This analysis of Kane talks candidly about the events of the film. My own personal conclusion about the film assumes that you have seen the film and recall it well enough to be comfortable in answering a question: What type of person is Charles Foster Kane? I cannot stress this enough, please see the film before reading this critique; please answer this question to yourself before reading to the conclusion.
Citizen Kane almost never made it to the screen. Co-writing with Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles debuted as a film director by borrowing the life history of newspaper legend William Randolph Hearst to craft this 1941 film. Welles was 25. Hearst, feeling that his reputation was threatened, leveraged his influence with Hollywood and his newspapers in an attempt to prevent the film from completing and from opening. Fortunately, Citizen Kane opened and was nominated for nine Academy Awards. But Hearst had succeeded in branding Welles as a communist and every time the film was named during the awards ceremony the crowd booed. Citizen Kane won only one Oscar--Best Screenplay--and it was the only award that the Academy ever gave to Orson Welles.
How much of Kane is Hearst?
The parallels between Kane and Hearst are plentiful and obvious: both were affluent children, newspaper magnates; builders of enormous castle retreats, political aspirants; adulterers with an entertainer girlfriend. Yet Charles Kane has some qualities that are quite different. Kane was sent away by his mother and raised by someone else, but Hearst was always close to his mother, and traveled with her quite often. Hearst kept his mistress while remaining married to his wife, but Kane does divorce after his infidelity becomes front page news. Kane's retreat Xanadu with its dark empty corridors and foreboding lonesome dreariness cannot be Hearst's Castle in San Simeon frequented by movie stars and where there was always a party.
The similarities abound. The differences should make us take notice. If we assume that Welles is a clever writer (and with people branded as "genius", this is a safe assumption), then Welles wants us to notice the differences between Hearst and Kane. The similarities are easy to spot but the differences hold the payoff. By using a well-known figure, Welles challenges our very assumptions about both men. We know Kane well enough to say, "He is not Hearst" but still we draw the comparisons about the two even until this day. The Hearst/Kane relationship is a rabbit hole; we think we can navigate the maze but the reality is that we have little right to think that way.
I asked it in the beginning and I'll ask it again, what kind of person is Charles Foster Kane?
The film structure never gives the audience immediate access to Kane. Sure, we see his death scene: big fat rubbery lips mouthing out "Rosebud", the drop of a snow globe, and the silhouette of a hand falls off a bed or chair. This portrayal only creates questions and doesn't even guess at the answer of who is Charles Kane.
From this point, Kane is never in the picture except viewed through somebody else's eyes. First comes a newsreel proclaiming his death and detailing his life. The next report comes the diary of the trustee who raised him. We then see Kane through the eyes of his business associate and then the story of his best friend who stopped talking to him. Finally, we hear from his depressed and divorced second wife. Following the stories, we then hear the conclusions of the newspaper reporter searching for the meaning of Rosebud. It's safe to say that none of these are reliable witnesses.
The behaviors of the Kanes often contradict each other. The business associate paints Kane as a spendthrift who respects hard work. This Kane is friendly in business and charitable in reward. He wants to make sure that you're well rewarded and happy. In fact, this Kane is relatively uncontroversial. Compare this to the behavior of the ex-wife's Kane, who forced her to sing opera in spite of the critical animosity of the newspapers. She even needs to attempt suicide to give Charles Kane the message that he's overwhelming her. When she leaves him, she does it to hurt him like he hurt her. While the two experiences are separated by the span of decades in the film, it's more interesting to consider them as separated by the span of the witnesses. It makes sense that the businessman interpreted Kane only through business, reward, and compensation; this was all that the businessman really knows. It makes equal sense that a divorced woman would see her husband in bitter terms, even to the extent that she sees him as the cause of her own suicide attempt.
In the testimonies of the wife and of the businessman, the witnesses are better at describing themselves than in describing Kane. The wife is meek, so Kane overwhelms her to satisfy his own desperate needs. The businessman wants money and Kane makes him wealthy. The wife has an impoverished spirit so she describes Kane as devoid of soul: friends do not visit Xanadu; Kane surrounds himself with statues. The businessman is upbeat, and so Kane is upbeat and positive.
This self-referential description is true in all of the testimonies in the film. Detailing them all would almost be academic, but to really drive the point home, let's look to the story of the best friend who parted ways. When the film introduces the friend in his nursing home, he's a self-centered man, a little bit down on his luck-- he was never very good at anything except failing out of every school that Kane attended. He begs cigars from strangers against hospital recommendations. At this point, we can guess how he represents Kane. Running for office, Kane fails when a scandal reveals that he's having an affair. The failure echoes in the friend and it describes all of his own failures, whether it is drink or cigars or a habit. Kane chose his vice instead of doing the honorable thing, what was best for the people. The friend makes a grandiose request to work at a location away from Kane and during the request he accuses Kane of being capable of only loving on his own terms. This should be a profound insight about himself, but he directs it at Kane. He holds his friendship only on his own terms. As long as Kane succeeds they can be close friends. If Kane shows any human weakness the friend's instinct is to run. Kane lets him work at a different location.
Can we trust the eyewitness testimony? No. Each of them found a way to project their own fears and loves on Kane who reflected it back at them. Each story portrays a Kane that is closer to its own narrator in the telling. While facts may be accurate, the narrator makes clumsy guesses for the motivations and this is all the difference.
Rosebud is Kane
Let me present a montage of seemingly unrelated moments before dashing down a slippery hill on Rosebud. I'll ask you to tie them together since they are more thought provoking than conclusive; but they do help to make my case.
In the credits Charles Foster Kane and Orson Welles are the last entry listed instead of the first.
If we take the time to view the special features, we can see an advertisement for the movie: Orson Welles provides the voice over to the Mercury Theater Players and mentions their part in the movie. We never see Orson Welles, we only hear him.
Orson Welles disliked the device of the sled named Rosebud. He considered it dime store Freudianism, but included it at the insistence of Mankiewicz. That dime of psychology pays huge dividends while we try to understand Kane. In some ways, Rosebud diverts our attention from Kane but it also creates a near perfect parallel story: who was Kane, what was Rosebud?
After a couple hours of watching this movie about a man's life, we are no closer to understanding him than when we first put the DVD in the player. At this point, we should be frustrated. But let's consider what we know: Kane is Hearst, but not. We have a bunch of facts about Kane, but never really understand him. He is a commodity, the fountainhead of people's memories but not much more.
We were never expected to know Kane at all. Quite simply, we don't have enough information; we were never there. Judging by his witnesses, being there doesn't give any special privileges anyway. We know as much about Kane as we do about Rosebud. Kane was a man. He lived. He died. Rosebud was a sled. It belonged to him in childhood. It was incinerated when he died. There is no tragedy in its incineration; Rosebud's value died with Kane.
Rosebud signifies the impossibility of really knowing anyone. It also signifies the foolish recklessness that comes with assigning significance. By forcing significance where it may be unwarranted, we expose more about ourselves than we do about the object. I say this knowing full well the ironic guilt of my own conclusions.
Welles must have been laughing at Hearst's frustrated maneuvers to subvert the movie. Perhaps Welles was presumptive, but Hearst was naked in revealing himself.
That said, what type of person was Charles Foster Kane? If you made up your mind as I recommended at the beginning of the article, you may have just learned something about yourself.