There are some films in which the production itself was so unbelievable that they spawned a separate film documenting or dramatizing the process.
I’m not talking about a middling DVD extra. I’m talking an actual documentary made by someone other than the studio.
For some films, to truly understand them, you really need to know the backstory (a.k.a. horseshit) about its production.
There are many and we’ll cover some of them. Our first is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made because it is the greatest fucking movie ever!
Yes, everyone says it and it is easy to discount that fact.
However, I ask you to consider this.
At the age of 24, if you had created a story about the private life of the largest media tycoon in the world, a man who, if he didn’t particularly care for your story, could crush your life, career and art, would you as an artist be willing to write that story, get it made and spend the rest of your life dealing with the fallout from it?
Orson Welles, along with Herman J. Mankiewicz, created that story based on media magnate William Randolph Hearst. The decision to create this story and yes, his career suffered because of it.
Hearst’s power and influence is really quite unimaginable today. No one wields as much power over the media as he did. Rupert Murdoch is nothing compared to Hearst.
Every frame of Kane is steeped with jabs at Hearst. As detailed in Filmmakers Thomas Lennon (the documentarian not Lt. Dangle of Reno 911!) and Michael Epstein’s U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary “The Battle over Citizen Kane,” when Hearst got wind of this, he was none too pleased.
He sent influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (think TMZ but with WAY more power to destroy people) to find out all she could about the film and obliterate it before its release.
When that didn’t work, Hearst tried to coerce the heads of the other Hollywood studios.
That didn’t work either. Hearst’s newspapers set about trashing the film and libeling Welles upon its release. Non-Hearst papers, however, gave it positive reviews.
In the end, the audiences of 1941 ultimately rejected Kane and it bombed.
With the death of Hearst in 1951 and advent of TV in the 50’s, Kane began its ascent to legendary status.
The story of Citizen Kane is a frame story that opens with a media tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s last words “Rosebud.” This sends an intrepid reporter on a quest, to find out what Rosebud means.
“RKO 281” was a dramatization of “The Battle” documentary that HBO produced in 1999.
There are some criticisms about “The Battle” and, in turn “281,” claiming Welles and Hearst weren’t as similar as portrayed and that the “Hollywood legend” of Rosebud being a nickname Hearst had for his mistress’ clitoris wasn’t true.
Whether either is true or not, I have no idea. Considering the venom with which Hearst pursued Welles and Kane, I can certainly see it as plausible.
It’s hard to say which of these to watch first.
Unless you are familiar with the US in the 1930’s, I’d suggest watching “The Battle” first. That will really help you frames Kane better. Then, watch RKO 281 and watch Kane again.
I’d suggest getting the DVD because you’ll watch this over and over. Plus, some of the DVD packages have all three films.
If you are a lover of film and have never seen these, you must.
Citizen Kane – 1941
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles – Original Screenplay; John Houseman, Roger Q. Denny and Mollie Kent – Uncredited, Contributing Writers
Directed by: Orson Welles
- Joseph Cotten
- Dorothy Comingore
- Agnes Moorehead
- Ruth Warrick
- Erskine Sanford
- Everett Sloane
- Paul Stewart
- Orson Welles
Academy Awards: 9 nominations, 1 win.
- 1001 Films
- #1 AFI Top 100 ‘07
- #1 AFI Top 100 ‘98
- #4 WGA 101 Greatest
- 1989 Addition to National Film Registry, one of the first 25 selected
The Battle Over Citizen Kane – 1996
Written by: Richard Ben Cramer & Thomas Lennon
Directed by: Michael Epstein & Thomas Lennon
- David McCullough (host)
- Orson Welles (archive)
- William Randolph Hearst (archive)
- Richard Ben Cramer (narration)
Academy Awards: 1 Nomination for Best Documentary Feature
RKO 281 – 1999
Written by John Logan; Based on “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon
Directed by: Benjamin Ross
- Liev Schreiber
- James Cromwell
- Melanie Griffith
- John Malkovich
- Brenda Blethyn
- Roy Scheider
- Liam Cunningham
- Kerry Shale
- Golden Globe, 2000 Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television
- Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special
- Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special