What I Learned from Watching . . . Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles and written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, has long been considered one of the greatest films ever made, and with good reason. It’s easy to get caught up in looking for the real life parallels between newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles, in his first screen role) and the man on whom the character is based, William Randolph Hearst. After watching the film many times there are certain hard truths to be learned from Kane’s triumphs and missteps and those are the focus here.
1. Aim high.
He wasn’t born into money but acquired it in spades when a boarder at Mrs. Kane’s Boarding House left her stock in what turned out to be the Colorado Lode, a gold mine that enabled her to send Charles east to be raised as a man of privilege and distinction, far from the reach of his grasping and abusive father. As a young adult, Charles becomes an ambitious risk-taker, his money a safety cushion that allows him to follow his bliss.
He decides to purchase a newspaper and to run it however he sees fit. He sets his sights on getting the best newspaper staff in the world and in an amazing match cut that shifts from Charles and his two best friends Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) peering through the window at a group photograph of the writers for the New York Chronicle, the same men in the same poses are transported seamlessly to a celebration of Charles’s achievement of his goal: all those men now work for him at the Inquirer. The camera snaps an identical group photo Charles plans to send to the Chronicle and the party begins. This is just one instance of Charles focusing on a goal and setting out to make it happen, no holds barred. Later, when his newspaper empire starts to shrink, Charles shows no regrets about how he’s run it. He takes his chances and, win or lose in the long run, owns it. He lives his life according to the standard nothing ventured, nothing gained, and when he gets burned, though often he’s the one that struck the match himself, he goes forward.
The lesson: Set goals and make them happen. Don’t let fear hold you back. At the same time, if you take a high-risk gamble, be prepared to face the consequences. Good or bad, and regardless of what people will think.
By the way, in another scene where Kane’s wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) begins a sentence with “People will think –“ Charles finishes the sentence for her, saying “People will think what I tell them to think.” Spoken like a true tycoon. Megolomanaical? Perhaps. You don’t have to go to the lengths Kane went to get his way; it does cause him problems later. Still, for most of us, living on purpose, large and in charge beats the hell out of playing small.
2. Stick to your principles.
After buying the New York Inquirer Charles writes up a declaration of principles that he will adhere to as its publisher. He wants to have them printed on the front page the very next day. Mr. Bernstein sounds a note of caution. “Mr. Kane,” he says, “you don’t want to make too many promise you don’t want to keep.” “These will be kept,” Charles assures him. Jed Leland requests a copy of the principles when the printer is done with it because he expects it’ll be something that should be preserved for posterity.
Years later, when inflated ego, tragedy, thwarted desire and ambition take hold, the boundless enthusiasm of the newspaper’s early days has dissipated and Leland’s and Kane’s friendship disintegrated, Charles receives the principles from Leland one day by messenger, in an envelope along with a severance check for a high amount that Charles had sent to Leland as a final goodwill gesture. The check is torn to pieces and the list of principles is intact to remind Charles of the wide gulf between what he had aspired to be and what he has become. While Susan, Charles’s former mistress, now his wife, rails about her failing opera career in the background, Charles shreds the list of principles. He could be vaguely hoping that such an action will absolve him of the responsibility he had to maintain them, but it’s clear from the rare distracted and disturbed look on his face that the forgotten principles and lost friendship have changed him from the man he wanted to be. Though still a force to be reckoned with, he is growing more isolated and distant from the world he’d once wanted to influence in a positive way. His principles were a road map he chose not to follow, and now, though still a rich man, it turns out he can’t have everything he wants.
The Lesson: If you make a list of principles and find you’re drifting away from them, course-correct from time to time to make sure you’re still being true to yourself and what you stand for. You don’t want to end up all alone in Xanadu.
3. Sometimes it’s really not all about you.
I get the nagging feeling Kane wouldn’t have ended up all alone at Xanadu, his palatial Gulf Coast estate, if he’d refrained from saying one last thing to Susan after they argue near the end of the picture. Susan has already made up her mind to leave him but he is trying to persuade her to stay. She listens, still with suitcase in hand as he makes his final plea. It seems she might stay; she appears to sense some remorse, as much as he would ever be willing to show. As she stands there, prepared to leave but receptive to the idea that he might somehow apologize, Kane casts the final straw. “Please, Susan,” he says, in a very reasonable voice. “You can’t do this to me.”
Whoa. That tears it.
“I see,” she says, “It’s you who this is being done to. I can’t do this to you? Oh, Yes I can.” And so she does, walking out the door and out of his life forever.
The Lesson: Kane forgot that sometimes to win you have to lose. To gain you have to give, and not just stuff either. You have to give of yourself, realize that other people have feelings, too, and that they need for you to see them and show them some consideration.
Still, years later when Susan, now a night club singer, is talking with Mr. Thompson, the reporter dispatched to interview those closest to Kane to try and discover the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” she acknowledges a certain amount of sympathy for Kane.
As much as the story of Charles Foster Kane is a cautionary tale of the corrupting influence of power and money, it’s also about a man trying to reclaim the only happiness he ever knew before power and money entered his life. Nothing can take the place of what he lost, but he never stops seeking it anyway.