Study Guide

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane Introduction


Release Year: 1941

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz

Stars: Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Orson Welles


It's fair to say that sometimes (or maybe even most of the time, for the pessimists out there), life doesn't work out the way we think it will. This is definitely the case for Charles Foster Kane, the title character from Orson Welles' super-famous, super-revered, and super-classic film, Citizen Kane.

Charles enters adulthood as an idealistic guy who wants to take on the rich and greedy and change the world forever. The only problem is that he's more interested in making people love him than he is in his principles. Over time, his pride totally corrupts him until you can't even recognize the young visionary he used to be. Then on his deathbed, he whispers the word "rosebud" and everyone around him looks at each other and says, "What? What does that mean?!" And—bam!—we have a central mystery that Orson Welles can build his movie around.

Released in 1941, Citizen Kane was an immediate success with critics, but not with the American public. Maybe it's because the movie openly criticized the pursuit of money and power… which wasn't a popular opinion just as the U.S. was dragging itself out of the Great Depression.

Or maybe it's because the character of Charles Foster Kane was a little too similar to the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who (a) built a giant castle mansion to isolate himself from society in his older years and (b) banned all mention of the film from his many newspapers. (Check out this article for the full story. It's kinda of a big deal.)

Or maybe, it was because this film is insanely innovative and people had to warm up to all of Welles' new techniques before they could appreciate how awesome they were.

Despite Kane's lukewarm success when it first came out, the film went through a revival in 1956 and has never looked back since. In fact, most American film critics consider the movie to be the best film ever made, and it currently sits at the #1 spot in the American Film Institute's Best Films List.

Not bad for a movie made by a twenty-five-year-old dude named Orson Welles who had almost no filmmaking experience and who decided to write, direct, and star in this movie. And let's not forget to give kudos to RKO pictures for giving some young guy total creative control over his movie. They might not have known it in 1941, but their gamble would change film history.

Forever.

What is Citizen Kane About and Why Should I Care?

You should watch Citizen Kane because most critics call it the best film ever made. Ever. End of conversation.

Ha.

As if you would trust a bunch of film nerds (who probably eat way too much movie theater popcorn) to tell you why should see Citizen Kane.

Instead, listen to us (a bunch of film nerds who definitely eat way too much movie theater popcorn). You should watch Citizen Kane because…it's quite possibly the best movie ever made.

Don't get us wrong. We love all sorts of movies, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Pitch Perfect 2, from Oscar winners to Nic Cage-fueled ridiculousness. But there's something about Citizen Kane that is so huge in scope, so genius about its encapsulation of the weirdness of the American dream, so poignant in its characterization, so beautiful in its camera angles, so deftly written…

Should we go one?

Old? Yeah. Slow? Absolutely. But it makes you think about some deep and troubling issues. 

  • Like how much of our ambition is fueled by pride. 
  • Or how we as humans fail to love. 
  • Or whether class distinctions can ever be erased. 
  • Or whether any of us can really live a fulfilling life.

Listen, no one said it was an upper.

You may end your viewing of Citizen Kane a tad troubled. Maybe you'll have a bit of an existential crisis. But hey—you will have watched one of the movies that people routinely herald as the best. 

And that's definitely one to cross off the bucket list.

Trivia

Even though people now think it's one of the best movies ever, Citizen Kane was a bit of a box office flop when it first came out. People disliked it so much that it got booed every time it was announced as a nominee during the 1942 Academy Awards. (Source)

When Kane makes his big speech during the election for New York governor, the crowd watching him is actually just a still picture. Welles poked holes all through it and made it move to create the illusion of movement and shifting light. Pretty clever eh? (Source)

How about this for directing savvy? Apparently, Orson Welles included the shot of the squawking bird at the Everglades party scene just to make sure his audience was still awake. (Source)

Citizen Kane Resources

Websites

Citizen Kane at Rottentomatoes.com
Check out this site to find out why movie critics give Kane a perfect 100% rating.

Citizen Kane at RogerEbert.com
This site will give you a decent rundown on why Kane is such a great movie. If you still disagree though, that's totally cool.

Kane at IMDB.com
This is your one-stop shop for any info you might need on the specs of this movie, including cast and crew and some pretty great trivia.

Book or TV Adaptations

"Rosebud" Simpsons Episode from 1993
For an incredible spoof of Citizen Kane, track down a copy of this incredible episode of The Simpsons, where the old Mr. Burns relives Kane's final moments and spends the rest of the episode trying to track down his childhood bear Bobo.

Articles and Interviews

The Battle Over Citizen Kane
This article will give you the scoop on the bitter battle that took place between Orson Welles and millionaire William Randolph Hearst over the movie's release in 1941.

Is Citizen Kane Still the Greatest?
Now that Kane has long been considered the greatest movie ever, critic Matthew Sweet asks us all if Kane is still the best of if it's losing some of its mojo.

The Mark of Kane
This article takes a close look at what—if anything—makes Citizen Kane a good movie.

Video

Citizen Kane Theatrical Trailer
It's a pretty early era for movie trailers, but here's the one you would have seen in the buildup to Kane. So what do you think? Does it make you want to see the movie?

Kane Tells Thatcher How to Run a Newspaper
Ah yes. Here's the Kane we all know and love, telling Mr. Thatcher how he plans on losing money on his newspaper if it means helping the poor people of America.

Martin Scorsese on Citizen Kane
Legendary director sits down to tell all of us why he as a filmmaker thinks Kane is so darn good. But that doesn't mean you have to be convinced.

Audio

Voiceover Commentary
Famous critics Siskel and Ebert give us a walkthrough of why Kane is so awesome. And we even get to watch the movie along the way.

Score to Citizen Kane by Bernard Herrmann
We've got you covered on the music front. Check out this link to listen to Herrmann's classic score.

Images

Classic Kane Election Image
This still really gives you a good idea of how Welles used his from-below camera angles to create a sense of Kane's giant personality.

Kane's Mother Signs Him Away
While a nervous Mr. Kane looks on, Mary Kane signs a paper giving custody of her boy to Mr. Thatcher and the bank he works for. On some level, she must know that this choice will not turn out great for Charles.

Kane Ignores His Best Friend's Advice
Jed Leland can see that Kane's ego is getting out of control. But it's too late. You can just tell by his face that Kane is past the point of letting his friends question his authority.