This Week in 1941: 'Citizen Kane' Sleds Into History

'Citizen Kane' may or may not be the greatest movie ever made, but it's almost surely the greatest cautionary tale ever to come out of Hollywood. Released 70 years ago this week (on May 1, 1941), 'Kane' was the story, as one character notes, of a man who had everything and then lost it, but it was also made by a director who was given everything and then lost it.

After his pioneering dramatic work in radio and on the New York stage, Orson Welles was wooed by Hollywood. He signed a deal with the RKO studio to direct and act in movies and have final cut, giving him unprecedented creative license for a first-time director. He was 24. Welles declared that a movie studio was "the best toy train a boy ever had," but he quickly ran it off the rails.

The inspiration for Charles Foster Kane was the life story of William Randolph Hearst, then America's most powerful media mogul, but there were other tycoons and tyrants in Kane, including the hot-tempered Welles himself. 'Kane' was a story about how power corrupts idealism, but it was also about how hard it is to ever truly know anyone, even someone famous. Telling the story in flashback, from the points of view of multiple unreliable narrators, was just one of the film's many innovations. So was its deep-focus and low-angle cinematography, its sound mix, even its makeup (it took seven hours to transform Welles into the aged Kane). For those innovations and others, generations of critics and filmmakers have long regarded 'Kane' as the most influential movie ever made.

Unfortunately, Welles had made a terrible enemy out of Hearst, who went to great lengths to suppress the picture before and after its release. He banned mention of it in his newspapers, threatened to sue RKO for libel, strong-armed exhibitors into keeping it out of many theaters, and even pressured other studios to offer to buy the negative from RKO and destroy it. Nonetheless, 'Kane' was a critical and commercial success, but not a big enough hit to recoup its budget. At the 1942 Academy Awards, it was nominated for nine prizes but won only Best Screenplay (the only Oscar Welles would ever receive, shared with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz), as Hearst had successfully pressured Hollywood's elite into voting against 'Kane' in most categories.

As befits a movie about a sled, it was all downhill from there for Welles. Never again would he enjoy the total creative freedom and elastic budget that he did on his first movie. After running afoul of Hearst and RKO, Welles faced increasing interference from Hollywood studios, which frequently tightened his purse strings and re-edited his movies without his consent. After 1958's 'Touch of Evil,' he never directed another studio movie and spent the last decades of his career taking cheesy acting roles and commercials and scrounging up independent investments to finance his films, shooting intermittently whenever he could cobble together enough money but otherwise leaving projects unfinished. Those later movies were frequently brilliant, but it's worth wondering how much more Welles could have accomplished if he hadn't terrified Hollywood with his genius and orneriness from day one.

Watching 'Kane' today, it's still easy to get caught up in its story and characters, spot the shots and dialogue that other films have swiped from it, and marvel at Welles' audacity, the one thing about him that other directors won't emulate. Who would dare?

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This Week in Movie History

1948 (May 3): The Supreme Court rules in U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures that the major Hollywood studios are guilty of anti-trust violations for controlling the exhibition business by owning most of the theaters. The order to sell off the cinemas essentially ends the studio system that has existed since the dawn of Hollywood, allowing independent producers to flourish and changing the way movies are made and released.
2002 (May 5): 'Spider-Man' becomes the first movie to earn more than $100 million on its opening weekend. The first weekend in May has pretty much belonged to Marvel superheroes ever since. (Just as it will this weekend, with the release of 'Thor.')

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays

Besides being the anniversary of 'Citizen Kane,' this week also marks what would have been Orson Welles' 96th birthday, as he was born May 6, 1915. Gary Cooper would be 110 (born May 7, 1901), while his 'Love in the Afternoon' co-star Audrey Hepburn would be 82 (born May 4, 1929). Other movie immortals born the first week in May: Rudolph Valentino (May 6, 1895), Bing Crosby (May 3, 1903), Tyrone Power (May 5, 1913) and Terry Southern, the screenwriter of 'Dr. Strangelove' and 'Easy Rider' (May 1, 1924).

Turning the big 5-0 this week is George Clooney, on May 6. That's also the day 'Precious' star Gabourey Sidibe turns 28. 'Fast Five' star Dwayne Johnson turned 39 on May 2. 1980s starlet Pia Zadora is 55 as of May 4. (She co-starred with Welles, making one of his last screen appearances, in 1982's notoriously awful 'Butterfly.') And on May 1, Ray Parker Jr., who will forever be known for the 'Ghostbusters' theme, turned 57.

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'Thor' - Trailer No. 3


'Thor' (PG-13)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Jaimie Alexander, Anthony Hopkins
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
What's It About? The hammer-wielding thunder god (Hemsworth) of Norse mythology and Marvel comics fame is tossed out of Asgard by papa Odin (Hopkins) and forced to learn humility on Earth, where he meets a cute astrophysicist (Portman). But a new menace looms - Thor's trickster brother, Loki (Hiddleston) - threatening our world and calling Thor back to duty.
Why Should You See It? It's this summer's first popcorn mega-spectacle. Early buzz says that Hemsworth's is a star-making performance. It sets up (along with this summer's 'Captain America') Marvel's forthcoming 'Avengers' movies. Oscar-winners Hopkins and Portman and director Branagh should lend this operation some class. And the plot has a Prince Hal aspect that Shakespeare maven Branagh should be able to go to town with.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Iron Man, 'Iron Man 2,' 'Henry V'

Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | IMAX | Reviews
Interview: Tom Hiddleston
The Week in Geek: 'Thor' vs. 'Captain America'
'Thor' Early Buzz: Well, Racists Hate It
'Thor' Set Visit: An Exclusive Sneak Peak

'Something Borrowed' (PG-13)

Starring: Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin, John Krasinski, Colin Egglesfield, Steve Howey
Directed By: Luke Greenfield
What's It About? On her 30th birthday, lawyer Rachel (Goodwin) gets drunk and sleeps with the guy she's had a crush on since law school (Egglesfield). Unfortunately, he's engaged to her best friend, Darcy (Hudson). Making it a quadrangle is Ethan (Krasinski), who has dated both Rachel and Darcy.
Why Should You See It? Because you want an alternative to the testosterone-heavy 'Thor'? Because it's the first romantic comedy to come along in a while? Because you like watching pretty people frolic in expensive Hamptons beach houses?
You Might Like It If You Like: 'My Best Friend's Wedding,' 'Dan in Real Life,' 'He's Just Not That Into You'

Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Jumping the Broom' (PG-13)

Starring: Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Laz Alonso, Tasha Smith, Loretta Devine
Directed By: Salim Akil
What's It About? Class warfare breaks out at an African-American wedding when the groom's working-class Brooklyn family travels to the nuptials at the Martha's Vineyard home of the bride's wealthy family. Chief combatants are the two matriarchs (Devine and Bassett).
Why Should You See It? Because you want an alternative to the testosterone-heavy 'Thor'? Because you like watching pretty people frolic in expensive Martha's Vineyard beach houses?
You Might Like It If You Like: 'The Best Man,' 'Our Family Wedding,' Tyler Perry movies

Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews


In Limited Release

'The Beaver' marks Mel Gibson's try at a dramatic comeback, playing a depressed dad who finds it therapeutic to communicate via a bucktoothed-critter hand puppet. Jodie Foster, who plays his beleaguered wife, also directs.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Cinematical's Review | Interview: Jodie Foster

'Hobo With a Shotgun,' a tongue-in-cheek exploitation movie that's based (like 'Machete') on a fake trailer from 'Grindhouse,' stars Rutger Hauer as a homeless vigilante blowing away bid guys with his pump-action 20-gauge.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Cinematical's Review | Interview with Rutger Hauer and Director Jason Eisener

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome

'Fast Five' - Can't get in to see Thor wield his hammer? You can still watch Vin Diesel put the hammer down. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

'Prom' - If you crave a romantic comedy/drama, but 'Something Borrowed' and 'Jumping the Broom' are too grown up for you, here's your squeaky-clean, Disney-approved alternative. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

'Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil' - Do you miss the 'Shrek' films? Maybe this cartoon fairy-tale spoof will fill the bill. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

Staying In This Weekend?

New on DVD: We'll watch Michel Gondry direct anything (he's earned a lifetime free pass for 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'), even a slapdash, tongue-in-cheek comic-book hero movie like 'The Green Hornet.' Seth Rogen is nobody's idea of a superhero, so it's good, actually, that as a playboy-turned-costumed-crimefighter, he doesn't actually try to pretend he has any superpowers. (Bruce Wayne/Batman at least has acrobatic skills along with money to develop useful crime-fighting gadgets; Rogen's Britt Reid just has the money, the gadgets, and a fanboyish enthusiasm.) He's outclassed by his sidekick, Kato (Jay Chou, who won't make anyone forget Bruce Lee in the original TV series). Gondry did bring the movie his usual cheeky visual inventiveness that worked well on the 3D screen. How that'll play at home is a good question. At any rate, 'Hornet' provides some mild, escapist fun that plays best if you don't have any emotional investment in the old serial character. And who does? Buy or rent the DVD | More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: Still basking in chest-beating patriotic triumphalism over the successful takeout of Osama bin Laden? Then it's time to revisit the puppet commandos of 'Team America: World Police' (2004) and sing another chorus of "America, F**k Yeah." Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: A very different comic-book movie from 'Thor,' 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' is the visually dazzling, pop-culture-steeped, emotionally earnest romantic epic about a regular guy (Michael Cera) who can't win over his rainbow-haired dream girl without taking on and defeating her seven evil exes in video-game-style confrontations. Maybe you were one of the comic-addled fanboys who urged everyone to see this last summer; or maybe you were one of the people who ignored the pleas from your comic-addled friends. Which is why the movie flopped in theaters, but now's your chance to see it on premium HD cable. 'Pilgrim' makes its HBO debut on Saturday at 7PM. Check your local listings

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.