Many have called Citizen Kane the greatest cinematic achievement of all
time. It is indeed a true masterpiece of acting, screen writing, and
directing. Orson Welles, its young genius director, lead actor, and a
co-writer, used the best talents and techniques of the day (Bordwell 103)
to tell the story of a newspaper giant, Charles Kane, through the eyes of
the people who loved and hated him. However, when it came out, it was
scorned by Hollywood and viewed only in the private theaters of RKO, the
producer. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, it was practically booed off
the stage, and only won one award, that for Best Screenplay, which Welles
and Herman Mankiewicz shared (Mulvey 10).
This was all due to the pressure
applied by the greatest newspaper man of the time, one of the most powerful
men in the nation, the man Citizen Kane portrayed as a corrupt power
monger, namely William Randolph Hearst.
One cannot ignore the striking similarities between Hearst and Kane. In
order to make clear at the outset exactly what he intended to do, Orson
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Welles included a few details about the young Kane that, given even a
rudimentary knowledge of Hearst’s life, would have set one thinking about
the life of that newspaper giant. Shortly after the film opens, a reporter
is seen trying to discover the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” He
begins his search by going through the records of Kane’s boyhood guardian,
Thatcher. The scene comes to life in midwinter at the Kane boarding house.
Kane’s mother has come into one of the richest gold mines in the world
through a defaulting boarder, and at age twenty-five, Kane will inherit his
sixty million dollars (Citizen Kane).
His mother is doubtful of the
quality of the education her son will receive in Colorado, and therefore
wishes to send her son to study with Thatcher. Hearst’s parents came by
their money through gold mines (Swanberg 5), so both Hearst and Kane were
raised with “golden” spoons in their respective mouths. Kane is unusually
devoted to his mother, as shown when he turns away from his father to
listen to his mother, and when he only pays heed to his mother’s answers to
his questions (Citizen Kane).
Hearst likewise was completely devoted to
his mother. He was sheltered from the real world by his mother and her
money for most of his young life, rarely even seeing his traveling father
Also, Kane’s dying word and the name of his childhood sled,
“Rosebud,” (Citizen Kane) was the name of a town twenty miles east of where
Hearst’s parents were born and grew up (Robinson 13).
Everything from the
newsreel at the start of the film on Kane’s life matches Hearst’s almost
perfectly. Kane ran over thirty newspapers, radios, and syndicates, had a
... Truman Burbank, an ‘average’ person whose entire life is broadcasted to the world. Christof the director of the Truman show states that ... anticipations of daily life, as well as the things of ... the little meanings of everyday life that come from living with others and acting in the world. These include the memories and ...
well publicized romantic affair, tried in vain to be elected to public
office, was totally and completely careless with his money, (always
expecting there would be much more coming), and built himself a pleasure
palace called Xanadu, which included a gigantic collection of statues and
animals (Citizen Kane).
Hearst also did all these things over the course
of his life, which further served to convince movie viewers of Welles’
libelous intentions in the making of the movie. (Swanberg).
After the opening newsreel on Hearst’s life, the movie goes through the
boyhood scene where Thatcher takes Kane away from his parents. It then
quickly shifts to a point twenty years later, when Kane is about to inherit
the sixth largest private fortune in the world. Thatcher is concerned that
Kane won’t know his place in the world, and his fears are affirmed when
Kane sends a telegram saying that he has no interest in gold mines or
banks, but, rather, he would like to take over a small newspaper of which
Thatcher has taken possession, the Morning Inquirer, because, “I think it
would be fun to write a newspaper.” (Citizen Kane) The circumstances under
which Hearst entered the newspaper world were very similar. Hearst’s
father, a nearly illiterate mining tycoon, owned a newspaper in San
Francisco, The Examiner, which he used as nothing more than a political
organ to further his candidacy for a seat in Congress (Swanberg 26).
Against his father’s wishes for him to enter the world of mining, young
Hearst took control of the paper to try to reverse his father’s enormous
losses on it (Swanberg 47).
Both Hearst and Kane immediately began to revolutionize everything
... told the story of Kanes life through these people. Citizen Kane is a brutal portrait of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. (19 Murray) ... There are many things in common with Charles Foster Kane, who is ... popular and a big selling newspaper. Hearst used his wealth to create a very powerful newspaper. He hired the best writers ...
about their respective papers. Kane literally moved in to the office so
that he might be constantly around his paper, constantly able to redo it at
any hour, night or day. He makes it quite clear that, from now on, The
Examiner was going to do more than just report what the current editor
considered “newsworthy.” It was going to report all news, large or small,
especially if it could be made into a sensation and sell newspapers. And
if there was no current sensation, Kane would create the news. Hearst did
the same thing, revolutionizing his paper to take on “undignified topics”
to gain circulation, sporting shocking headlines and stories of “crime and
underwear.” In a classic example of similarity, Kane nearly quoted Hearst
exactly: “You supply the prose and poems, I’ll supply the war,” (Orson
Wells, Citizen Kane) as Kane discussed what to telegram back to a man in
Cuba. Hearst was very much anti-Spanish dur ing the Cuban revolution, and
if not for his efforts, it is probable that the war would not have even
been fought. But Hearst, who would do anything for a headline, cooked up
incredibly falsified tales of Spanish brutality. As stories of Cuban
injustice became old news to the public, especially as there was no real
war, a reporter telegraphed Hearst that he would like to leave. Hearst
replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
(Swanberg 127) Such an obvious similarity can only have been deliberate,
as Kane practically quoted Hearst.
In the movie, Thatcher was furious with Kane’s success in attacking
trusts in defense of “the people” and providing false headlines such as
those about the Spanish Armada being anchored off of the Jersey coast, a
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headline printed with virtually no proof to substantiate it. Kane even used
his paper to attack a company of which he himself, along with Thatcher, was
the major shareholder. As Thatcher prepared to leave after his discussion
with Kane on what new is, he mentioned to Kane his enormous losses, which
totaled one million dollars for the year, a staggering sum to have been
lost by one person, especially at that time. Kane,. however, laughed it
off, joking that, at that rate, he’ll have to close down in sixty years
All these things were characteristic of Hearst as well.
He attacked the trusts in favor of “the people” (a favorite phrase of
Hearst’s) and hired lawyers to try to get injunctions against the trusts
and eventually destroy them. He supported the eight hour workday and the
labor unions (Swanberg 235).
He made up headlines preying on people’s fear
and hatred of Spain and Japan which, not coincidentally, he had aroused by
previous articles in The Examiner and other publications of his about
Spanish atrocities in Cuba and the “yellow menace” of Japan (Swanberg 122,
352) Hearst threw money away as though to him it literally grew on trees.
A man with an income of fifteen million dollars a year at the height of his
power, he had almost no savings and sometimes had to borrow money (Swanberg
Right after taking over The Inquirer, as told now by Bernstein, Kane
ordered the editor to play up less “important” stories for the paper, the
kinds of things that the nation wanted to see and read about, not just
boring, plain “news.” He became very involved in the editorial content of
his paper, constantly trying to make it better that the rest, staying up
... comment upon the psychology of their principle characters. Welles' Citizen Kane tells the story of an aging press tycoon and would ... of fireplaces fill the palatial hall. Kane and Susan continue their conversation as Kane stops beside Susan seated in front of the fireplace ... -be politician Charles Foster Kane. A man whose arrogance alienates him from everyone who loves him ...
late, thinking of headlines and ideas for scoops. Kane went to the office
of The Chronicle, his main competition, to admire the best newspaper staff
in the world and its gigantic circulation, and soon after he bribed those
same men with large sums of cash to move from The Chronicle to his
newspaper, achieving in six years what it took The Chronicle twenty years
to accomplish. He married the president’s niece, Emily. (Citizen Kane)
These were very Hearst-like maneuvers in many ways. First, as stated
before, Hearst loved to embellish and exaggerate the news to get
circulation. Second, Hearst was constantly stealing talented newspapermen
from other newspapers, a practice which annoyed such men as Joseph Pulitzer
to no end. (Pulitzer’s World was Hearst’s favorite publication) (Swanberg
Hearst paid any salary he had to without a care, for he had millions
his disposal, since his father was still funding the enterprise. Hearst
married young Millicent Willson, a parallel to Kane’s Emily (Swanberg 246)
Bernstein’s narration ended with a telegram from Kane announcing his
purchase of the largest diamond in the world. Bernstein commented to
Leland, Kane’s best friend, that Kane was not collecting diamonds, but
collecting someone else who was collecting diamonds (Citizen Kane).
an early hint at Kane’s belief that one could buy love like anything else,
which is one of Welles’ main criticisms of Hearst, and is shown as Kane’s
fatal flaw. It is certainly one of the main reasons Welles made the movie
about Hearst in the first place.
The next scene opens with Leland, one of Kane’s only friends. Leland
continued Bernstein’s stories of Kane’s belief in the ability to purchase
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love, and hinted at the one overwhelming thing about him, the absolute
enigma he posed to even his closest friends. Leland explained how no one
could understand Kane because of the contradictions in his beliefs and
life. He said that, “Maybe Charlie wasn’t brutal, he just did brutal
things,” (Citizen Kane) explaining how Kane, while a firm believer in the
government and law, couldn’t see how it applied to him. Hearst, who was an
incredible egomaniac, shared the same beliefs. He was in constant conflict
with himself. For instance, he supported the coal strikers while being
backed by Tammany Hall, the very head of the Democratic party machine with
close ties to big business (Swanberg 238-245).
This trait is the one which
Kane played out to full effect in his movie. Once the audience was sure
that they were seeing Hearst up there, Welle s could explain the problems
of a man like Hearst, a man who had to have his own way. His want at the
moment was the largest paper in New York, but that would soon change.
Leland told of Kane’s arguments with his wife, which climaxed with
Kane’s ultimate statement of his belief in his own omnipotence. When Kane’s
wife begins, “People will think,” he completes the sentence for her with,
“What I tell them to think!” (Citizen Kane) Everything about Hearst’s
manner of speaking and his beliefs pointed to that fact that he was an
egomaniac as well, a firm believer in his own power.
The one thing Kane wanted in his life, Leland explained, was love, but
it was the one thing he never found. He wanted the people to love him just
as his newspaper staff did, and he went about making sure that it occurred
by entering the world of politics. Right before his campaign for governor,
Kane met a pretty, young opera singer named Susan Alexander and entered
into a relationship with her. Then he made his incredible bid for
governorship on an independent ticket, an office which, for him, would have
been the easy first step to the White House (Citizen Kane).
the detailed similarities to Hearst’s life were astounding. Hearst sought
public office after his dominance over the newspaper world was assured.
The key office he sought, and which was denied to him by attacks by
Theodore Roosevelt, was the governorship of New York on an independent
ticket. Both of the men used dirty and abusive campaigning methods,
portraying their opponents as jailbirds in their publ ications. Had Hearst
been elected, he would most likely have become president soon after. Here,
however, both in the movie and in Hearst’s life, the family obsession about
the newspapers began to dissolve. Kane left the running of his newspapers
to other men, not taking as much of an interest in them anymore. Hearst did
likewise, ending his earlier practices of obtaining good men at any cost.
A man had to work to keep his job, and it could be snatched away at any
moment by “The Chief” (Swanberg 263).
Hearst also met a beautiful young
actress, Marion Davies, and took her as his mistress (Swanberg 402).
this point, however, the two tales differ.
Kane was defeated in the election when his affair with Ms. Susan
Alexander was exposed by his opponent, Jim Gettys, who basically ordered
Kane and Emily to come to see Ms. Alexander. Again Kane’s towering
egocentricity showed through when he completely disregarded everyone else’s
wishes and declared that only he decided what C.F. Kane did. As Gettys
left, Kane flew into a rage and screamed, “I’m Charles Foster Kane, and I’m
going to send you to Sing Sing, Gettys, Sing Sing!” The next day, the
papers were filled with the story, and Kane lost the election. (Citizen
Kane) Hearst, on the other hand, was defeated by the president himself and
people using his own newspapers against him, but it served Welles’ purpose
better to have Kane defeated by his own greed.
Kane went on to divorce Emily and marry Susan. Having failed in his
own right, he heaped his ambition on Susan. This was most clearly seen
with his statement, “We’re (italics added) going to be a great opera star.”
The movie then shifted easily to Susan Alexander’s portrayal of Kane as
her own personal ambition factory. Whatever she was lacking, he supplied
it for her and threw his papers heart and soul into backing her, even
though she was a terrible opera singer. Hearst did the same for Davies,
each movie of hers a greater triumph than the last, according to his
reviewers. Although Marion Davies, unlike Susan, was a genuinely talented
individual, there were enough similarities between the two women. Both
women loved jigsaw puzzles (Reflections on Citizen Kane), both were
singers, both were well publicized affairs. However Kane married Susan,
while Hearst never divorced his wife. Both men pushed and pushed and
pushed their mistresses to the breaking point and ran their mistress’s
lives (Swanberg 585), at which point Susan attempted suicide and Kane found
her lying in bed unconscious. Davies never went to such lengths, but found
the pressure somewhat hampering. When Susan awoke, Kane was so grateful,
he let her have her way; she would not sing again even though it meant the
end of Kane’s hopes for greatness. Kane began to build Xanadu for them, a
gigantic castle with a gigantic collection of animals from all over the
world (Citizen Kane).
Hearst built San Simeon for Davies, to whom he was
truly devoted (Swanberg 447), unlike Kane and Susan. The latter couple
eventually divorced after Susan’s speech in which she says that Kane had
never giver anything to her, he had just tried to buy her into giving him
Finally, with the point of view of Kane’s butler come two more
similarities. Kane flew into violent rages when he didn’t get something he
wanted, as when Susan left him and he said that fateful word for the first
time, “Rosebud.” Kane was also a collector of everything, he threw nothing
out, and was always buying something. (Citizen Kane) Hearst had the same
bizarre practice. He would destroy thousands of dollars worth of antiques
in a fit of anger and then spend one hundred thousand dollars on a passing
whim. He never, however, threw anything out (Swanberg 585).
The movie closed on the scene of the resolution of the Rosebud puzzle.
Among all the junk Kane had collected, lay a tiny wooden sled, the one from
the day when Thatcher took him away from his mother, which was hauled off
and thrown into the fire. Upon closer examination, the word “Rosebud” can
be made out as it is slowly incinerated.
Having taken into account the evidence presented above, it was clear
that Orson Welles had based his movie around the life of William Randolph
Hearst, a fact which upset Hearst to no end. In fact, a representative of
the Hearst Organization offered eight hundred and forty two thousand
dollars to RKO, the film’s producer, if they would burn it. This plot
having failed, RKO was blacklisted by the gigantic Hearst press and had to
show the movie in private theaters. And yet, Welles still claimed that his
movie had no intention of being biographical. He said, It is not based
upon the life of Mr. Hearst or anyone else. On the other hand, had Mr.
Hearst and similar financial barons not lived during the period we discuss,
Citizen Kane could not have been made.” (Zinmen 238)
In his life, Hearst ran many newspapers, as of course, did Kane. When
he was still beginning, he owned four, and at the time he committed all of
them to warring with Spain, as mentioned above. This singular, small event
was the turning point in the life of a brilliant man and indeed the turning
point of a nation. He had almost single handedly, using his power of the
press, sent one of the most powerful nations in the world to war. The
people of the United States had been manipulated wonderfully by the press
to believe that Spain was such a menace that they must rally for war, even
though it was all an invention by Hearst and his constituents to promote
the newspaper’s circulation. If the press could do that, he believed it
could do anything, even send a Mr. Hearst to the White House who had not
the slightest experience as a political leader. And it very nearly did
When he realized that his newspapers were a source of infinite power,
that he could manipulate the people to get what he wanted, Hearst changed.
His goals changed. His fight went from one for larger circulation to one
for personal power, as much as he could get. He stopped being physically
involved in his papers, as mentioned before, instead directing from his
throne at San Simeon. He entered the political arena, where the ultimate
prize lay, the ultimate investment of power in a single individual, the
presidency. And yet again and again, by the voters or the corrupt bosses
at Tammany Hall or by his many political enemies, he was defeated. His,
like the story of Kane, was a story of constant personal failure due, as
often as not. to his own faults
However, things for Hearst were not always as bad as they were for
Kane. Hearst did actually win public office once. He became a state
representative of New York. This he accomplished with the backing of the
Tammany Hall bosses and a Democratic constituency in the district. Beyond
that he hurled his newspapers and money into the effort, earning a colossal
victory over his opponent. However, Hearst was not content to be a
Representative. He wanted to be president, had wanted to be president ever
since he realized that he had a chance. He had wanted to be the biggest
newspaper publisher in America, and he was. He had wanted Ms. Davies, and
he had her and was devoted to her and spent millions for her entertainment.
Everything which he had wanted he had received, in any way that he could
think of at the moment.
Orson Welles’ criticism of Hearst was the way in which he went about
getting what he wanted, using his immense power over the people of the
country simply to gain personal power. This is the overarching theme,
portrayed so powerfully, in Citizen Kane. When Welles disclaimed any
biographical intent, he did not pretend he was not depicting the forces
that governed Hearst’s life. His newspapers changed drastically, and men
spoke to him with reverence and fear, for his darker side had come to
light. He enjoyed being king over his empire, watching his subjects squirm.
With the building of his palace at San Simeon he only made concrete what
many had known for a long time: William Randolph Hearst sat on a throne as
the king of an empire which controlled the country’s information.
As brought out explicitly by the movie, Hearst wanted love, but not
just the love of a few, the love of all. He needed whatever he wanted, and
he wanted the people’s love. While Hearst was not the loveless monster
Kane is portrayed as, he had many faults, the main one being that he often
seemed to believe he could buy love. Welles attacked this belief heart and
soul, claw and tooth in such scenes as when Leland returns the check with
which Kane had hoped to preserve their friendship, now torn into shreds.
Kane simply cannot fathom why he returned it, because he doesn’t realize
that there is more to loving that gifts. (Cowie 37)
Hearst gave lavish parties and demonstrations to try to win people over
to his side, and it often worked. He assailed his political opponents with
his newspapers, attacking them in whatever way he could, transforming the
newspapers from something he thought he loved into a tool with which he
could get things, a bat he could swing at his opponents, a way to quench
his thirst for money and power. Hearst was a man who discovered the power
he controlled and then proceeded to abuse it, a practice Welles found
All in all, Orson Welles directed, starred in, and helped to write
possibly the greatest film of all time, all to one purpose, to denounce
William Randolph Hearst and all men who were abusive of power and the
public trust. Why did he spend all this effort on this one man, an
apparent crusader for the people, for the working man? Simply, it was
because Hearst, for all his apparent love of the people, was only trying to
get love and power for himself by abusing the most potent weapon and shield
of his day, the free press. “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been
a really great man.” (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane)
Bordwell, David. “Citizen Kane,” Focus on Orson Welles. Prentice-Hall,1976.
Cowie, Peter. The Cinema of Orson Welles. De Capo Press, 1973.
Citizen Kane. dir. Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy
Comingore. RKO, 1941.
Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. BFI, 1992.
Reflections on Citizen Kane. dir. Unknown. Turner Home Entertainment,1991.
Robinson, Judith. The Hearsts: an American Dynasty. Avon Books, 1991.
Swanberg, W.A. Citizen Hearst. Scribner, 1961. Bantam Matrix Edition, 1967.
Zinman, David. Fifty Classic Motion Pictures: The Stuff that Dreams are
Made Of. NY Crown Publishers, 1970. NY Limelight Editions, 1992.