreading threat of Hitler's forces. In contrast, Citizen Kane reminded Americans of the dangers represented by power and greed. DiMaggio extended more than just his batting streak each sunny summer afternoon that he collected a base hit. Each day his streak dominated the idle conversations of Americans, Joltin' Joe also extended the nation's sense of innocence and trust in the security offered by the American Dream, distracting its citizens from the storm approaching from overseas. On the other hand, Citizen Kane depicted the end of innocence and the corruption of the American Dream. A pair of early working titles originally considered for the film were American and John Citizen, U.S.A. Clearly, Welles wanted the film to be seen as a metaphor for the dark direction toward which America was moving.
On that "Day of Infamy" in December of 1941, Americans were forced to face the dangerous elements lurking beyond their borders and an age of innocence came to a close. In the decades ahead the distance from that innocent era grew larger, replaced by a time filled with terrible experiences: the atomic bomb, the McCarthy years, the violent civil rights struggle, the assassinations of the sixties, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the drug epidemic, AIDS, materialism, corrupt evangelists, insider trading on Wall Street, the savings and loans scandal, etc. Today, Joe DiMaggio stands almost as a solitary symbol of the American Dream in the manner it existed just before everything began to unravel. At the age of 76, DiMaggio's confident, self-assured dignity appears at old-timer games like a beacon shining brightly amidst turbulent waters. In contrast, Charles Foster Kane foreshadowed the many public figures, politicians and personalities, who would be undone by their corruption of the American Dream in the latter half of the twentieth century, and Orson Welles became one of the first victims of the new age.
In a scene from Citizen Kane, a magnificently evocative moment occurs when Kane's assistant, Bernstein, played by Everett Sloane, recalls: "One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since, that I haven't thought of that girl." Metaphorically, the girl in the white dress, like Joe DiMaggio, might represent an unattainable innocence remembered regularly only in daydreams, an emblem of the simpler, romantic past, the lost paradise which can never be recaptured.
Today, a half century later, as the country finds itself at war again, one hopes that the symmetry, symmetry suggested by the nation's unified response to the war, will signal a conclusion to an era of torment and turmoil. Perhaps it may be only wishful thinking, an attempt to regain the lost paradise, but one can hope that as the earlier war initiated an era which in its darkest moments during the sixties and seventies eventually tore the nation apart to a degree only surpassed by the Civil War era, this war will begin to move the nation in a different direction. As community members pull closer to one another, as larger congregations pray together with a greater voice, as flags and ribbons symbolize a sense of solidarity among the citizenry, it would be pleasant to think this unity might continue into a new age—a period in which, once again, characters like Charles Foster Kane are the exception and role models like Joe DiMaggio are the rule.