There have been many occasions where I’ve been embarrassed by my lack of information about earlier, so-called “classic” films – with my boss or other superiors at work (“Ha, ha! Rosebud! That’s so true!” “Oh, um, yeah, of course.”), reading an article in a “serious” magazine or newspaper, or when my grandparents destroy me at Trivial Pursuit.
Ok, maybe that’s just me, but I do think it can come in handy to know a thing or two about the classics. I recently decided to go through and watch all those classic movies I’ve been missing out on, and since I was going to watch them anyway, I figured I’d put everything I’d learned into little cheat sheets that could be used to, you know, impress various friends, colleagues or acquaintances.
I decided to start with the granddaddy of them all: Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is intimidating for several reasons. 1) It’s in black and white. 2) It’s long. 3) It stars one of those big, serious actors, Orson Welles. 4) It’s on the top of seemingly every single “best movies ever” list out there, from AFI Top 100 Movies to Time magazine. As Time magazine says:
Named the greatest of all films in poll after critics’ poll for the past half-century, Kane might by now seem suitable for viewing not through the glass of the movie projector but under glass, in the museum of outmoded innovations.
In the end though, I decided to conquer my fear and take the plunge. How bad (re: boring) could it be? Not too bad really, as it turned out. So, here then is my cheat sheet for Citizen Kane.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
Charles Foster Kane, the powerful and enigmatic main character.
Technical details that will help verify you’ve actually seen it
1941 release. By RKO Pictures. Black and white. Two hours long.
The movie begins with the death of Kane (Orson Welles).
People you should know
Orson Welles, the star/director/producer/co-screenwriter. He won an Oscar for the screenplay. Trivia: Orson Welles is the guy who sent the world into a panic by reading H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds over the radio.
It did NOT win Best Picture, although it was nominated. It was also nominated in 8 other categories, including Best Director, Actor and Score, but it only won Best Original Screenplay.
The movie begins and ends with it: “Rosebud.”
Trivia: Roger Ebert calls this “The most famous word in the history of cinema.” It’s short, memorize it.
(Imaginary) modern day pitch
Think a non-violent Godfather: Part II crossed with Spike Lee’s Inside Man on a dark and stormy night.
The life of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane is told through flashbacks and the stories of those who knew him. This look into his life is prompted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death at his massive estate known as “Xanadu” (which appropriately describes its scope). The last thing he uttered before he died was “Rosebud,” a strange phrase no one can understand. A journalist is sent out to discover what it means by interviewing those who were a part of his life: his general manager, the late banker who raised him (no, this isn’t sci-fi, he reads the guy’s journals), the closest thing he had to a friend (Jedidiah Leland), Xanadu’s manager, and his second wife, Susan Alexander Kane (a reluctant opera singer).
His life is revealed to be one of turmoil and regret, where he, an incredibly wealthy man, acquired many things, but none made him feel loved or happy. He lost both of his wives (the first one died a short while after divorcing him), large parts of his controversial, sensationalist newspaper, his friend/hapless sidekick Jedidiah, and, most importantly, his mother, who gave him away so that he could be raised in the city by a banker. He dies alone on his huge estate, with nothing but meaningless possessions surrounding him.
In the end, no one figures out what “Rosebud” means.
So what does Rosebud mean?
It’s the name of the sled Kane had when he was a child, and that he was forced to give up when he left his family to go live with his new foster father. It’s a symbol of his life of loss, regret and loneliness (and empty materialism), and the shot of it being burnt up after his death is the last shot of the movie.
Unfortunately, the whole movie is a famous scene. Here are a few: the opening scene where the camera moves slowly through Kane’s deserted estate to the room where he’s dying, the strained breakfast table scenes between Kane and his first wife, Susan Alexander Kane’s opera debut.
Much of the film is based on the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who (shockingly) was not very happy with the film (for more: see film RKO 281, a whole movie about Hearst’s battle with the filmmakers). Hearst’s company still exists today, and owns magazines such as O (The Oprah magazine), Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar.
Regret, materialism, money, ego, loss, fame, friendship, love. Kane is always obsessed by possessions and by what he can’t have – particularly the mother (and by association, the sled) that he lost and was forced to give up so that he could do what she thought was best for him.
Classy conversation starter
“You’re my Rosebud.”