Welcome to the 1,000th post of The Legionnaire. When I began this blog, it was with the intent that I would review one movie a week, and whatever was newest in the theater. Then COVID-19 happened, and I could no longer do one of my favorite weekend pastimes. This turned into a blessing when I realized I could do any movie I wanted. Still, I have always loved the cinema experience. As I have grown in my Catholic Faith, I have liked less the offerings Hollywood has attempted to force up us, and with growing concern. The concern is mine. Movie production companies, for the most part, care little for your moral sanctity, not liked they used to, anyway. Actually, the Catholic group that monitored film content, exercised a small amount of influence for a relatively short period of time, and inspired the title of this site, was more the reason for any amount of rectitude on the part of Hollywood executives. Called the Legion of Decency, they managed to get films to follow a certain set of principles. As long as the major production companies toed a certain line, their films would be released. Granted, not all of their restrictions were good. For example, shamefully you could not show miscegenation in a positive light. At the same time, it is ironic that the era in which the Legion of Decency had the greatest impact is the time which we refer to as the golden age of cinema. As what is sometimes a lone voice crying in the wilderness, I long for those days when I could see a movie and not worry about corruption to my soul. Pray for me, please, as I continue to try and filter film content for you.
Speaking of that golden era of cinema, perhaps no film gleams brighter from that time than Citizen Kane (1941). To continue my metallurgical metaphor, whenever somebody is looking for the gold standard of anything, they compare it to this movie. I am sure you have heard the examples, like how The Room (2003) is the Citizen Kane of bad films. What may shock you is that I had seen Tommy Wiseau’s mind-bendingly awful movie before I saw Orson Welles’ masterpiece. In fact, I had not viewed Citizen Kane until I watched it for this review. I had heard much about it, of course. There is the famous enigmatic word “Rosebud” at the beginning of the movie, probably the most famous MacGuffin in cinematic history. In my more philosophical meanderings, I encountered Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) “Declaration of Principles.” Indeed, there is a certain parallel between them and the Production Codes the Legion of Decency gave to Hollywood, but I will talk more about that later. The historian in me was also aware that the main character’s life was loosely based on famous businessman and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. This is all a long way of saying that what I am about to discuss was, in many respects, pretty familiar to me before I decided to sit through it.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Citizen Kane begins with a dying Charles uttering the phrase “Rosebud” before giving forth his last breath. Given his fame and fortune, the press wanted to know not solely what he did, but who he was. They come up with this idea after putting together a newsreel with several biographical points in his life that will form a sort of outline for the rest of the movie. To tell the story of who he was, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), a reporter, decides to track down the source of the mysterious word. His first stop is to Charles’ second wife, Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), but he finds her too drunk to be of any help. Instead, he heads to the library of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris). He is a wealthy banker who travels west to set up a trust for Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead), Charles’ mother, who has inherited a gold mine. What she does not seem to possess is an ability to raise Charles, and instead gets Walter to take on guardianship of her son. Being able to grow up wealthy, he also develops into a bit of a spoiled brat, but a principled one all the same. As an aside, one thing to keep in mind is that Charles’ life is told from the perspective of others, and each stop in Jerry’s quest gives him another piece of the puzzle. The last thing we find from Walter’s account of how he met Charles is the mention that among the holdings Charles is set to take control of on his twenty-first birthday, the one he desires most is a small, struggling New York newspaper called The Inquirer. Here it is picked up by the chairman of the board of Charles’ various financial empires, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane). He fills in Jerry about Charles’ early life in the business of newspapers. This is when he comes up with his “Declaration of Principles,” stating that his publication would stand up for the rights of the common man. At the same time, he wanted to mold people’s opinions, and it is implied that he is responsible for the start of the Spanish-American War. Part of this time in Charles’ life is the friendship of his long-time companion, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton). While most everyone is charmed by Charles, Jedediah is not afraid to stand up to his friend. It is because of this, and at Mr. Bernstein’s suggestion, Jerry goes to him next. It is through Jedediah’s eyes that you get a different picture of Charles. He turns his success in the newspaper industry into other pursuits. One of these is marrying Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), his first wife. They wed in a whirlwind, but Charles dedication to his work estranges them. This comes to a head when, while running for governor and on the cusp of winning the election, his opponent Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins) discovers the existence of Susan. It is not as untoward as it may seem, with Charles visiting her apartment. Yet, Jim uses it to ruin Charles in the polls. From this point on, Charles begins to spend less time in the public eye. He also decides to marry Susan, enchanted by her singing ability, limited as it is. To encourage her, he builds her an opera house in Chicago. Her performances are panned by critics, Jedediah being one of them. This leads to Charles firing his old friend, and Jerry moving back to Susan. The life she describes with Charles sounds more like imprisonment. He builds an enormous estate in Florida, which the movie explains early on is inspired by Kublai Khan’s palace Xanadu. Night after night she sits there putting together a jigsaw puzzle and pining for a nightlife. Finally, she leaves him, telling him that the only person he cares is himself. There follows the scene where he tears up her bedroom before he happens upon a snow globe. Picking it up, he repeatedly mutters the famous word from before, and dies shortly thereafter. You might have noticed, though, that we still have not figured out the meaning of that word. Jerry’s last interview is with Charles’ butler, Raymond (Paul Stewart), who witnessed the destruction of Susan’s room and heard Charles say “Rosebud.” Their meeting takes place as Xanadu’s countless treasures are being boxed up in the wake of Charles’ passing. Nonetheless, Jerry walks away without solving the mystery. The camera then pans to a sled that looks a lot like the one we see the eight-year-old Charles (Buddy Swan) with early in the film. Some workers throw it into a furnace, and we zoom in to see that the word “Rosebud” is emblazoned on the sled.
As mentioned earlier, Citizen Kane is considered by some to be the greatest film ever made. If you rent it one Amazon Prime as I did, you will see this proclaimed in the description. As somebody who has seen a fair share of movies, there were some aspects of it that stood out. I was particularly intrigued with the use of lighting in many of the scenes. They also did a great job of using Xanadu to emphasize Charles’ isolation, even when he is occupying it with Susan. One scene in particular stands out where she is doing a puzzle by the fire, while he is seated in an armchair on the other side of the cavernous room, their conversation understood only in the echoes their words produce. The one thing I was less impressed with were the performances. Interestingly, at the end, director Orson Welles singled out a few of the performers who got their first big break in this movie. I have seen worse, like in The Room, but I have also seen better. Another aspect for which I do not care is the non-linear story telling in Citizen Kane. I have documented in other reviews my distaste for this style, though it is less distracting than other instances. All the same, it is enough for me to prefer Casablanca (1942) if we are going to anoint a movie as being the greatest of all time.
Having said that I prefer Casablanca, I will say that Citizen Kane has some easier to identify themes that fit with my Faith. What is interesting about Charles is what those who seem to know him best identify about his character. Everything he does is motivated by his desire to be loved. However, this is not a selfless desire on his part. Instead, he spends the majority of his life trying to control the narrative. He thinks he has the finger on the pulse of society until he loses his bid for governor. From there, it is a process of slowly withdrawing from society until the day he dies. God’s love works differently. It does not seek for itself, but instead acts for the benefit of others. Charles states early on that this is one of his principles. In practice, it is a cynical, selfish quest for power. Put differently, it is as cold and empty as Xanadu. Somebody with enough wealth to build an entire mountain in Florida perhaps should not be living behind fences with signs telling people “No trespassing.” Now, Christians do not begrudge a man an honest living, or dictate how one should spend their money. I am simply pointing out the irony of somebody who has a dedication to helping others as Charles does early in his life ending it locked in a gilded tower. The Production Codes, flaws excepting, were a better attempt at doing this sort of thing. I like to think that Charles realized the error of his ways on his death bed.
Anyway, I thought Citizen Kane would make a fitting 1000th review for The Legionnaire. Like so many things in life, the hype for the movie probably set my expectations too high. I anticipated a transcendent film experience and got a well shot but poorly acted classic. No matter, I will have to look ahead to the next milestone review and what movie that will be. I think I have it in mind, as I did back when I did Casablanca for the 500th. In the meantime, may God continue to bless me with the opportunity to bring you this content, and perhaps find other avenues to bring it to peoples’ attention.