Did Welles steal Citizen Kane?

In 1971 influential film critic Pauline Kael wrote an article in the New Yorker in which she poured scorn on Welles’s claim to authorship (or perhaps auteur-ship) of Kane and proposed instead that most credit was due to writer Hermann Mankiewitcz. Mank, she said, has already done much of the footwork on a biography of William Randolph Hearst and this work formed the basis of the script. Welles, said Kael, hijacked the credit for the script and tried to cut Mank out completely.

This is the story that seems to have passed into history as the correct interpretation and is the line taken in the film “RKO 281” about the making of the film at RKO studios.

I have no doubt that Orson Welles was one of the most monstrously egotistical film makers of all time who shafted everyone around him at one time or another. But Pauline Kael’s interpretation seems to have been fuelled partly by a personal dislike of Welles (not difficult to imagine). The book “The making of Citizen Kane” by Robert L Carringer suggests that the evidence shows that the film really sprang primarily from the first draft of the screenplay that Welles produced himself. And, of course, it was Welles who starred in and directed the film, and Welles who fought to bring it to the screen against fierce opposition. Above all, perhaps, it was Welles who had founded the Mercury Theatre Company (with John Housman) which formed the basis of the film’s real success – its superb acting talent, even in the most minor roles.

Kael also seems to have taken against the film because it was repeatedly voted “Best movie ever made” by the American Film Institute.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, Kane does remain a brilliant film. A few years ago it was reprised by the British Film Institute in its South Bank cinema (it’s now pretty well a regular fixture on retrospective programmes) and I took the opportunity to see it on the big screen, having previously seen it only on TV like most people. Seen in the proper setting, the film is a truly memorable experience – especially Gregg Toland’s legendary deep focus photography and the (largely uncredited) innovative sound track.

If, like me, you while away wet afternoons browsing through the IMDB for cinematic oddities, Kane stands out right away. Its page lists no fewer than 244 characters who appear in the film, most of them uncredited. And one final oddity: the cast includes several famous names, again all uncredited. Nat ‘King’ Cole appears as a pianist, Alan Ladd can be spotted smoking a pipe as a journalist, and both Gregg Toland and Herman Mankiewitcz make appearances as reporters.

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