Orson Welles's first film, Citizen Kane, made in 1941, stands as one of the great masterpieces of cinema. It was revolutionary both in terms of its film techniques and the way it told the story. Yet it was withdrawn from circulation six weeks after release. It received only one Oscar (for best screenplay) and was booed at the ceremony. It was hated by those who controlled the studios MGM offered to reimburse RKO pictures the entire budget if it would burn the print. Newspapers campaigned against the film while some cinemas refused to show it.
The reasons for such hostility were twofold. Firstly it broke from the narrative tradition in Hollywood at the time. Films of the day started at the beginning and wound neatly to the end. Citizen Kane was different. In the first scene we look across newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane's dilapidated private estate, Xanadu. There is Kane, bedridden and broken. He mutters one word, 'Rosebud', and dies. Welles then uses what looks like genuine newsreel of the time to give a brief summary of the man's life. The film crew even pulled the print through sand to give it that authentic scratched look. A newspaper reporter is then dispatched to find the mystery behind 'Rosebud'. With him we are taken backwards and forwards through Kane's life.
This was the era of the Hollywood studio system, yet Orson Welles, at 26, was given complete independence to make his film as he wanted. It was a time when studio heads ruled like dictators. It was more common for Sam Meyer, head of MGM, to finish a picture than its director. The bosses chose the story, who acted in it and how it looked. There was little creative independence. Freed from this, Welles turned everything upside down.
Camera angles were developed that meant, as Welles intended, the audience could guess the social relationships between characters even if they couldn't hear the dialogue. The camera looks up to powerful figures and down on weak ones. By using huge shafts of light the main characters are often buried in shadow, what they say often obscured by having several actors speaking at once.
Hollywood hated this. It was complicated and not easy to follow. Yet what the establishment hated more was the film's subject matter.
With the writer Herman J Mankiewicz, Welles settled on the story of the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, a sort of 1930s Rupert Murdoch. As Citizen Kane went into production Hearst's estate put increasing pressure on RKO to have it stopped. This was because the film shows a rich and powerful American businessman not as a figure of romance and sentiment, but as sinister and tortured. Kane is a man driven by a massive ego fed by his incredible wealth.
Though Welles was not particularly political, the film is a harsh critique of capitalism. Kane's business empire decays in parallel with his relationships to those around him. In one scene, between Kane and his first wife, breakfast is repeated over and over each time one sees the growing gulf between them. In a couple of minutes ten years of a collapsing marriage passes.
Citizen Kane is set against real American history. The hero's empire is nearly ruined by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The film's dark, mist shrouded imagery must have reflected the faltering confidence of the American ruling class, for workers were starting to organise. Kane's audience rejects him, both as populist newspaper proprietor and would-be politician. Kane's lieutenant, Jed Leland, confronts him: 'Remember the working man...he's turning into something called organised labour. You're not gonna like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something as his right not your gift...when your precious underprivileged really get together, that's gonna add up to something bigger than your privilege and I don't know what you'll do.'
This great film cost Welles his future independence in movie making and it stands not only as a revolutionary film but also as one more example of how the ruling class, despite its access to wealth and culture, is a class of philistines. Had our rulers got their way, no one would ever have seen Citizen Kane.