Orson Welles and the battle for “total control” over ‘Citizen Kane’

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Throughout the course of cinema history, some movies have transcended the limits of the screen and become genuine cultural artefacts in their own right. As far as the greatest works of cinema go, it’s hard to look beyond the legendary status of Orson Welles‘ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane.

Written by Welles and industry titan Herman J. Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane tells of the life and legacy of Charles Foster Kane, a composite character based on a number of American media barons and tycoons, including William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, as well as featuring facets from Welles and Mankiewicz’s lives.

Though Welles’ film was an initial commercial failure, it was praised for its writing, narrative, cinematography, editing and music, leading to nine Academy Award nominations. Plot and production aside, though, what is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Citizen Kane is the rare deal that Welles had got in making it.

At the time, Welles was an untried director, but following his success on Broadway and the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, he was sought out in Hollywood. In 1939, Welles signed a contract with RKO Pictures, with the rare clause that he was able to develop his own story and have complete control without any interference.

Discussing the unique deal he managed to obtain, Welles once noted, “Financially, it wasn’t extraordinary in any way at all. It was extraordinary in the control it gave me as a director. Total control.” In fact, Welles deal gave him such authority that he didn’t have to show any figure from RKO the rushes at the end of a day’s shoot.

According to Welles, the rushes “are shown at the end of the day’s work and are always checked by everyone in the studio, department heads, the bankers, distributors and everything”. However, Welles’ unique deal allowed him to keep everything about Citizen Kaneto himself, meaning that he retained complete control over what would become one of the greatest movies ever made.

In addition, prior to the film’s release, no one at the studio was allowed to watch the film. This kind of trust by RKO in Welles was not common by the old standards, let alone today, where the film industry is dominated by meddling producers and studio executives. Welles had admitted that the only reason that he got such a good deal was because he hadn’t really wanted to be a film director in the first place.

After all, Welles was known for his work in the theatre and on radio, but he was eventually lured to Hollywood with a promising contract. The highly sought-after narrative arts figure had explained, “In the golden days of Hollywood, if you honestly didn’t want to go, then the deals got better and better.”

According to Welles, he hadn’t wanted money, he had wanted “authority”. In turn, Welles decided to “ask the impossible” in “being left alone”. After a year of negotiating, Welles was granted one of the most remarkable and important contracts in the history of Hollywood. At the time, Welles hadn’t really been interested in cinema as a medium; that only really began once the production of Citizen Kane had begun.

Citizen Kane is a truly remarkable work, not only for its overall quality as a piece of cinema but also because Welles had never directed a movie before, and yet he delivered one of the greatest films of all time. Perhaps the film’s quality all came down to the fact that Welles was indeed afforded “total control” over his work and could deliver his vision of cinema as he truly saw fit.

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