Since we already know what kind of raging jerk-faced dirtbag Charles Kane will grow up to be, it's pretty hard to look back on his childhood and see what an innocent young scamp he once was. But he was actually a sweetie-pie.
The first look we get at the young Charles shows him playing in the snow while his mother shouts from a nearby window,
MRS. KANE: Pull your muffler around your neck, Charles.
At this point in his life, he still has a parent who looks out for him and worries about him. Charles, on the other hand, doesn't care about anything except the games and adventures he creates with his own imagination.
We see Charles' carefree boyhood attitude clearly when he builds a snowman and yells to his mother, "See, Mom? I took the pipe out of his mouth. If it keeps on snowin', maybe I'll make some teeth." At this point in his life, Charles has no money and couldn't care less because he has his mom and his imagination. But that's all about to change when Mr. Thatcher arrives on the scene. Dum duum dummm.
When Charles first meets Mr. Thatcher, it's clear that he knows something isn't right. All of a sudden, his parents tell him to pack his bags and get on a train with a man he's never met before. He doesn't realize it, but his mother has come into a huge fortune and she wants him to become a cultured man. So she asks her bank representative to become the boy's legal guardian and to raise and educate Charles in New England instead of the backwoods of 19th-century Colorado.
At first, Thatcher tries to encourage Charles by saying he's about to go on a great adventure, but Charles isn't so easily fooled. When he finds out his parents aren't coming with him, Charles uses his sled to push Thatcher away, causing the man to exclaim, "Sleds aren't to hit people with. Sleds are to—to sleigh on." Charles' mother represents a world of family and love, while Thatcher represents the world of money and power, and in this scene we see Charles pass directly from one to the other when he gets on a train with Thatcher.
We never see what happens during the years that Mr. Thatcher raises and educates Charles Kane. Instead, the movie flashes forward to the moment Kane reaches maturity and becomes free of Mr. Thatcher and the bank.
But when Mr. Thatcher assumes Kane will start managing his own money and stocks, Kane shocks him by saying,
KANE: I'm not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate...
You think Thatcher would have a good sense of Kane's personality after twenty-five years, but this comment seems to take him off guard as he says, "Not interested?!" As we might already know, this won't be the last time the two clash over their financial priorities.
So by the time he's twenty-five, Charles Kane is able to assume full responsibility of the fortune his mother has left him. It's not clear exactly when his mom dies, but we do know from Thatcher's earlier comments that Mrs. Kane arranged for Charles to have all the family money whether she was alive or not. And what does he do with this fortune? He buys a newspaper and uses it to attack the corrupt wealthy people of America.
When Mr. Thatcher tells him to back off or he'll keep losing a million dollars every year, Kane cheerfully responds,
KANE: We expect to lose a million next year, too. You know, Mr. Thatcher—at the rate of a million a year—we'll have to close this place in sixty years.
At this point, Kane seems like an absolute hero because he is standing up for the underprivileged and using his money to do so.
Just because Kane is a young idealist doesn't mean the world will give him a free pass on his war against the upper classes. But Kane won't back down for anybody, as he tells Mr. Thatcher,
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—to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this city are not robbed blind by a group of money-mad pirates.
He's so committed to his mission that he prints a declaration of the principles he'll use to run The Inquirer, which ends with the phrase, "And no special interests will be allowed to interfere with the truth of that news." Of course, Kane doesn't count his own ego as a special interest, and that's exactly the problem that will bring on his downfall.
By the end of this movie, Charles Kane has gone from a cute young boy to a guy who's totally driven by his selfish ego. He started running a newspaper to tell the truth, but when asked in his older years what people might think, he answers,
KANE: The newspapers, for instance. I'm an authority on what the papers will say, Signor Matiste, because I own eight of them between here and San Francisco.
In other words, Kane is totally unabashed to say that he thinks of the public as a bunch of sheep who need him to tell them what to do. Even at a young age, he hears his wife Emily say, "People will think" and finishes her sentence with, "What I tell them to think."
The really sad part about all this is that Kane could have really been a great man, but instead he got caught up in his own self-importance and threw his chance away. The movie never makes it crystal clear, but it's safe to say that there's a strong connection between Kane's obsessive desire to be loved and the fact that his mother sent him away when he was just a boy.
After all, Charles had all the love he ever needed as a kid. But his mom sent him away because she thought it was best for him. Little did she know that in doing this, she was taking motherly love out of Charles' life and replacing it with money. So it's little wonder the guy grew up thinking that money was the way to make people love him. It's enough to make you feel sorry for Kane when he dies as a lonely old man. We're forced to think about how his life could have gone if his mom had made a different decision, and that's just a plain old bummer.
Whenever the people close to him tell an adult Charles that he can only function on his own terms, he treats this as a moot point and answers,
KANE: A toast to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody knows.
Like may egotistical men, Charles makes the mistake of assuming that everyone in the world must think the exact same way as him. By the end of the movie, Charles is willing to slap his wife just for questioning the way he does things. He has the opportunity to recognize his mistakes and say he's sorry, but instead he says, "I'm not sorry."
Let's also not forget that Kane never seemed all that sorry about cheating on his first wife Emily with Susan before divorcing the one and marrying the other. And that's just the thing: Kane is never sorry for anything he does. He goes wherever his desires take him and expects the world to go right along with him. That doesn't actually happen, but he's too proud to learn from these mistakes and grow as a person… and he dies knowing that he never really realized his potential to be a decent human being.
Jed Leland is Charles Kane's best friend—er, coworker—er, enemy?—er, frenemy?—er, brother figure?—er, lover?—in the whole wide world.
The only thing we know about his life before meeting Charles we learn from Bernstein, who sums things up by saying,
BERSTEIN: Mr. Leland never had a nickel. One of those old families with a father that's worth ten million and then one day he shoots himself and it turns out there's nothing but debts.
We also find out that Jed met Charles in university, although it might be better to say universities, since Kane was kicked out of many schools and Leland followed him every time he went to a new one.
Some people have even wondered if Charles and Jed got kicked out of so many schools because the two are romantically involved when the cameras aren't on them. Being in a gay relationship would have immediately gotten someone kicked out of school back in the days of Citizen Kane.
And if you still don't believe us, just take a look at the lonnnnnnggggg stare that Kane and Leland share when they first go into the offices of The Inquirer. Yowza!
More than any character, Leland is willing to call Kane out when he's acting selfishly or being a hypocrite. After all, Kane spends a lot of late nights at the paper with Leland and the two of them share a pretty intense gaze early in the movie. In the earliest days of The Inquirer, everyone is happy about Kane's commitment to social justice. But Leland is the only one who realizes that this commitment might be more about Charles' ego than the cause he's fighting for.
When Charles talks about how he'll help the working class, Leland notes,
LELAND: That's the second sentence you've started with 'I.'
And when Charles finishes writing his declaration of principles, Leland adds,
LELAND: When you're through with that, I'd like to have it back. I'd like to keep that particular piece of paper myself. I have a hunch it might turn out to be something pretty important.
Of course, we know that he holds onto this document so he can later throw it in Kane's face and show him how far he's fallen as a man.
By the time he's ready to get fired from Kane's newspaper, Leland can hardly do anything but criticize Charles. As he accurately states to him,
LELAND: You don't care about anything except you. You persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. It's something to be played your way, according to your rules.
Of course Leland is right, but Kane doesn't want to hear the truth. He wants people who will just say, "Yes sir!" to everything he wants. In the end, it's clear that Leland attempts to save Kane has failed, and their close friendship dissolves as a result. Leland is so crushed by the failure that he becomes an alcoholic and lives out the rest of his days without any real purpose.
In Leland's case, Kane's downfall ruins both his life and the lives of people who wanted something better for him. The really sad thing is that at the end of his life, Kane writes to Leland and asks for his company, but as Leland tells us,
LELAND: I never even answered his letter.
So Jed might have been a really great friend at one point, but it looks like he's not the kind of guy who can easily forgive the kind of betrayal Kane threw down on him. So if you're still looking for some sort of redemption in this flick, you ain't going to get it from Leland.
Thompson's role in this movie is pretty utilitarian—he's kind of like our narrator. Instead of having much of a backstory himself, he runs around trying to figure out the meaning of Kane's final word, "rosebud." He's a man on a mission, and it's thanks to this mission that we have a movie plot.
It's only by searching for the truth that Thompson interviews the people who knew Kane and ends up piecing together the story. Thompson's questions are usually straightforward, and they tend to reflect all the same things we'd like to know as an audience, such as,
THOMPSON: When she [Susan Alexander] used to talk about Kane - did she ever happen to say anything —about Rosebud?
(Good job, Thompson.)
Of course, Susan knows nothing about Rosebud, but she goes off on a story anyway and tells us all about the tragic life of Charles Kane.
(Good job, Susan.)
Throughout this movie, Thompson has a way of anticipating our questions as audience members and saying them for us. When Kane takes Leland's horrible review of his wife Susan and finishes it, for example, Thompson asks,
THOMPSON: Well, then, how could he write that roast? The notices in the Kane papers were always very kind to her.
But Thompson is also a great reporter in the way he just lets people talk without trying to fill things in for them. In every interview he does, Thompson just says:
THOMPSON: I'd rather you just talked. Anything that comes into your mind—about yourself and Mr. Kane.
It's only at the end of this movie that we hear any kind of opinion out of Thompson on Charles Kane. The guy's been researching Kane this entire movie, and he finally makes one final statement that pretty much sums up everything we've seen so far. As Thompson says,
THOMPSON: He [Kane] had a gift for friendship such as few men have—he broke his oldest friend's heart like you'd throw away a cigarette you were through with.
More than anyone in the movie, Thompson understands the different ways that Kane was both great and horrible, admirable and despicable. So in the end, he does us a great service as an audience by putting together Kane's story and giving us a final statement on the movie.
Of course, even Thompson never figures out what we do: that Rosebud is actually the name of Kane's childhood sled.
P.S. Notice that we never really see Thompson's face in the movie? This makes him a particularly potent stand-in for the audience.
All Susan ever wanted was to live a normal life. But that plan went totally out the window after she met Charles Kane.
At first, she finds him totally charming and loving. She also has no clue who he is and doesn't realize he's married when they first meet. But after she realizes they've had an affair that has destroyed his political career, she still marries him after his first divorce, which suggests that she loves him enough to feel very loyal to him. On top of that, she falls for him without having any clue that he's rich. She just likes Kane for who he is, and in this sense she represents his best shot at being truly loved in this movie… apart from his buddy Leland, that is.
Here's the really sad thing about Susan's relationship with Kane: she totally gives him everything he wants by loving him for who he is. But he still feels like he needs to do something that'll force her to keep loving him, so he devotes himself to turning her into a famous singer so that he can prove to her and the whole world that he can do anything. Susan goes along with it at first because she loves him so much, but as time goes by, she gets sick of Charles' attempt to turn her into a famous singer.
For Susan, money is "just money. It doesn't mean anything. You never really gave me anything that you care about." In other words, she can see through Kane's façade and study the man underneath. She knows that, deep down, Kane is just a selfish child who wants everyone to behave exactly the way he wants them to. She sums this up by saying to him,
SUSAN: You don't love me. You want me to love you.
In other words, she knows that Kane wants love without having to give any back in return. But as we find out earlier in the movie, Susan is still devastated by Kane's death, as we hear Bernstein tell Thompson,
BERNSTEIN: I called her myself the day after he died […] She couldn't even come to the phone.
Even after she's left Kane and lost all her money, Susan says she isn't so sad about how things have turned out for her. Thompson expresses sympathy for her tough times, but Susan quickly answers,
SUSAN: They haven't been tough on me. I just lost all my money.
In her own words, Susan never wanted money or fame. She wanted love and friends, but these are the things Charles Kane was never able to give her. Even when he offers to give her anything she wanted, he makes the mistake of saying,
KANE: You can't do this to me.
Susan picks up on this immediately and says,
SUSAN: It's you that this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not what it means to me. I can't do this to you? Oh, yes, I can.
So she leaves him and that's that. Susan might have confidence issues at times, but she's not going to spend the rest of her days as Charles Kane's emotional doormat.
P.S. Since the history of this movie is storied and wrapped up in William Randolph Hearst's protests of it, it's worth mentioning that Susan Alexander Kane bears a strong resemblance to Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress—a film actress with a knack for light comedy but whom Hearst saddled with a series of overwrought historical dramas.
Walter Parks Thatcher is basically the ultimate businessman in this movie. He's everything that Charles Kane has grown to hate, the kind of dude who will always protect the interests of the wealthy class by stomping on the poorer classes.
Thatcher actually acts as Kane's legal guardian for most of his young life, but at the end of the day, the dude's an accountant and not a father. We never get a look at the years Thatcher spends as Kane's guardian, but we get some insight in Thatcher's journal when he says,
"THATCHER: He was, I repeat, a common adventurer, spoiled, unscrupulous, irresponsible.
Then again, this might also just be hindsight speaking, since Kane grows up to stand for what Thatcher hates most: the rights of the workingman.
Thatcher must not have been a very attentive guardian over the years, because he seems totally shocked when Kane first takes control of his family fortune and tells Thatcher,
KANE: I'm not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, or real estate.
Thatcher coughs and yells, "Not interested?!" because he can't seem to believe Kane would care about anything other than his money and property.
Once Kane becomes a young man, Thatcher tries his best to convince Kane to act more like a normal rich person. At one point, he even asks,
THATCHER: Tell me honestly. Don't you think it's rather unwise to continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer that is costing you $1 million a year?
What he doesn't seem to understand is that Kane believes in something much more valuable than money: his own ego. And that means he's willing to bankrupt himself just to make life hard for America's richest people. No matter what Thatcher says, he will always be the enemy in Kane's eyes—the type of "money-mad pirate" whose only concern in life is to become wealthier.
By the time he's an old man, Thatcher is willing to criticize Kane publicly by saying,
THATCHER: Mr. Charles Foster Kane, in every essence of his social beliefs, and by the dangerous manner he has persistently attacked American traditions of private property, initiative and opportunity for advancement, is in fact nothing more or less than a communist.
Calling a dude a communist back in those days was no small accusation, especially from a dude who has spent over a decade as Kane's legal guardian. But Thatcher's loyalties are with his money, and that's why he takes on Kane whenever he can.
Apart from Leland, Bernstein is Kane's biggest right-hand man. In his own words, Bernstein is with Kane from "before the beginning" and he has a front-row seat to Kane's gradual fall. When asked if he knows who "rosebud" is, Bernstein can only guess,
BERNSTEIN: That Rosebud? Maybe some girl? There were a lot of them back in the early days –
This tells us that like Leland, Bernstein has some special knowledge of Kane's early days. But he still doesn't know who or what "rosebud" is.
Bernstein doesn't get much character development in this movie, but there's one great speech where he shows his sentimental side by telling the story of a girl he once saw getting off a ferry. As he tells Thompson,
BERNSTEIN: I only saw her for one second and 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.
He's trying to make a point about how "rosebud" could have been almost anyone that Charles Kane had ever met, but in the process he gives us some great insight into how much of a sentimental and nostalgic dude Bernstein is deep down.
He's also a guy who's not impressed by rich people, as he tells Thompson, "It's no trick to make an awful lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money." In the end, Bernstein tells us an awful lot about Kane, even if he's never gutsy enough to stand up to the guy.
Jim "Boss" Gettys is your typical corrupt politician. Everyone knows he's corrupt, but no one has the money or power to take him on in New York's election for governor… until Charles Foster Kane hits the scene.
Kane runs out to a huge lead in the polls and threatens to throw Gettys in jail for all the backroom deals he's made. So it's quite true when Gettys says,
GETTYS: Now I'm going to lay all my cards on the table. I'm fighting for my life. Not just my political life. My life.
Kane is so relentless in his attacks that Gettys becomes desperate. And when he finds out about Kane's affair with Susan Alexander, he gets the "Get Out Of Jail Free" card he's been waiting for.
Now that he has the upper hand, Gettys tries to blackmail Kane into dropping out of the election. In this sense, he's actually being fairly reasonable, as he says,
GETTYS: That's the chance I'm willing to give you, Mr. Kane. More of a chance than you'd give me.
But the fact remains that Gettys is a crooked jerk who will do whatever it takes to stay in power. That said, he also knows another crooked jerk when he sees one, as he says to Kane,
GETTYS: Only you're going to need more than one lesson. And you're going to get more than one lesson.
Even though he's corrupt, Gettys is actually quite accurate in what he says here. He recognizes that Kane is too proud to learn from his mistakes, and that'll bring Kane nothing but pain and frustration for the rest of his life.
We don't get a whole lot of Emily Monroe Norton in this movie. We know that she's the niece of the U.S. President and that she's Charles Kane's wife. Apart from that, you can say that she's a very proper and pretty young woman who deserves a lot better than Charles Kane as a husband.
Her marriage starts out well enough, but over time she gets fed up with how much time and energy her husband spends working at The Inquirer. As she tells Charles,
EMILY: It isn't just the time. It's what you print, attacking the President.
Of course, by "the President," Emily actually means her uncle. She expects Charles to leave members of her family alone in his public criticism, but he'll hear nothing of it.
When Emily finally finds out about Charles' affair with Susan Alexander, she's willing to do whatever it takes to keep the story from going public. She orders Charles to accept Jim Gettys' conditions and drop out of the election for governor, saying,
EMILY: There seems to be only one decision you can make, Charles. I'd say that it'd been made for you.
What she doesn't realize is that Charles is so proud, he'd rather destroy her life than let someone push him around. And in the end, Emily is just one of the many victims of Kane's huge ego.
Mary only appears in one scene in this movie, and it's one of the saddest scenes we get. After falling into a huge fortune, Mary has decided that her son Charles should be raised away from her and her husband so he can have a better chance at being cultured and well educated.
When Mr. Thatcher asks if her son's ready to leave, she quietly answers,
MRS. KANE: I've got his trunk all packed. I've had it packed for a week now.
She's obviously very sad about what's happening, but she can't bear to have Charles grow up in a house with her abusive husband. As she says:
MRS. KANE: He [Charles] is going to be brought up where [his father] can't get at him.
What she doesn't realize is that taking a boy from his mother is also its own kind of violence. If she'd known how much this decision was going to mess up her son, she might have reconsidered.