“‘Voice in the Wind,’ a heartfelt shoestring quickie shot in 13 days, is a pretty awful moving picture, I realize, but I was touched by its sincerity and by a number of things in it, and was sympathetically interested in a good deal more. It is being advertised as ‘a strange new kind of moving picture,’ and that makes me realize, as the excitement over the ‘originality’ of ‘Citizen Kane’ used to, that already I belong to a grizzling generation.”
— James Agee, the Nation, March 18, 1944, reprinted in “Agee on Film”
Pauline Kael’s two-part article on “Citizen Kane” (“Raising Kane” — The New Yorker, February 20 and 27, 197) reportedly began as a brief introduction to the published screenplay, but, like Topsy, it just growed and growed into a 50,000-word digression from “Kane” itself into the life and times and loves and hates and love-hates of Pauline Kael.
My disagreement with her position begins with her very first sentence:
“‘Citizen Kane’ is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.” I can think of hundreds of “American talking pictures” that seem as fresh now as the day they opened. Even fresher. “Citizen Kane” is certainly worthy of revival and reconsideration, but it hardly stands alone even among the directorial efforts of Orson Welles. To believe that “Citizen Kane” is a great American film in a morass of mediocre Hollywood movies is to misunderstand the transparent movieness of “Kane” itself from its Xanadu castle out of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to its menagerie out of “King Kong” to its mirrored reflections out of old German doppleganger spectacles. Not that Miss Kael makes any extravagant claims about the supposed greatness of the film on which she has devoted so much newsprint. “It is a shallow work,” she decides, “a shallow masterpiece.”
One wonders what Miss Kael considers a deep masterpiece. “U-Boat 29” perhaps? Actually, the closest she comes to comparing “Kane” with the higher depths of cinema is in a parenthetical aside of dubious relevance: “Like most of the films of the sound era that are called masterpieces, ‘Citizen Kane’ has reached its audience gradually over the years rather than at the time of release. Yet, unlike the others, it is conceived and acted as entertainment in a popular style (unlike, say, ‘Rules of the Game’ or ‘Rashomon’ or ‘Man of Aran,’ which one does not think of in crowd-pleasing terms).”
“Man of Aran,” with its excessive sea-pounding on the soundtrack making it as falsely exotic in its own time as “Ramparts of Clay” is in ours, was certainly never conceived in crowd-pleasing terms. But “Rules of the Game” and “Rashomon” are something else again even in French and Japanese respectively. If anything, both films are more rousingly entertaining and more satisfyingly lucid than “Kane.” Their emotions are stronger, their gestures broader, their climaxes more violent, their narratives more vigorous, their visual styles less ostentatious, and, no small consideration, their women infinitely warmer and more sensual. Besides, the comparison is even factually questionable. “Rules of the Game” has never been too popular anywhere, but “Kane” and “Rashomon” were instant sensations when they reached the right audiences. It is no derogation to say that they were immediately impressive whereas “Rules of the Game” takes longer to appreciate because of the apparent artlessness of its ironies. Not that Miss Kael bothers to commit her own personal prestige to the greatness of any film. Note, for example, the cautiously impersonal construction of “films of the sound era that are called masterpieces.” Perhaps this tone of cold-fish objectivity is the price of a normally warm-blooded film critic must pay to climb Onward and Upward with the Arts at The New Yorker.
The plot thickens considerably when Miss Kael drifts away from a half-hearted analysis of “Kane” to the most lively gossip imaginable about the alleged birth-pangs and labor-pains of the script. Bit by bit, “Raising Kane” becomes an excuse to lower the boom on Orson Welles so as to resurrect the reputation of the late Herman J. Mankiewicz. By interviewing only the sworn enemies of Orson Welles, Miss Kael has made herself fair game for Mr. Welles and his more fervent admirers. At the very least, we may expect a reprise of the recriminations exchanged between Peter Bogdanovich and Charles Higham on the occasion of the publication of Mr. Higham’s “The Films of Orson Welles.”
How much of the final script of “Citizen Kane” was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and how much by Orson Welles? I don’t know, and I don’t think Miss Kael, Mr. Bogdanovich, and Mr. Higham do either. Undoubtedly, there will be affidavits aplenty from all sides, but literary collaboration, like marriage, is a largely unwitnessed interpenetration of psyches. Miss Kael demonstrates conclusively that Mankiewicz could have written the entire script unaided, but she cannot possibly know where and when and how and from whom and from what derived all his ideas. As it happens, RKO was successfully sued in 1950 for plagiarism on the officially credited Mankiewicz-Welles script of “Kane” by Ferdinand Lundborg, author of “Imperial Hearst.” Miss Kael tries to pooh-pooh Lundborg’s lawsuit because of the shadow it casts on her own one-sided lawyer’s brief for Mankiewicz. RKO might just as well have been sued, Miss Kael contends, by John Dos Passos for the passages on Hearst in “USA.” Precisely. Who among us can claim complete originality in anything? “Raising Kane” itself bears the by-line of Pauline Kael and of Pauline Kael alone. Yet thousands of words are directly quoted from other writers, and thousands more are paraphrased without credit. Miss Kael deserves her byline because she has shaped her material, much of it unoriginal, into an article with a polemical thrust all her own. Her selection and arrangement of material constitutes a very significant portion of her personal style.
Similarly, Orson Welles is not significantly diminished as the auteur of “Citizen Kane” by Miss Kael’s breathless revelations about Herman J. Mankiewicz any more than he is diminished as the auteur of “The Magnificent Ambersons” by the fact that all the best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington. It is only by virtually ignoring what “Citizen Kane” became as a film that Miss Kael can construct her bizarre theory of film history, namely that “Citizen Kane” along with all the best moments in movies of the ’30s must be credited to a consortium of New Yorker writers gathered together by Harold Ross at Chasen’s, the West Coast auxiliary of the Algonquin. Indeed, Miss Kael writes of Harold Ross in “Raising Kane” with much the same awed tone employed by General Lew Wallace in writing of Christ in “Ben Hur.” Writing of a Ross visit to Hearst’s San Simeon, Miss Kael lacks only a divinely capitalized “H” (“He” for “he”) to achieve a completely Biblical tone: “Harold Ross must have wondered what drew his old friends there, for he came, too, escorted by Robert Benchley.”
What is most startling about “Raising Kane” is how little it adds to old stories that have been circulating in film magazines with fewer readers than The New Yorker. For example, “Persistence of Vision,” edited by Joseph McBride and publish by the Wisconsin Film Society Press in 1968, contains not only McBride’s “Kane” analysis which Miss Kael snickers at in “Raising Kane” without bothering to identify the author, but also an extended quote from John Houseman to Penelope Houston out of the Sight and Sound of Autumn 1962: “… we had done some work together on ‘Heart of Darkness,’ which was to have been his first picture at RKO, and on something called ‘The Smiler with the Knife.’ After I’d gone back East, Orson continued trying to find a subject. We had a mutual and very brilliant friend, Herman Mankiewicz, a celebrated Hollywood figure, who had recently broken his leg under tragicomic circumstances that I haven’t time to go into. Having goaded each studio in turn into dismissing him, he had sunk to working on some of our radio shows. Orson arrived one night in New York, and over dinner told me that Mankiewicz had come up with an idea for a movie: a multi-faceted story about William Randolph Hearst in which [Welles] would play the title-part and direct. He asked me whether I would work with Mankiewicz as editor and collaborator on the script. I agreed and returned to Hollywood. After several conferences, at which Mankiewicz continued to develop his ideas, we moved him — nurse, plaster cast and all — up to a place in the mountains called Victorville, about a hundred miles from Los Angeles. There we installed ourselves on a guest ranch. Mankiewicz wrote, I mostly edited and the nurse was bored. Orson drove out once for dinner. At the end of three months we returned to Los Angeles with the 220-page script of ‘Kane,’ later called ‘Citizen Kane.’
“This is a delicate subject: I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote ‘Kane’ and everything else that he has directed — except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of ‘Kane’ was especially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom which he had been carrying around with him for years which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned ‘Kane’ into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make ‘Citizen Kane’ one of the world’s great movies — those were pure Orson Welles.”
The Houseman-Houston interview reads like a digest of “Raising Kane,” and Joseph McBride was obviously aware of this interview when he analyzed “Kane” as “a tragedy in fugal form; thus … also the denial of tragedy.” Aside from cackling at still another film scholar for the benefit of the philistines, Miss Kael creates the impression that McBride and his ilk never had the foggiest notion that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay. McBride’s greatest sin is apparently his willingness to consider “Citizen Kane” as a work of art rather than in Miss Kael’s terms as “kitsch redeemed,” a culturally defensive attitude for readers and editors who would be shocked to have any movie taken too seriously. Indeed, by the time Miss Kael is through taking “Kane” apart, it seems considerably more flawed than “The Owl and the Pussycat.” More important, “Kane” is viewed by Miss Kael almost exclusively as a product of the newspaper yarns that preceded it, and not at all as an influence on the inner space excursions of Fellini and Kubrick that followed it. McBride explicitly compares “Kane” to “8 1/2” and is not that comparison more apt than Miss Kael’s likening of “Kane” to “The Front Page,” for Pete’s sake. And what is the black slab in “2001,” but the burnt sled “Rosebud” of “Kane,” the black slab representing the memento of an old civilization, and “Rosebud” the memory of an old man.
Part 2, April 29, 1971
“‘Citizen Kane,’ The American Baroque” is the pretentious title of a solemn, pedantic, humorless re-evaluation of Kane on the occasion of its revival in 1956. The piece first appeared in the ninth issue of Film Culture (1956) and did not cause too much stir one way or another. The reviewer (or rather rereviewer) was a 28-year-old New York free-lancer (more free than lance) with a severely limited education in film history. He had just started reviewing movies in the mid-’50s, first under the name of Andrew George Sarris and then merely Andrew Sarris, and by 1956 he had decided that the three greatest films of all times were “Odd Man Out,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Sullivan’s Travels.” Then from 1961 through 1969 he held that the three greatest films of all time were “Lola Montes,” “Ugetsu,” and “La Regle du jeu, ” and now in 1970 he has replaced “Lola Montes” at the top with “Madame de … ” He still likes “Citizen Kane,” “Odd Man Out,” and “Sullivan’s Travels,” but not as much these days as “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Third Man,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “The Palm Beach Story,” not to mention “Sunrise,” “Liebelei,” “La Ronde,” “Day of Wrath,” “Ordet,” “Flowers of St. Francis,” “French CanCan,” “The Golden Coach,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “The Diary of a Country Priest,” “Au Hasard Balthazar,” “Brink of Life,” “Oharu,” “Seven Chances,” “Sherlock, Jr.,” “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” and “Shop Around the Corner.” Also, the Russians deserved a look-in at least for auld lang syne since there were more personal styles in heaven and earth than were dreamt of even in Orson Welles’s eclectic philosophy. No matter. “Citizen Kane” seemed infinitely less original and revolutionary in 1971 than it had in 1941 or even 1946, and not only because time had passed but also because the past had become more timely. If “Kane” once seemed like a tree in a clearing, it now seemed like a tree in a very large forest, and not even the topmost tree at that.
Nonetheless, despite the current reservations of its author, “Citizen Kane, The American Baroque” has been well received by academicians in recent years and repeatedly anthologized, most recently in a fascinating compendium entitled “Focus on Kane” (edited by Ronald Gottesman) with contributions by Gottesman, Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, J. A. Pruenda, William Johnson, John O’Hara, Bosley Crowther, Otis Ferguson, Cedric Belfrage, Tangye Lean, Orson Welles, Bernard Herrmann, Gregg Toland, Roy A. Fowler, Peter Cowie, Arthur Knight, Jorge Luis Borges, Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Michael Stephanick, and Charles Higham. Some of these pieces constitute the kind of “incense-burning” against which Pauline Kael’s wise-guy criticism seems to be directed in her wild-swinging mayhem-causing “Raising Kane,” but most of the pieces raise formal and philosophical questions far beyond the dimensions of gossip culled from old newspapers.
Borges (in 1945) interprets Kane, perhaps predictably, as that “centreless labyrinth” mentioned in Chesterton’s “The Head of Caesar.” But Borges is curiously dubious about the place of Kane in film history: “I dare predict, however, that ‘Citizen Kane’ will endure in the same way certain films of Griffith or of Pudovkin ‘endure’: no one denies their historic value but no one sees them again. It suffers from grossness, pedantry, dullness. It is not intelligent, it is genial in the sombrest and most germanic sense of the word.”
Truffaut makes a curious reference to The New Yorker (no person’s name is given) description of Welles as “a genius without talent.” One might just as aptly describe The New Yorker as talent without genius, and Miss Kael’s approach to “Kane” and Welles as more intelligent than insightful. She spends infinitely more time on preliminary (and subsequently discarded) drafts of the script than on the final form of the movie as it materialized on the screen. Her bias is thus as always inescapably literary rather than visual. And it follows that she would be impatient with the visual, aural and emotional coup represented by “Rosebud.” “The mystery in Kane is largely fake,” Miss Kael contends, “and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up — the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled.”
The operative words in the preceding passage are “though fun,” a familiarly quaint Kaelian reconciliation of what she can enjoy viscerally with what she can endorse cerebrally. As it happens, Miss Kael is not alone in being ashamed of “Rosebud.” Orson Welles has long since repudiated “Rosebud,” or at least since a 1963 interview with Miss Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times (London) excerpted by Peter Cowie in his “The Study of a Colossus”: “It’s a gimmick, really,” said Welles, “and rather dollar-book Freud.”
I disagree with both Miss Kael and Mr. Welles on “Rosebud,” with Miss Kael for the anti-genre prejudice her repudiation of “Rosebud” confirms and with Welles for — who knows — his canny instinct for self-preservation in repudiating “Rosebud” before it came out of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s ghostly past to haunt him.
When I interviewed Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1970 for Show magazine, I had no idea that he would reveal to me the origin of “Rosebud” as a bike that Herman J. Mankiewicz once lost as a child in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Nor did I have any idea that there then was and always had been a bitter feud between the Herman J. and Joseph L. sides of the Mankiewicz family. All I knew was that I had forged a crucial link with the scenarist of a strangely compelling movie called “Ladies’ Man” and “Citizen Kane.” But my feeling of discovery was based first of all on my abiding attachment to “Rosebud,” as not only the key to but also the beating heart of “Citizen Kane” as a movie. It is “Rosebud” that structures Kane as a private-eye investigation of a citizen in the public eye, and thus brings us much closer to “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” and the burning R’s on the pillowcases of “Rebecca.”
The problem with defending “Rosebud” as a narrative device is that its very vividness makes it a running gag in our satirically oriented culture. How can we possibly take “Rosebud” seriously, Miss Kael complains, after Snoopy has called Lucy’s sled “Rosebud?” The same way, I suppose, we can take Potemkin seriously after Woody Allen has sent a baby carriage rolling down the steps of a Latin American palace in “Bananas.” Both Snoopy and Allen are paying homage to bits of film language transformed by the magical contexts of their medium into poetic metaphors. But whereas Eisenstein’s baby carriage moves from prop to agitprop as it becomes an archetypal conveyance of revolutionary fervor, “Rosebud” reverberates with psychological overtones as it passes through the snows of childhood (les neiges d’antan) into the fire, ashes and smoke of death. Indeed, the burning of “Rosebud” in Xanadu’s furnace represents the only instance in which the character of Kane can be seen subjectively by the audience. It is as if his mind and memory were being cremated before our eyes and we were too helpless to intervene and too incompetent to judge. It is an act of symbolic summation and transfiguration worthy of Truffaut’s passionately paradoxical tribute to the film itself: It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius.”
The redeeming value of “Rosebud” is its suggestion that men of a certain size and scope and stature are not fully accountable even to history. This implied absence of accountability tends to slow the flow of moralistic molasses dumped over Kane on the most dubious pretexts. Through the years I have seen Kane about thirty times, but until very recently I never bothered to wonder what Kane’s side of the story might have been if there had been somewhat more of his story on the screen. What, for example, is Jed Leland so outraged about in his rambling reminiscences of a rich friend with feet of clay? That Kane’s two marriages failed? Leland’s apparently sexless existence hardly makes him more “human” on that score than Kane. Besides, Kane’s two wives never remotely suggest the stuff of which Rosebuds are made. Ruth Warwick’s Emily is frigid, prissy, conservative and, from her quietly hysterical aversion to the idea of Bernstein in her son’s nursery, at least incipiently anti-Semitic. Dorothy Comingore’s Susan is harsh, raucous, vulgar and almost maniacally mediocre. Ray Collins’s embattled Tammany tiger seems every inch the thief and scoundrel Kane claimed him to be, and Leland himself seems to have no greater ambition in life than to be a drunken dilettante full of moral superiority. If Miss Kael had analyzed the Kane-Leland relationship more fully on its own terms, she might have traced a parallel between Kane and Leland on one track and Hearst and Mankiewicz on the other. There is probably a great deal of Mankiewicz in Leland, and especially in that moment of alcoholic self-righteousness when Leland attacks Kane for not knowing how to get drunk. In vino veritas and all that. Hearst might even stand for all the Hollywood moguls in Mankiewicz moralistic rhetoric. But the Leland-Kane relationship doesn’t play so one-sidedly in the delicately pitched intimacy provided by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. Cotten is an actor who can swim under the surface of a characterization with less splash than Welles, and so when Cotten-Leland talks about drinking with Welles-Kane, he could be talking also about acting. Welles can’t really lose himself in a part the way Cotten can, perhaps because Welles has so much more to lose. Even so, Welles and Cotten climb piggy-back on each other’s lines with such zestful expertness that there is less conflict than complicity in their big renunciation scene. Leland becomes Kane’s alter ego in the peculiarly Wellesian pattern which later couples Othello and Iago, Arkadin and Van Stratten, Falstaff and Hal, and Quinlan and Vargas, not to mention Welles and Cotten in repeat interperformances in “Journey into Fear” and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.” Indeed when you add up everything Welles did after Kane and compare it with everything Mankiewicz did before and after “Kane,” the sour humor and intransigent ambiguity of “Citizen Kane” would seem to arise more from the personality of Welles than from that of Mankiewicz. What Mankiewicz has provided is an apparently big subject with faint hints of scandal from one side and large helpings of social consciousness from the other. And “Rosebud,” a symbol that turned out to be more personal than social.
Back in 1941, Bosley Crowther qualified his enthusiastic review of “Kane” with a complaint about “Rosebud” and the unsolved mystery of Kane: “And the final poignant identification of ‘Rosebud’ sheds little more than a vague, sentimental light upon his character. At the end Kubla Kane is still an enigma — a very confusing one.” Two days after his initial review, Crowther developed his reservations in a Sunday follow-up: “And when the significance of ‘Rosebud’ is made apparent in the final sequence of the film, it provides little more than a dramatic and poignant shock. It does not clarify, except by sentimental suggestion, the reason for Kane’s complexity. And so we are bound to conclude that this picture is not truly great, for its theme is basically vague and its significance depends upon circumstances. Unquestionably, Mr. Welles is the most dynamic newcomer in films and his talents are infinite. But the showman will have to acquire a good bit more discipline before he is thoroughly dependable.”
Crowther’s rejection of “Rosebud” as an explanation of Kane is consistent with his later pans of “Wild Strawberries” and “L’Avventura” for their apparent self-indulgence and obfuscation. Crowther’s most influential period in film criticism was the ’40s when his social approach to films coincided with the world-saving concerns of his readers. “Rosebud” is much closer to the arched fishing pole and line of the protagonist’s father in “Wild Strawberries” than to the outstretched soldier’s hand crumpling up near a butterfly in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Few American films up to “Citizen Kane” had been grown up enough to suggest that we never really grow up, and a boy torn away from his mother at an early age, like Kane, like Welles, least of all. The grandeur of “Rosebud” as a memory is that it is meaningless and trivial to anyone but Kane. Its honor is its confirmation that we are isolated from each other by so much more than our politics and morals, by nothing less, in fact, than our very selves. The only way critics and audiences of the period could stomach the profound pessimism of “Citizen Kane” was to misconstrue it as a detailed denunciation of a certain kind of American plutocrat. In this respect, the scenario is curiously sluggish and undeveloped next to a political hallucination like the Capra-Riskin “Meet John Doe,” which opened shortly before “Citizen Kane” and had about a million times more polemical Americana. Miss Kael never mentions “Meet John Doe” or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Great Dictator.” Why Hearst should have been a more daring target in 1940 than Hitler I have no idea, and, even today, the California lettuce growers seem to have lost few of their fangs from “The Grapes of Wrath.” By any standard, the few minutes of political talk sprinkled in “Citizen Kane” would seem fairly superficial in a high-school civics textbook. But the mystical process by which the Mercury Players parade across a haunted screen never seems to lose its power to fascinate us.
Part 3: May 27, 1971
Millions of viewers (including this reviewer) who watched the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science presentations of April 15, 1971, were given to understand that Orson Welles had accepted in advance an honorary award from John Huston via a piece of film from Spain where Welles was presumably working on some assignment or other. The scenario for this bit of remote-control contrivance had become familiar in recent years: Appreciative Artist Too Busy Abroad to Come to Hollywood but Honored Just the Same. Huston concluded the charade by announcing that he would stop off in Spain (on his way to Ireland) to deliver the Oscar to Orson. But if Hollywood scuttlebutt is to be believed, not only was Welles in town all the time; he shot the “Spanish” footage in his own Los Angeles apartment the week before, and then capped the jest by receiving the statuette from Huston at a local restaurant immediately after the Oscar ceremony. Thus while George C. Scott was attracting all the attention with his public defiance of convention, Welles and Huston, two merry pranksters of an earlier era, were slipping in their own private joke without ever letting their tongues out of their checks.
In their time Welles and Huston had been subjected to the same brand of Faustian rhetoric masquerading as criticism. Both directorial careers started out with a bang in 1941, Welles with “Kane,” Huston with “The Maltese Falcon.” Both found themselves a continent away when an ambitious project was being butchered in the cutting room, Welles in South America during the martyrdom of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Huston in Africa during the reduction of “The Red Badge of Courage.” Both men had bummed around Europe in their youth, and never really lost their wanderlust sufficiently to settle down in Hollywood for the more tedious tasks of movie-making. Both men supplemented their directorial careers with acting, and both men ended up disillusioning their earliest admirers. But there is really no need to shed crocodile tears over their alleged decline.
Cinema, like politics, is the art of the possible. There are too many conflicting temperaments and forces at work at every stage of production to achieve purity of creation. And not only in Hollywood, as Pauline Kael seems to suggest in “Raising Kane.” It is only because she is so blissfully unaware of French and Japanese philistinism that she can treat Renoir and Kurosawa as miraculously unfettered creatures of inspiration in comparison with their Hollywood counterparts. Besides, most of her New Yorker readers salivate sympathetically to the mere mention of Renoir because the name reminds them of the kind of paintings they would like to possess. After a disastrous screening of “The Rules of the Game” at the Harvard Club in New York, I can assure Miss Kael that most of her readers would despise all but one or two of the master’s movies, painter father or no painter father. As for Kurosawa, his samurai epics are more or less imaginative imitations of the Hollywood westerns Miss Kael professes to despise on principle.
And what of the many screenwriters associated with Renoir, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Fellini and on occasion, even Bergman? When shall we read their stories with any portion of the extended detail Miss Kael has devoted to the late Herman J. Mankiewicz? Indeed, if foreign directors had to satisfy the Screenwriters Guild requirement of writing at least 55 percent of the dialogue to qualify for a writing credit, very few of the art-house deities would qualify. It is therefore maliciously misleading of Miss Kael and her cohorts to argue that directors like Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks had nothing to do with the preparation of their scripts when the astonishing stylistic continuity of their careers demonstrates the contrary. Only recently John Gielgud (no auteurist he) casually remarked on a talk show that Hitchcock had “written in” big parts for Peter Lorre and Robert Young to rival Gielgud’s original lead role in “Secret Agent.” Hollis Alpert has taken up the cudgels for Miss Kael in the Saturday Review as part of his long crusade for greater recognition of the screenwriter. (Ironically, Alpert once won an award for criticism from the Directors Guild, and I never.)
As much as I respect Alpert’s point of view, I must point out that auteurism was never intended to enthrone all directors above all writers but rather to identify the source of a style in movies worthy of memory. Often there is more than one source and it is up to the critic to track down every contribution whenever possible. What I find peculiar, however, is the malignant anti-auteurism in the writings of Kael and Alpert as if auteurism were an established religion that had carried the day. As it happens, Sarris, Kael, Alpert, Kauffmann and even noted “mass critics” King Weed and Gene Shallow are jammed in a phone booth far from the madding crowd. (I don’t even consider such voluntary exiles from the public pulse as John Simon, the greatest film critic of the 19th century, and Gene Youngblood, the greatest film critic of the 21st.) The point is that we are all splitting hairs over questions only vaguely understood and appreciated by the majority of our readers. Still, I must make every effort to keep the record as balanced as possible, and it is in this spirit of scholarly rectification that I am raising some “Kane” of my own.
As Miss Kael makes clear in her own article, it is not entirely the fault of Orson Welles that Herman J. Mankiewicz has tended to be the forgotten man of “Citizen Kane.” Indeed, nothing Miss Kael writes about Mankiewicz is inconsistent with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cruel but candid write-off in a letter to Maxwell Perkins dated April 23, 1938 (from “The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” edited and with an introduction by Andrew Turnbull): “Hard times weed out many of the incompetents, but they swarm back — Herman Mankiewicz, a ruined man who hasn’t written ten feet of continuity in two years was finally dropped by Metro, but immediately picked up by Columbia! He is a nice fellow that everybody likes and has been brilliant, but he is being hired because everyone is sorry for his wife — which I think would make him rather an obstacle in the way of making good pictures. Utter toughness toward the helpless, combined with super-sentimentality — Jesus, what a combination!”
Miss Kael digs into the dry rot that had set in almost thirteen years before Fitzgerald’s letter: “It was a lucky thing for Mankiewicz that he got the movie job when he did, because he would never have risen at the Times, and though he wrote regularly for The New Yorker (and remarked of those of the Algonquin group who didn’t, ‘The part-time help of wits is no better than the full-time of halfwits’), The New Yorker, despite his pleas for cash, was paying him partly in stock, which wasn’t worth much at the time. Mankiewicz drank heavily, and the drinking newspaperman was in the style of the World, but not in the style of the Times.”
Miss Kael does manage to score a coup for Mankiewicz’s authorship of “Kane” with an elaborate description of his misadventure in October 1925 with a review of Gladys Wallis (the wife of Samuel Insull) in “The School for Scandal.” Mankiewicz reportedly collapsed on his typewriter in a drunken stupor a la Jed Leland with his unspeakable (and unprintable) notice still in the carriage. By contrast, Miss Kael hastily downgrades the significance of the fact that the name Bernstein meant something in the early life of Welles. We must turn to Peter Cowie’s “The Study of a Colossus” for the information “that Welles’ own mentor in youth was a certain Doctor Bernstein who presented him, among other things, with a puppet theatre when he was in his infancy.” Could this puppet theater have been the atrocity about which the first Mrs. Kane complains at the breakfast table? Fortunately Miss Kael’s is not likely to be the last word on such speculations.
Not that Miss Kael can be charged with excessive charity toward Mankiewicz’s weaknesses and afflictions. Especially memorable in a horrible way is her zestful retelling of an Ezra Goodman anecdote from “The 50 Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood” about an alleged gaffe perpetrated by Mankiewicz all over the dinner table of a fastidious Hollywood producer named Arthur Hornblow, Jr. According to members of the Mankiewicz family, the Goodman anecdote was heavily embroidered, and it does seem strange that a supposed champion of Mankiewicz should repeat such an unflattering account verbatim.
Even Mankiewicz’s looks at the time of Kane undergo a harsh surveillance by Miss Kael: “It would be hard to explain his sudden, early aging and the thickening of his features and the transparently cynical-look on his face in later photographs.” Miss Kael’s moralizing extends to Mankiewicz’s modus operandi: “Mankiewicz had been hacking out popular comedies and melodramas for too long to write drama; one does not dictate tragedy to a stenotypist.” No, one presumably writes tragedy in a garret with a goosequill. Suddenly we perceive that “Raising Kane,” like Miss Kael’s previous production story on “The Group,” is a saga with no heroes or heroines apart from Miss Kael herself. Orson and Herman, the two protagonists and antagonists of “Raising Kane,” are reduced to the dimensions respectively of an exhibitionistic egomaniac and a self-destructive hack. Meanwhile, Miss Kael’s gyroscopic ego preserves her moral superiority over all semblances of otherness. She heaps her scorn promiscuously over radicals and reactionaries, swimming-pool Stalinists and movie-industry moguls, young right-on students and old silent-movie buffs, Bazinians and Kracauerites. And in the process of putting everyone else down, she replaces the scholarly oversimplifications of the past with her own idiosyncratic oversimplifications. Hence, every movie made before 1929 is eradicated from the stream of film history through this curious tribute to the hitherto despised early talkies: “And the public responded, because it was eager for modern American subjects. Even those who were children at the time loved the fast-moving modern-city stories. The common-placeness — even tawdriness — of the imagery was such a relief from all that silent ‘poetry.’ The talkies were a great step down. It’s hard to make clear to people who didn’t live through the transition how sickly and unpleasant many of those ‘artistic’ silent pictures were — how you wanted to scrape off all that mist and sentiment.”
By her own calculation, Miss Kael was about eight years old when talking pictures came in, and it is not surprising that an eight-year-old should prefer speech to titles. Even today children tend to reject foreign films with subtitles. Television, if nothing else, has conditioned young people to listen to language rather than read it. But a generation of immigrants, among whom were my father and mother, actually learned English by reading the intertitles of silent movies. The point of view of this generation would differ from Miss Kael’s, which is why a film historian cannot rely merely on childhood memories. I was born in 1928 just about when sound was coming in, and I can’t depend on childhood memories at all for an appraisal of the silent era, but what little burrowing I have done has revealed a much greater diversity of style and content than Miss Kael’s sweeping generalization would suggest. Twenties movies featured even more fun and knockabout humor than the ’30s, and not merely through their classic clowns — Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, et al., but also through all sorts of relatively straight comedy players, including Marion Davies, the hapless obsession of William Randolph Hearst and the subject of Dorothy Comingore’s shrill caricature as Susan Alexander.
Miss Kael is on even weaker ground when she credits all The New Yorker writers her stable of researchers could check out with effecting nothing less than a revolution in Hollywood tastes: “They changed movies by raking the old moralistic muck with derision. Those sickly Graustarkian romances with beautiful pure high-born girls and pathetic lame girls and dashing princes in love with commoners, and all the Dumas and Sabatini and Blasco-lbanez, now had to compete with the freedom and wildness of American comedy.” Aside from taking a poke at Stroheim and Ingram, this passage is notable only for the fatuous falseness of its generalization. “Docks of New York,” “Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” “The River,” “Lonesome,” “A Girl in Every Port,” “Beggars of Life,” “That Certain Thing,” “Show People,” “The Jack Knife Man,” to name but a small sampling of the silents, were far closer to a kind of grubby grandeur than to Graustark.
A false record of film history is relevant here only to the extent that it contributes to a spectacular misinterpretation of “Citizen Kane” itself. After thousands of words of interesting gossip, “Raising Kane” brings us up short with the terse bulletin: “Which takes us right up to ‘Citizen Kane,’ the biggest newspaper picture of them all — the picture that ends with the introduction of the cast and a reprise of the line ‘I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.’ ” Here at least Miss Kael can be credited with a certain degree of originality, however bizarre, in treating “Citizen Kane” as the last of the Stop-the-Presses movies instead of the first of the Stop-the-World-I-Want-To-Get-Off films. What most other critics take to be a coffin, the irrepressible Miss Kael takes to be a barrel of laughs. A man dies, his best friend spits on his memory, his second wife becomes an alcoholic, a sled is burned, and everyone gets old in the process. Next Week, East Lynne.
But to support her oddly jocular reaction to “Kane,” Miss Kael is compelled to discount what Herman J. Mankiewicz actually did as a screenwriter for close to 30 years and try to place him as a person in the midst of the Algonquin Circle. Names are dropped with gay abandon, a Dorothy Parker here, a Nathanael West there. No need then to mention such relatively heroic Hollywood work-horses as Robert Riskin and Dudley Nichols. They never dined with Harold Ross, and hence they don’t count even though they wrote a hundred times as many funny lines as Parker and West put together. Besides, once you start mentioning genuine professionals like Riskin and Nichols, you have to start mentioning directors like Capra and Ford and McCarey, and they too had nothing to do with the Algonquin Circle. As for Herman J. Mankiewicz — that is, the real Herman J. Mankiewicz — his forte was never comedy at all but what Miss Kael would describe derisively as romantic melodrama. His most memorable movies before Kane are two interesting William Powell vehicles entitled “Man of the World” and “Ladies’ Man,” and after “Kane,” two oddly convoluted movies for, respectively, Robert Siodmak (“Christmas Holiday”) and Nicholas Ray (“A Woman’s Secret”), the latter movie strikingly anticipatory of brother Joe’s “All About Eve.”
A man’s life, as Kane suggests, is more than a jigsaw puzzle. Even when we have fitted all the pieces together, we may have difficulty understanding the completed portrait. It may be that Herman J. Mankiewicz’s troubles started long before he came to Hollywood, but once there he encountered a crisis in film history which should at least be considered as part of his malaise. Back in 1931, the plot of “Man of the World” did not cause too much excitement. According to the Harrison’s Reports of March 28, 1931, “The hero was a publisher of a scandal sheet. His system was to appear at the home of a wealthy person with an advance proof of some item that was to be printed about him. He would claim to be desirous of having this blackmailer prosecuted, but the person involved would never consent to do this as it would be embarrassing. Instead he would pay him hush money, which he thought would be turned over to the blackmailer, but which the hero would keep. At the home of one of his victims he meets the heroine. They actually fall in love with each other. He tells her about his past, but she is willing to marry him. The hero later realizes the impossibility of this when his former sweetheart who was his blackmailing assistant tells him that he can never escape from the past. He prints an item about the heroine and himself and presents it to her uncle. In her presence he accepts a check for $10,000 as hush money, and she is completely disillusioned. The police force him to leave Paris and he goes to South Africa with his former sweetheart. The heroine leaves for America, glad to be rid of him.
“The story was written by Herman Mankiewicz. It was directed by Richard Wallace. In the cast are William Powell, Carole Lombard, Wynne Gibson, Guy Kibbee and others. The talk is very indistinct and at times even difficult to understand. Not suitable for children, or even for adults. Not a Sunday show. Not a substitution. Note: Two conceiled advertisements are used in this picture; mention is made of both Duns and Bradstreets.”
The exhaustively censorious coverage of Harrison’s Reports neglects one slight plot detail. The hero tears up the check from his beloved’s uncle and lets the pieces flutter out to sea. This check-tearing gesture is repeated more obliquely in “Kane” by Jed Leland via a letter to Kane with the torn pieces of a check inside.
“Ladies’ Man,” the next month, reflected more sordidness and self hatred than even “Man of the World.” Powell plays a self-mocking gigolo, almost redeemed from his shameful profession by the true love of Kay Francis, but finally destroyed by the unbridled passions of a mother (Olive Tell) and daughter (Carole Lombard) team in wicked high society. Powell’s actual Nemesis is an implacable banker-father-husband (Gilbert Emery) who intervenes for the sake of his daughter after tolerating the indiscretions of his wife. It is the night of the masquerade ball. Powell is dressed in the grotesque costume of Potemkin to his elderly mistress’s Catherine. The dignified husband comes to Powell’s room and ends up hurling him from the balcony. He then goes downstairs and takes his place alongside his wife for the Grand March. She knows intuitively what has happened and walks beside him fearfully but proudly. The police are waiting. But the march continues round and round. William Everson has compared this extraordinary figure of style to the climactic moments of Jacques Prevert in “Lumiere d’Ete” (directed by Jean Gremillon) and “The Lovers of Verona” (directed by Henri Cayatte). They are, like the climactic moments in “Ladies’ Man,” more the moments of a writer than of a director. If Sternberg had directed “Ladies Man,” it might have been one of the great movies of the ’30s. Unfortunately, the director was Lothar Mendes, and the movie was consigned to oblivion except for the assiduous research of old-movie buffs. Still, I could see at last on the screen some prior evidence of the feeling that went into Kane and suddenly Kane itself took on a new coloration in the frightful tension between an old writer loaded down with fables of shame and guilt and a young director loaded down with fantasies of power and glory. For Mankiewicz, “Kane” may have been the last stop on this earth, and for Welles the first step on the moon.
Part 4: June 3, 1971
The one expression critics invariably used to describe Herman Mankiewicz’s dialogue was “grown-up,” not witty or New Yorkerish or hilarious, but simply grown-up. And the dialogue in “Citizen Kane” is nothing if not grown-up. The trouble is that after 1933, serious grown-up screenwriters were increasingly plagued by a childish censorship, and only grown-up critics like Otis Ferguson and Meyer Levin even noticed the havoc that was being wrought. I suspect that Mankiewicz became more despondent and frustrated in this period, partly because his bitterness and cynicism could no longer find permissible plots in which to function and partly because Paramount itself was on the downgrade with its arty, adult projects. In all the space she has devoted in “Raising Kane” to an analysis of the script, Pauline Kael never mentions the brothel scene with Kane and Leland, a scene that the censors knocked out of Mankiewicz’s original script, one of many elisions that tended to tip the viewpoint of the film from the more sensual Mankiewicz to the more theatrical Welles. Curiously, the rigid censorship that was in force in 1941 worked to the advantage of Welles vis-a-vis other directors with fewer hang ups about women.
Why, then, has Welles virtually obliterated Mankiewicz from view over the years? For one thing, Welles has continued living and, by living, incarnating “Kane.” Pauline Kael, Hollis Alpert and even the usually perspicacious Richard Corliss are in error when they blame the auteurists and other director-cultists for glorifying the director. Welles happened to be everything on “Kane,” producer, director, star and unit publicist. It is as if Marlon Brando, Stanley Kubrick and Darryl F. Zanuck were the same person. And yet it is Welles, more than any director up to his time, who made directing fashionably conspicuous. As Frank S. Nugent noted in the New York Sunday Times of June 12, 1938: “Speaking of Frank Borzage and George Stevens, as we expect to, brings up the matter of the unsung motion picture director. We remember a poll conducted by one of the theatre circuits not so long ago in which the patrons were invited to name their favorite stars, pictures, stories and directors. John Public and his wife sprinted through the first three categories and bluffed or quit cold on the fourth. Adolph Zukor, of all people, was voted the favorite director by some; Sam Goldwyn was another contender. As we recall it, Ernst Lubitsch won in a walk. His name seemed to be easy to remember. Actually, it was no contest.
“Since this is a day of quizzes, spelling bees and all kinds of brain-teasers, we wonder how many persons could identify the following in terms of their recent, or their most outstanding pictures: Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, Wesley Ruggles, Clarence Brown, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Stevenson, Michael Curtiz, Norman Taurog and Victor Fleming. Or would you score better if the professor asked you to name the director of “The Informer,” of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” of “Wells Fargo,” or “A Slight Case of Murder” and “The Good Earth”? (Don’t be upset if you wind up with a dunce cap: you could catch us just as easily.)
“The point, if any, is not merely that we are apt to forget the director after the fact — which would be at most a pardonable lapse of memory but that we frequently ignore him during it. In clearer words, most of us take a film’s direction for granted, whether it is good or bad, and toss the laurel wreath or the poison ivy sprig at the players. Quite possibly the oversight works as often as it does to his disadvantage. Still, we feel it’s high time to make the director come out from behind those false whiskers and take his place in the hot glare of the cinema spotlight.”
Actually the auteurist are still fighting an uphill battle to make movie audiences conscious of style, despite all the apparent published evidence to the contrary. The player is still the thing, be he John Wayne or Dustin Hoffman or, to the immediate point, Orson Welles. Admittedly, Welles often shows a tendency to swallow up subordinate credits and thinner egos. For years he has been hinting broadly that he had everything to do with the carousel scene in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and he has never gotten over the bad habit of directing other directors for whom he is ostensibly only acting, and sometimes barely that. This is the monstrous side of his personality, but since Kane he has displayed a great many more interesting and compassionate sides to this same personality, especially in movies like “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Lady from Shanghai,” “Touch of Evil,” and “Falstaff.” Still, the plot line of “Mr. Arkadin” could be interpreted as a parable of an artist setting out to eliminate all his collaborators.
However, nothing is to be gained in the attempted resurrection of Herman J. Mankiewicz by painting him as something he is not, specifically the comic muse of the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera,” movies from which Mankiewicz was fired very early in the proceedings. By crediting Mankiewicz with these movies on the flimsiest evidence, Miss Kael defrauds writers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, director Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup”), writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and director Sam Wood (“A Night at the Opera”) in much the same way that she claims Welles and the Wellesians have defrauded Herman J. Mankiewicz. Besides, the two funniest episodes in “Duck Soup” — the lemonade war between Harpo and Edgar Kennedy, the mirror sequence — are derived from old Charlie Chase and Laurel and Hardy farces, and McCarey directed both Chase and Laurel and Hardy in the silent era. So much for the Algonquin Circle as the sole dispenser of ’30s movie comedy. Miss Kael probably felt that a relationship, however tenuous, with the Marx Brothers would strengthen her argument that Mankiewicz was a man of mirth. She seems unaware that “Duck Soup” was a flop at the time of its release; and the Marx Brothers were let go at Paramount, as was W. C. Fields a few years later. A great many of today’s comedy classics like “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday” were box-office failures in the ’30s. Paramount and RKO were two of the better studios of the ’30s and they paid the price by not harvesting the corn as assiduously as Metro did. When I look over the list of great films, here and abroad, that have failed to attract audiences in their own time, I find it difficult to endorse Miss Kael’s neat conspiracy theory to explain why “Kane” did not do better than it did. It was no fault of Hearst’s that “Kane” was a complete commercial flop in England, where Hearst had as little influence as Lord Beaverbrook had here. Also, the New York run began tapering off well before its tenth week, as if the word-of-mouth were getting around that Kane was a cold, gloomy movie at a time when cold, gloomy movies were not nearly as fashionable as they are today, and, even so, have you peeked at the grosses for “Persona” lately?
Nor do I agree that the Academy Awards might have turned the tide commercially. Miss Kael neglects to mention what actually did win the Oscar that year: “How Green Was My Valley,” a movie that, though it would not have gotten my vote over “Kane” at the time, is nonetheless the best movie, apart from “Sunrise,” ever to win an Oscar. (I think it is much more disgraceful that “Mrs. Miniver” won the 1942 Academy Award over “The Magnificent Ambersons.”) And even Welles could not quarrel with the choice of John Ford as best director in 1941 by both the New York Film Critics and the Academy. After all, Welles did study for “Kane” under Ford, Frank Capra, King Vidor and Fritz Lang, and if Miss Kael would take another look at “Stagecoach” and “The Informer,” she would find more expressionism than she suspects.
Despite her blatant bias against Welles, Miss Kael is to be commended for providing as much information as she has on the life and background of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Since his death in 1953 he has indeed been a forgotten man, eclipsed not only by Welles but by his younger brother, Joe. Richard Griffith credits the script “Kane” to Joseph Mankiewicz in the once authoritative film history coauthored with Paul Rotha and entitled The Film Till Now. To this day the Film Daily Year Book records the name of the Oscar winner for best original screenplay in 1941 (along with Orson Welles) as “John Mankiewicz.” The late great French film critic Jean-Georges Auriol assumed that the Mankiewicz who had coauthored “Kane” (Herman) had also directed “Dragonwyck” (Joseph). Part of the problem is the anomalous position of the screenwriter in terms of autonomous creation, a position accurately described for all countries and all times by Alberto Moravia in “Ghost at Noon”: “I want to say a few words about the job of a script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who — generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director — writes the script or scenario, that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera are minutely indicated, one by one. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinematographic technique, mise-en-scene, and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the script-writer’s part in the film is of the first importance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression — and one does not really see how else they can be judged — the scriptwriter is an artist who, although he gives his best to the film, never has the comfort of knowing that he has expressed himself. And so, with all his creative work, he can he be nothing more than a provider of suggestions and inventions, of tit is then the director’s task to nuke me of technical, psychological and literary ideas; it is then the director’s task to make the material according to his own genius and, in fact, to express himself.”
The proof that Moravia’s maxims still pertain even after Miss Kael has reconsidered the roles of Welles and Mankiewicz lies in the fact that no one has proposed publishing the original first draft of the “Kane” script. What will appear in print (with “Raising Kane” as an added dividend prologue) is the final shooting script of the film now in the can. The published script of “Kane” will therefore not be an independent literary entity like a published play, but rather a printed reference to a can of film stored somewhere. If “Citizen Kane” had appeared as a Mercury Theatre production on stage before reaching the screen, there would be nothing to stop an enterprising producer from redoing it as a play or even making it as a film with, say, Mike Nichols directing Dustin Hoffman as Kane, Jon Voigt as Leland, Alan Arkin as Bernstein, Ali McGraw as the first Mrs. Kane and Barbra Streisand as Susan Alexander. That is why Don Mankiewicz’s plaintive letter to the Voice associating his late father with Shakespeare, and Orson Welles with Franco Zeffirelli doesn’t really apply to the admittedly arbitrary situation of cinema. There is no ontological reason why screenplays cannot enjoy an independent literary existence and be remade at will every season. It is just the way things are that Herman J. Mankiewicz must play second fiddle to Orson Welles all through eternity.
But if Welles has never been singularly generous to Herman J. Mankiewicz, he was always more than generous to Gregg Toland, and I would support the majority view on “Kane” (against Kael) that the movie looks more extraordinary than it sounds. Indeed, it is bewildering how Miss Kael can evade the responsibility of systematic visual analysis in the case of a cinematographic landmark like “Citizen Kane.” She refers to Otis Ferguson’s critique of “Kane” as the best review of the film without coming to grips with his denunciation of the film’s talky, showy theatricality. She never shows the slightest comprehension of the aesthetic issues raised by the film, issues that are unresolved to this day. Nor does she acknowledge the possibility that critics of good mind and good will may thoroughly dislike “Kane.” Instead, she employs “Kane” as a club to batter many of her pet targets all the more vulnerable for being so vague. One would never read Pauline Kael to find out why the camera moves mystically toward and into the mirror after Kane and his myriad reflections have filed past. This would take Miss Kael into those dangerously stylistic speculations that are the great glory of film. But if we are to believe Miss Kael’s protestations on the subject, she deplores any trace of mysticism or even mystery in the medium. The lights must be on at all times and the mind clear, and the intellect engaged.
Still, one must wonder why Miss Kael’s commercially successful collections of movie reviews have all exploited a conspicuously carnal relationship with her subject at least in their titles — “I Lost It at the Movies,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and “Going Steady.” Methinks the lady doth protest too much. The great appeal of movies is emotional rather than intellectual. To believe otherwise is to lie to yourself and to your readers. Worse still, you spend your whole life scolding your most charming seducers because they do not go out to seek honest work. I think it is a mistake for critics to scold artists, or even to bemoan their bad luck. Whereas Miss Kael tends to be Faustian in these matters, I tend to be Adlerian. It is better to accept and appreciate the supposed “disappointments” of our time — Welles, Mailer, Salinger — for what they’ve done rather than for what they might have have done if we had been able to crack the whip over them. They have all done as much as they were humanly capable of doing, and so did Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Dos Passos before them, and thank God for “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “U.S.A.” and never mind the rude avoidance of encores.
I think Welles, Mankiewicz, Toland, Herrmann, Polglaise et al, did very well, all things considered. It wasn’t their fault that Welles longed to be RKO’s Max Reinhardt when all RKO could afford was Val Lewton. But if we shall always remember Welles from “Citizen Kane,” it is not so much because he created it as because it created him and because also, in some ineffable way, he has never been unworthy of it. Indeed, “Citizen Kane” has been enriched in retrospect by Welles’s extraordinary tenacity in maintaining his personal vision in an often impersonal medium. To argue, as Miss Kael does, that the absolute freedom of the screen artist is the key to film art is to fly in the face of experience. Mike Nichols was as free on “Catch-22” as Welles ever was on “Kane,” and Miss Kael does not seem to have been enchanted. Bruce Baillie has always been free in his fashion, and he never ceases to bore me. Chaplin was economically free throughout his career, and he ended up driving away most of his audience. (And who remembers that Welles supplied Chaplin with the story for “Monsieur Verdoux?”)
By denying the emotional, even romantic resonance of the moviegoing experience, Miss Kael often reduces her admirable lucidity to the most addled literalism, as, for example, when she drags “Kane” down to the level of a newspaper yarn: “Among the minor absurdities of the script is that the ‘News on the March’ men never think of sending a cameraman along with the inquiring reporter, though Gable had just played a newsreel cameraman in “Too Hot to Handle,” in 1938, and though in “The Philadelphia Story,” which had just opened on Broadway in 1939, and which Mankiewicz’s brother Joe produced for the screen in 1940, while ‘Kane’ was being shot, the magazine team, also obviously from Luce, includes a photographer. There’s something rather pathetic — almost as if ‘Kane’ were a Grade B movie that didn’t have a big enough budget for a few extra players — about that one lonely sleuthing reporter traveling around the country while a big organization delays the release of an important newsreel documentary on the head of a rival news chain.”
Miss Kael’s complaint is unique in the annals of “Kane” criticism. Most everyone else has always been comfortable with the notion that the shadowy reporter is at least partly a metaphorical means of prying the truth loose from the past. Besides, he’s not doing a picture spread for Life but, rather, looking for the meaning of one word, a meaning moreover that can be voiced-over the otherwise completed newsreel. Finally, who needs Ruth Hussey trotting around with a camera when Gregg Toland is already staring at each set with his cruel lenses?
Elsewhere, Miss Kael suggests that Welles was tricked by both his script and his camera crew during the shooting. She can’t have it both ways, treating Welles like Machiavelli in one paragraph and like Mortimer Snerd in another. With all the power Welles possessed on either side of the camera and in the cutting room, it is hard to see how he could be “tricked” without his knowledge, complicity and even industrious cooperation. Movie-making is more tedious and complicated than the ordinary run of ego-game-playing can stand, and the memories of the underlings often sacrifice dull facts for demonic fantasies. As it stands, the best criticism of “Kane” (as of most films) has been written by people with little access to all the gossip. At the moment, I prefer to think of “Citizen Kane” as one of the many good movies turned out in Hollywood in the past half century. Even in 1941 there were other good movies to pass the time, and though there was something special about “Kane,” it was comprehensible in terms of a moviegoer’s total experience. The moment someone tells me that “Citizen Kane” is the only good American film I immediately realize that that someone does not fully understand even “Kane.” ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 2, 2020