We open this movie by watching Charles Kane utter the word "rosebud" on his deathbed. Next thing you know, a room full of newsmen are asking what Kane meant by this word and what it can tell us about his life. As Mr. Rawlston asks the room, "Yes. Rosebud. Just that one word. But who is she?"
So here, based on the name, people tend to assume that Rosebud was a woman in Kane's past, someone he longed for in his final moments. Mr. Bernstein floats the same theory:
BERNSTEIN: That Rosebud, huh? Maybe, some girl? There were a lot of them back in the early days.
By the end of the movie, our central investigator Thompson has gotten no closer to finding out what "rosebud" means. But at least one other reporter can't help but think,
REPORTER: If you could have found out about what Rosebud meant, I bet that would've explained everything.
It's probably true that most audience members feel the same way, since we all want to know what Kane's tragedy "means" in a deeper sense. But Thompson muses by saying,
THOMPSON: Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost.
But in the end, he doesn't think that figuring out "rosebud" would have brought anyone any closer to understanding Kane because people are way more complicated than that.
We only find out in the final scene of the movie that Rosebud is actually the sled that Kane used to play with as a child. It's also the last thing he was holding onto on the day Mr. Thatcher came to take him from his parents. In this sense, Rosebud symbolizes everything that Kane lost the day he moved away from home.
From that point on, his life was only ever about money and power, whether he knew it or not. And it's only at the end of his life that he can look back and recognize the exact point at which everything started to go so wrong.
When Charles Kane reaches the age of legal maturity, he takes full control of his fortune and tells Mr. Thatcher at the bank that's he's not interested in his primary sources of income like mines and oil wells. Instead, he writes to Thatcher to say,
KANE: One item on your list intrigues me, The New York Inquirer, a little newspaper I understand we acquired in a foreclosure proceeding.
From this point on, Kane almost completely ignores the rest of his fortune to focus on running his newspaper and using it to critique the wealthy class of America—which he is also a part of.
At its heart, The Inquirer represents Kane's young ambitious dreams of making a real difference in the world and helping out poor people. When Mr. Thatcher confronts him about his war on the upper class, Kane simply answers,
KANE: I am the publisher of The Inquirer. As such, it is my duty, I'll let you in on a little secret, it is also my pleasure.
Over time, though, Kane's dedication to the public good gets crushed by the weight of his own giant ego. Over time, he stops worrying about what the poor think and believes he can simply tell them what to think. Eventually, Kane loses his newspapers in the Great Depression and that pretty much spells the end of his young idealism.
In fact, watching Kane's interaction with The Inquirer helps chart his growth as a character: from crusading upstart who wants to print the truth, to gossip-rag peddler, to bitter man who fires his friend because he dares to print a negative review of his wife's less-than-stellar singing.
Many millionaires spend a lot of their money on investments and other stuff that will make them even more money, but not our boy Charles Foster Kane.
Instead, he buys up a bunch of artifacts and precious objects that will never go up in value. In fact, he loses a huge part of his fortune just buying statues, a little addiction he picked up on his first trip to Europe. As Bernstein shouts at one point,
BERNSTEIN: Hey, Mr. Leland! It's a good thing he promised not to send back any more statues.
It sounds like the guys back in America are running out of space to put all the statues.
As with almost any obsession, Kane's statue collecting tells us quite a bit about him. For example, Bernstein helps tip us off when he says that Kane,"[isn't] only collecting statues." In fact, statues represent exactly what Kane wants all the people in the world to be— objects that he can look at and that will do whatever he wants them to.
So in the end, Kane's statue-collecting symbolizes his desire to control the people around him and make them love him. Susan Alexander makes this connection directly when she says,
SUSAN: What's the difference between giving me a bracelet or giving somebody else a hundred thousand dollars for a statue you're gonna keep crated up and you'll never even look at.
In her mind, Kane is interested in collecting people around himself just like his statues. He doesn't actually care about them at all—he just wants control.
It wasn't exactly a secret that Welles was taking a sharp bite at William Randolph Hearst in this film. Seriously, he wasn't even trying to be subtle. Check it out:
Hearst, of course, wasn't too fond of Citizen Kane. And since he controlled a huge number of newspapers at the time, he didn't have to just sit there and take it. He banned all advertisements from the movie in his papers, and even blackmailed studio heads by threatening to expose all kinds of dirt on them if they didn't play ball. As a result, the film bombed at the box office and the Academy refused to acknowledge it at the Oscars, where it crawled away with just a single award for Best Original Screenplay.
The results left Welles on the outs in Hollywood and struggling to maintain creative control over his films. He spent the rest of his career trying to gather money for his personal projects while appearing in other people's movies for a paycheck. He made some good ones, but none of them ever measured up to the potential of this one. Hearst definitely got his revenge.
But Welles had the last laugh after all. While RKO put Citizen Kane away in the vaults for a while, the Europeans discovered it after World War II and aired it on television, allowing people to see it for what it was. Its reputation soared, and its lacerating digs at Hearst rapidly became associated with the newspaper mogul. (Hearst died in 1951 and was no longer around to strike back.) It ended up tarnishing his reputation as much as Welles…ironic, since the film itself shows the kind of hubris and folly that both men had in spades.
In the end, the battle destroyed both men, but the film survived…and the story around their battle was so good it inspired a couple of really good film adaptations about it. One of the best is a PBS documentary entitled The Battle over Citizen Kane, though if you'd like a fictional version, there's RKO 281, starring Liev Schreiber as Welles and James Cromwell as Hearst.
That's how good Citizen Kane is: we got multiple other good movies based solely on efforts to destroy it.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In his earliest days, little Charles Kane is a playful boy who wants nothing more from life than to ride his sled. He has a great imagination, as we can see from the way he pretends he's fighting in the civil war. But we can also tell that his home life isn't all that great to him, especially when you look at his father—who probably beats him fairly often.
Charles Kane's world gets thrown for a loop when Mr. Thatcher shows up at his home to take him away from his parents. Apparently, Charles' mom has become very rich and she wants Charles to grow up away from home so he can become a truly cultured and educated gentleman. His dad disagrees, but he has no real say in the whole thing because Mrs. Kane is the one with all the money.
When he finds out about the plan to put him on a train with Mr. Thatcher, Charles rebels and yells that he doesn't want to leave home. He uses his sled Rosebud as a shield and tries to push Thatcher away. But no matter how he struggles, Charles can't avoid the destiny that his parents have laid out for him. They have decided that he's going to grow up away from them and their home, and that's that.
After he leaves home forever, Charles falls into the legal custody of Walter Parks Thatcher, a man who works for a bank in New England. Thatcher thinks that Charles' parents have made the right choice and that the bank will provide Charles with the best shot at becoming a great man.
But as a mentor, Thatcher only really cares about molding Charles into another one of America's greedy rich men. But then again, no one ever said that all mentors had to be good mentors.
Later on, Jed Leland serves as a kind of mentor, too. Unlike Thatcher, he's got some good ideas on how Kane can become a better person. But Kane makes the mistakes of kicking his only good mentor to the curb and never speaking to him again.
On his twenty-fifth birthday, Charles Kane comes into full possession of his huge fortune and also leaves the legal custody of Walter Parks Thatcher. At this point, Thatcher plans on sending him off to manage all of his mining operations. But Kane tells Thatcher he isn't interested in any of that stuff. He's way more interested in going out on his own and managing a small newspaper that he owns called The Inquirer.
One of the first things Kane does with his newspaper is attack the wealthy and corrupt people of America. As you can probably tell, this strategy tells him who his friends and enemies are quite quickly.
His former mentor Thatcher, for example, warns him several times about the dangers of taking on the rich. But Kane shrugs him off and continues on a one-man crusade against corruption and inequality in his country.
Over time though, his crusade becomes more about him and less about his principles. One by one, close friends and allies (like his buddy Leland and wife Emily) walk out of his life. But Kane never seems to learn from these tests. If anything, he just gets more self-absorbed.
After a failed bid for governor, the dissolution of his first marriage, and the overall flop of his second wife's singing career, Kane retreats to Florida to live in isolation inside his giant mansion, Xanadu.
His second wife Susan moves there with him, but she has already come to see that Charles Kane cares only about Charles Kane. All of his former attempts to "help the working man" were just his way of trying to make people like him. Unfortunately, it looks like Kane is too old or stubborn to change his ways.
Things in Kane's life blow up once and for all when his second wife Susan tells him she's leaving him. Kane begs her to stay and tells her that she can have everything on her terms if she just doesn't leave.
It almost works, but Kane makes the mistake of ending his speech with, "You can't do this to me," which tells Susan that he's every bit as selfish as he's always been.
Normally, it would be the hero of our story who "seizes the sword" and triumphs at the end of a story. But in this case then, Susan is our real hero, since she's the one who finds the courage to leave her rich husband in search of a better life.
As you can imagine, Kane doesn't react so well to this because he's used to controlling the people around him—or at least he's used to thinking he does.
When Susan leaves him, Kane goes on a destructive rampage and smashes everything that's smash-able in Susan's bedroom. The scene is really intense at first, but it quickly becomes pathetic as the old and bloated Kane runs out of energy.
He still smashes stuff, but we can see the all the fight and vitality has left him. All that's left is just this old husk of a man who probably isn't long for this world.
Unfortunately, there's no resurrection for Charles Kane. Instead of overcoming his ego and becoming a good man, he dies in bed with the word "Rosebud" on his lips. No one knows what it means, but we have to figure that maybe it's Kane's way of recognizing how far he's fallen in his life.
In the final scene of this movie, we finally find out that Rosebud is actually Charles Kane's sled from when he was a little boy. In a sense, Rosebud is the elusive elixir that Kane was never able to recover. It represents all the innocence and goodness of his childhood, but Kane never recovers the sled… just like he never recovers his innocence.
It's too late for him to change, but not to late for us. Where Kane fails, every one of the movie's audience members can choose a different path.
Or is this just Orson Welles' way of trying to make us love him…?
Setting can tell you just about everything you need to know in this movie, since the three major locations Charles Kane lives in mark the three stages of his life. The first stage is his boyhood in Colorado, which we only get a brief glimpse of. In his younger years, Charles lived in poverty in Colorado, a state that represents the wild freedom of Charles' young life. Unfortunately, his parents tell him "This ain't the place for you to grow up in" and he moves away to live with Mr. Thatcher in New England.
Charles never has any money in Colorado, but he doesn't seem to care because he has an active imagination and a lot of love for his mother.
Charles' life changes forever when he leaves Colorado for New England. This shift marks Charles' fall from childhood innocence into the world of glitz, glamour, and money. By the time he's forty, Charles has already gone through a major scandal while running for governor of New York. His fast-paced life has led him to hurt a lot of people and lose a lot of friends. If only he'd never left Colorado, he might have even had a shot at being happy.
When Kane loses his New York newspaper and gives up on his wife's singing career, he leaves New York in shame and moves down to his new gigantic mansion in Florida. This is the place where he lives out the rest of his days in isolation. Even his wife Susan leaves him because she can't bear to be so cut off from people. As she says, "Forty-nine thousand acres of nothing but scenery and statues. I'm lonesome."
(P.S. Notice that the mansion is a barely disguised version of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. This is...not a coincidence.)
There you have it, folks: we can chart Kane's character arc by where he is geographically. He moves from his family home in the West (which often symbolizes hope) to New York City (which, for good reason, often symbolizes corruption and greed) to isolation in Florida (which, well… we love the Sunshine State and all… but it is often synonymous with some pretty weird and bleak goings-on.
It's easy to forget at times, but the core character holding this entire movie is the newsman named Thompson. He's the one who's sent out by his boss to collect the testimony of all the people who were closest to Charles Kane.
His mission is to find out what Charles Kane meant by his dying words, as his boss tells him, "Find out about the Rosebud! Get in touch with everybody that ever knew him, or knew him well."
We spend the rest of the movie following Thompson around, and we never get a perspective on anything he doesn't hear himself from someone who knew Kane.
First of all, nothing this oppressively sad could ever be anything but a tragedy. If you yuck'ed it up during 90% of this movie, you're probably a malfunctioning robot.
Not only that, but Citizen Kane has all the elements of a classic tragedy. Let's see now… a character who seems quite admirable at first? Check. A really strong dose of pride that gets out of control over time? Check. A final death where the hero recognizes his mistakes… only to realize it's too late? Check and check.
Oh yeah, and let's not forget the trail of discarded friends he leaves wherever he goes. There's no doubting that given the right circumstances, Charles Kane might have been a truly great man. But that's just not how things work out because his ego/hubris keeps him from learning from his mistakes.
Yup. Our man Kane would feel right at home at a (depressing) dinner party with Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth.
Well let's start with the Kane part of Citizen Kane, since it's the part of the title that's taken from our main character's name. You might already know that Kane is a famous name (also spelled Cain) that comes from the Book of Genesis.
Cain is the name of a dude who kills his brother because of jealousy and pride. He also ends up getting banished into the wilderness forever. And you can see a parallel in Charles Foster Kane, who throws away his best friend Jedediah (also a Bible name) in order to pursue his insane thirst for power. By the end of the movie, Kane is completely doomed to isolation, and it's only in his final moments that he realizes he isn't a good person at all (like Abel), but a bad dude like Cain.
Now then, the "citizen" part of Citizen Kane has a less obvious significance. But the meaning starts to emerge if you think about what it means to be a citizen. Being a citizen means that you're part of a community, and that you have certain responsibilities toward that community.
This is exactly what Kane think of himself early in the film, as he tries to use his power and fortune to be responsible to his community and to attack the corruption of rich people and politicians. But over time, Kane forgets that he is a "citizen" in the moral sense and spends all his time only thinking about himself. Ultimately, Charles Kane actually fails to be the good citizen he always wished to be.
At the end of this movie, we finally, finally find out what all the fuss is about.
Not gonna lie: it's a little anticlimactic. It's not the name of a woman he murdered. It's not the name of a child he gave away after a bad relationship. It's not even the name of his first crush.
It turns out that Rosebud was the name of the sled he used to play with as a child—the same sled he used to shield himself from Mr. Thatcher when the bank man first came to take him away from his parents.
The basic symbolism?
Rosebud reveals Kane's final realization that he's lost his childhood goodness/innocence and become a bad person, since the sled represents a wish to go back to an earlier time in his life before money and fortune corrupted him.
The tragedy is that he only realizes this after it's too late, and his sled Rosebud ends up getting tossed into an incinerator and burned. So it looks like no one will ever realize what Kane meant when he said the name of his favorite boyhood toy.
Citizen Kane was made during a time when you couldn't really get away with any cursing or direct sexual references in a movie. That said, people still found the movie super controversial because of the way it attacked the wealthy people of America.
But on the whole, there aren't many reasons to avoid showing this movie to kids… apart from the fact that they'll probably be really bored.