This Month in Film History: “Citizen Kane” Premieres

Very few directors’ feature film debut been fraught with contentiousness and negative media coverage as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The script, written by, Herman Mankiewitcz, told the story of fiction newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane. In spite of the relentless media blitz against the film lead by William Randolph Hearst’s legion news  media conglomerate, Citizen Kane would premiere this month in film history – more specifically 5-1-1941- in New York City.

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Producing studio RKO Pictures had a huge amount of difficulty booking the film into theaters, however. At a time when most studios owned the theaters their films played in, RKO was a smaller company and never, in its lifetime, had the ability to do so. Thus, they had to rely on the generosity of other studios for booking dates for their films.

According to WA Swanberg’s all encompassing  biography on William Randolph Hearst, on page 590:

“Rumors sifted through screenland that the picture that the picture was based on Hearst’s life and that RKO was taking elaborate pains to assure its freedom from libel.”

The rich media mogul had many friends in Hollywood who were willing to come to his defense. Chief among them was head of MGM and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Louis B. Mayer. According to Swanberg’s book, Mayer offered RKO head George Schaefer $800,000, the amount it cost to make, to toss the picture lock, stock, and barrel in the bin. Obviously well connected in Hollywood, Mayer promised Schaefer that he would have great difficulty booking the film into any theater, and one can only assume that Mayer might have included RKO’s entire slate of films.

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RKO and Welles would face a merciless press assault by Hearst’s legion of newspapers. Among them was noted Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons.  A fierce Hearst loyalist, Parsons demanded to see the film once it was ready to go. Welles and RKO agreed. Again, Swanberg’s biography page 590:

“She brought two Hearst lawyers with her when Welles gave her a private showing, a reporter noted, and ‘Miss Parsons and the lawyers sat through the picture in silence and left the RKO projection room without bidding Welles goodbye.”

It took a while before RKO could find an available independent theater but they did and Citizen Kane would be well received. The public interest was immense because of Hearst’s media blitz.

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