Apr 22, 2016

Book Review--Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey

Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey
Harlan Lebo
Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date April 26

I had luck as no one had; afterwards, I had the worst luck in the history of cinema. But that is in the order of things. I had to pay for having had the best luck in the history of cinema. Never has a man been given so much power in the Hollywood system. And absolute power. And artistic control.

-Orson Wells, about his initial Hollywood contract

How did Orson Welles, a 24-year-old radio and Broadway man with no experience making films become the director, producer, co-writer and star of a major RKO production for his Hollywood debut? How could he win near complete creative control and corral a group of brilliant technicians and artists to teach him how to make movies?

In his new book about the production, release and legacy of Citizen Kane (1941), Harlan Lebo helps you to understand just how astounding the circumstances surrounding this legendary film were, from its filming to the controversy that surrounded its release. Welles' RKO contract gave him freedom that few filmmakers before or since have had and he also faced greater pressures when his masterful debut offended one of the most powerful men in the nation.

For all its grandeur, Kane was a surprisingly economical production, with detailed, carefully designed sets, but also with clever use of camerawork to make crowds appear larger, buildings more imposing and rooms more spacious. While Welles was notorious for his excesses, here he barely went over his budget, mostly due to the guidance of cinematographer Gregg Toland, who was his primary collaborator on the set. It was fascinating to read how the creative team used lighting, angles and special effects to create these illusions.
Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland

Lebo also notes the invaluable, and essentially forgotten role RKO president George J. Schaefer played in getting the film made while under great pressure himself to save the studio. By giving Welles the freedom to create, and steadfastly supporting the project whenever there was controversy, he was a key figure in its production. Without him, it may never have made it to the screen at all.

Lebo is a strong storyteller and he is able to go deep into technical details without losing narrative flow. This is also greatly helped by the way the book is organized. There are two major sections, followed by a well-organized series of appendices, all of which allow easy browsing and the option to skip through information or get as geeky as you please.

One of Toland's stunning deep focus shots
Part one covers the film's production, and is the most comprehensive section of the book. It profiles all the major talent working on Kane, with a strong emphasis on craftspeople, particularly the innovative cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose process for achieving his famous deep focus shots is examined, but also screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, composer Bernard Herrmann and uncredited make-up man Maurice Seiderman, who can be credited with molding Kane's nose, in addition to crafting realistic old-age make-up.
Kane co-writer Herman Mankiewicz
This section is more slight when it comes to profiling the actors. While there is much written about the roles they played, their circumstances and the long hours they worked, the actual impact of their performances is not analyzed in great detail. Welles gets the bulk of that attention, and rightfully so, though there are certainly other intriguing performances by the Mercury Theatre players from Welles' New York enterprise who made their Hollywood debut in Kane at his insistence.
A misleadingly cheerful poster for the film
Part two is much more sensational. You are ripped from the cozy cocoon of creativity and thrown into a fascinating, if nerve-wracking, mess of bad publicity, threats and gossip that threatened to destroy Welles' carefully constructed debut. The most famous story associated with Kane is that wealthy and powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst attempted to block the film because he was told that it appeared to be essentially the story of his life and that of his mistress, beloved movie actress Marion Davies. That wasn't quite true. There were certainly similarities between his life story and that of Kane, but there were a lot of significant differences as well.
Welles flanked by Mercury players Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane. Both actors would find further success in film
Nevertheless, ads for Citizen Kane, and for a time RKO productions were banned from Hearst publications. Hearst film gossip columnist Louella Parsons went on the warpath for her boss, followed by unaffiliated columnist Hedda Hopper who wished to show up her older rival. While Welles always believed it was Hearst's people, looking to make a few points with the boss, who had gone after his film, the book reveals that W.H. was more instrumental in essentially attempting to blackmail RKO, and the rest of the film industry into destroying the film.

While Kane was blocked from several theaters, and thus not able to become profitable in its initial release, by the fifties it was rediscovered by French film critics and it began its ascension to the adoration it enjoys today. Lebo traces the film's path to acclaim, which began with critical raves when it first hit theaters and grew as new audiences discovered it on television and in theater revivals beginning in the mid-fifties. He offers an interesting analysis of the way the meaning of Kane has changed over the years and how Welles' achievements have inspired filmmakers, even though it didn't significantly inspire studios to give directors more artistic freedom. That was a practically unique privilege, for which Orson was grateful, despite the near constant troubles he had financing his films in the following decades.
Welles as failed politician Kane
The appendices are a diverse viewer's guide to Kane, with sections about details like the cinematography, music, budget and soundstages. There's a full list of cast and production credits, a meticulously constructed scene-by-scene guide and an extensive list of further resources. This part of the book was a lot of fun to browse, and I found it useful to absorb the information there first, before reading the other two sections.

If there is any film that begs for an in-depth examination, it is Citizen Kane, and Lebo has been thorough in his research. It should please any fan of the film, Welles or the art of filmmaking, and fans of outrageous stories about the studio age. If you do read this book, have a copy of the film ready to view, because you'll be dying to see it before you get through part one.

Many thanks to Thomas Dunne Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

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