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.