Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey

Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey

by Harlan Lebo


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“This book is a gold mine for fans.”—Kirkus Reviews

It is the story of a film masterpiece—how it was created and how it was almost destroyed.

It is the celebration of brilliant achievement and a sinister tale of conspiracy, extortion, and Communist witch hunts.

It is the chronicle of a plot orchestrated in boardrooms and a mountaintop palace, as a media company that claimed to stand for “genuine democracy” defied the First Amendment and schemed to burn Hollywood’s greatest creation.

Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey is the extraordinary story of the production of Orson Welles’ classic film, using previously unpublished material from studio files and the Hearst organization, exclusive interviews with the last surviving members of the cast and crew, and what may be the only surviving copies of the “lost” final script.

Harlan Lebo charts the meteoric rise to stardom of the twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles, his defiance of the Hollywood system, and the unprecedented contract that gave him near-total creative control of his first film. Lebo recounts the clashes between Welles and studio executives eager to see him fail, the high-pressure production schedule, and the groundbreaking results. Lebo reveals the plot by the organization of publisher William Randolph Hearst to attack Hollywood, discredit Welles, and incinerate the film. And, at last, he follows the rise of Citizen Kane to its status as the greatest film ever made.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250077530
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/26/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 386,621
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

HARLAN LEBO is a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Lebo has written books about The Godfather, Casablanca, and a coffee-table photo book on Citizen Kane, and served as a historical consultant to Paramount Pictures for the fiftieth anniversary of the theatrical release of Citizen Kane. He lives in California.

Read an Excerpt

Citizen Kane

A Filmmaker's Journey

By Harlan Lebo

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Harlan Lebo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8975-0



There but for the grace of God goes God.

— Herman J. Mankiewicz, describing Orson Welles

The weather had been balmy in Southern California that August of 1940 — a welcome contrast to the heat and humidity that had blistered most of the United States all summer. In Culver City, a town as much a part of "Hollywood" for moviemaking as the actual community of that name seven miles to the northeast, the sparkling blue skies and wispy clouds were ideal for filming outside.

But on August 15, two weeks into production of RKO Radio Pictures' most prominent and controversial motion picture of the year — or any year — the schedule called for work indoors on a soundstage down a long, narrow street shared with cozy California bungalows.

The full crew had not yet arrived when a reporter was ushered onto the soundstage to meet the young director, co-writer, producer, and star — all one person — who had been on the set since four A.M. preparing a scene for his first motion picture.

Escorted by an assistant, the reporter could ignore the chalkboard next to the stage entrance, on which was the polite but blunt message "No visitors, please." After they entered the soundstage, the thick soundproof door slid shut to close out the summer breeze and the bustling streets of the studio.

"On the set, all was cool and quiet," wrote the reporter. "Even the clatter of the hammers and saws seemed muffled."

The stage housed the set for a newspaper office, being meticulously designed and decorated in the style of 1890s New York. In the center of the newsroom clutter, a cinematographer viewed the set through lavender glass (a standard-issue tool for black-and-white filmmaking that transformed the world into monochrome) as he supervised his crew while they positioned lights on floor stands; the full ceilings on the set prevented the use of the overhead lights that were typical of the day. Seated at a table, the director, who despite his off-camera duties was in a full costume and test makeup that aged him by thirty years, consulted with his staff about script revisions.

The soundstage could have housed any motion picture production at the height of the Hollywood studio system. But Stage 11 at RKO in Culver City held a set for a film unlike any other: here was the office of the New York Inquirer, the newspaper at the core of a publisher's personal empire. The cinematographer supervising his crew was Gregg Toland, at thirty-six already renowned in Hollywood for his groundbreaking photography. And the young director-producer-co-writer-star was a recent arrival in Hollywood named Orson Welles, working on his first film, Citizen Kane.

The creation of Citizen Kane is a story of many contrasts: it is a celebration of artistic vision and a disturbing account of corporate conspiracy. It is a drama that played out in the make-believe world of soundstages in Hollywood as well as the real-life boardrooms of New York City and at a mountaintop palace high above the Pacific coast. It is the public story of a private witch hunt: how a media organization that claimed "genuine democracy" as its maxim sought to strangle the First Amendment, first by trying to suppress Citizen Kane and then by attempting to destroy it.

But most of all, the creation of Citizen Kane is a story that continues to amaze — and confound — those who explore how it unfolded: a twenty-five-year-old who had never worked in Hollywood created as his first production a motion picture often called the best ever made.

There is no formula for cinema excellence, but the journey to create it can be chronicled. This is the story of Orson Welles' journey.

* * *

In 1939 — the greatest year for movies among many great years — it may have seemed inconceivable that Orson Welles, then only twenty-four years old and without experience in Hollywood filmmaking, would one year later make a motion picture that would be acclaimed as the finest in screen history. Welles' arrival in Hollywood that year became another step in a career that can only be described as meteoric: it began on Broadway, expanded onto the radio airwaves, and then — literally overnight — burst into the world spotlight.

"Were Welles' 23 years set forth in fiction form," Time magazine reported in 1938, "any self-respecting critic would damn the story as too implausible for serious consideration."

The often-told story of Welles' early years was indeed as improbable as one could imagine. Born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, George Orson Welles was labeled a marvel from the moment he could speak — a youthful prodigy who has been described over the decades, with varying degrees of accuracy, as being able to read at two, discuss world affairs at three, and write plays before he was nine.

"The word 'genius' was whispered into my ear at an early age, the first thing I ever heard while I was still mewling in my crib," said Welles. "So it never occurred to me that I wasn't until middle age."

Welles' rapid progress was so impressive that it became an endless source of jokes, even among those closest to him. When in 1940, publicist Herbert Drake asked Dr. Maurice Bernstein, Welles' onetime guardian and surrogate father, for details about his former ward's childhood, Bernstein replied that little Orson "arrived in Kenosha on the 6th of May 1915. On the 7th of May 1915 he spoke his first words. ... He said, 'I am a genius.' On May 15th he seduced his first woman."

Recognizing the many exceptional qualities in their son, Richard and Beatrice Welles provided him with a near bohemian upbringing filled with art, music, literature, travel, and theater. But his parents separated when Welles was four, and his father was an alcoholic. Young Orson's unconventional lifestyle — which became still more independent after Welles' mother died when he was nine years old, his father when he was fifteen — instilled in him an uncanny ability for creative expression early in his life.

As a teenager, Welles had the stage presence and free-spirited personality of an actor far beyond his years. While attending camp as a ten-year-old, Welles produced a stage adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Later, at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois (the one structured educational influence of Welles' life), he starred and directed in some thirty school plays — all before his sixteenth birthday.

His was not a perfect pathway to adulthood, however. With a lifestyle of his own choosing and without parents for guidance, young Orson was indulged by others without boundaries. He saw the unlimited possibilities in life but had no checks on his creative and personal appetites.

"In some ways," said Roger Hill, another father figure in Welles' life, "he was never really a young boy."

Still a teenager, Welles traveled to Ireland to paint, but when his money dwindled, he visited Dublin and tried to convince Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, cofounders of the renowned Gate Theatre, that he was not a young vagabond but actually an experienced Broadway actor. ("I don't know what possessed me to tell that whopper," Welles later admitted.) Neither Edwards nor MacLiammóir was duped, but they both recognized Welles' potential.

"I saw this brilliant creature of 16 telling us he was 19 and had lots of experience; it was obvious to us he had none at all," said MacLiammóir. "But he was more than brilliant, and we said, 'We simply must use that boy.'"

Welles was cast in Gate productions, in his first role (top billed at sixteen) as a nobleman in the stage version of Lion Feuchtwanger's Jew Süss. Welles then performed roles in Hamlet, Death Takes a Holiday, and more productions at the Gate and other theaters in Dublin before moving on to further adventures. (Two years later, Welles would himself direct Edwards and MacLiammóir in summer stock productions in Illinois.)

When Welles returned to the United States, he put his natural charm and commanding physical presence to good use. Welles advanced quickly: in July 1934, he was at the Todd School, producing local plays; five months later, he was appearing on Broadway. Still in his teens, Welles was becoming a sought-after theatrical performer.

But even in his early years, acting was not enough to satisfy Welles' unique creative yearnings, and he leveraged success as an actor into opportunities as a director. In 1934, he was noticed by producer John Houseman, who signed the nineteen-year-old to appear in his Phoenix Theatre production of Panic. The play survived only three performances, but the Houseman-Welles relationship continued in an alliance that was as professionally dynamic as it was emotionally explosive. On one day Houseman and Welles would be praising each other and exchanging effusive messages, while on the next they would be embroiled in explosive arguments — including, later, one very public display in Hollywood that involved flaming projectiles.

In spite of their frequent personality clashes, Welles-the-director and Houseman-the-producer mounted vivid theatrical productions. In 1936, for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project (a New Deal–era program created to provide jobs for idle actors and production staff), Welles and Houseman staged, among other plays, a version of Macbeth with an all-black cast in a stunning Haitian voodoo setting. The production was so enthusiastically received that it broke all records for the presentation of the play in New York City by a single company of actors. Welles, not quite twenty-one, was a sensation.

In 1937, Welles and Houseman took the bold step of forming their own repertory company, calling it Mercury Theatre. It was a vibrant enterprise, with plans to mount innovative productions of classical drama. Mercury Theatre had its own "Declaration of Principles," a statement vowing that the company would cater to patrons "on a voyage of discovery in the theater" who wanted to see "classical plays excitingly produced."

On a scant budget, Mercury Theatre produced several of the most inventive productions ever seen on Broadway. Mercury's first production in the fall of 1937, a staging of Julius Caesar in modern dress and with a script shortened by Welles, was an artistic success and a visual triumph: Welles — only twenty-two — directed and appeared as Brutus, with the play performed on a stark platformed stage painted red, while the actors wore dark business suits or Fascist-style military uniforms dyed dark green.

"The Mercury Theatre which John Houseman and Orson Welles have founded with Julius Caesar has taken the town by the ears," said Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for The New York Times. "Of all the young enterprises that are stirring here and there, this is the most dynamic and the most likely to have an enduring influence on the theater."

Soon after Julius Caesar came The Shoemaker's Holiday and The Cradle Will Rock — two more hits that crowned Mercury's success. Each Mercury play, and Welles' other projects, found him running the show in a twenty-hour-a-day creative whirlwind of writing, editing, and directing — ever disorganized and demanding, and immensely creative.

"What amazed and awed me in Orson was his astounding and, apparently, innate dramatic instinct," said Houseman. "Listening to him, day after day, with rising fascination, I had the sense of hearing a man initiated, at birth, into the most secret rites of a mystery — of which he felt himself, at all times, the rightful and undisputed master."

By age twenty-three Welles had conquered New York theater, but it was his work in radio that brought him to the attention of most of the public. Welles had a rich compelling voice that critic Alexander Woollcott described as "effortless magnificence." While developing his stage projects, Welles also performed in hundreds of radio programs. He soon became a broadcasting star, using both his natural voice and dozens of accents and affectations for character performances (Welles recalled such a frantic performance schedule that he hired an ambulance to transport him from network to network). Of his radio roles, Welles is perhaps best remembered as Lamont Cranston, the mysterious crime fighter better known as "The Shadow." In a national poll conducted by the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, Welles was chosen as the nation's favorite radio personality of 1938.

The media found Welles' combination of talent, stardom, and youth irresistible. By then he had already been featured on the cover of Time magazine: the photo on the front of the May 9, 1938, issue showed Welles, unrecognizable in old-age makeup for his role as the grizzled Captain Shotover in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. To Time, Welles was simply "Marvelous Boy."

With Welles established as a radio star, he and Houseman expanded Mercury Theatre into broadcasting. In the summer of 1938, Welles and Houseman created Mercury Theatre on the Air and produced a series of entertaining but low-rated weekly radio broadcasts.

It was the Mercury program that aired October 30, 1938 — a seemingly routine adaptation of a science-fiction story — that elevated Welles to international celebrity status. Low rated though Mercury Theatre on the Air may have been, and despite commercial breaks and announcements that stated the program was fiction, the production of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds convinced millions of Americans that Martians had landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey, and were massacring the human race.

"Radio wasn't just a noise in somebody's pocket — it was the voice of authority," Welles said. "Too much so — at least, I thought so. I figured it was time to take the mickey out of some of that authority."

What began as a routine radio broadcast soon stimulated a national panic. With the attention of a nervous world fixed on the escalating international tensions that would touch off World War II ten months later, it is not difficult to understand why so many people believed that the world was being destroyed.

But the real catalyst for the terror was the timing: millions of listeners tuned in to The War of the Worlds during commercials on other programs and did not hear the disclaimers. Instead, at that moment what they first heard was the quite realistic "news broadcast" of a reporter describing the opening of an alien spacecraft. Some studies estimated that thousands who changed stations to Mercury Theatre on the Air abandoned their homes in panic without listening long enough to hear the commercials and program announcements.

By the time Welles broke in late in the broadcast with his own urgent disclaimer ("This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be"), it was too late. Welles — who sought only to air a Halloween stunt — was stunned by the real-life hysteria and the resulting international front-page news inspired by The War of the Worlds.

"The first inkling we had of all this while the broadcast was still on was when the control room started to fill up with policemen," Welles said. "The cops looked bewildered — they didn't know how you could arrest a radio program — so we just carried on."

Did Welles know in advance he would spark a nationwide scandal with his broadcast of The War of the Worlds? No one, not even an artist with an imagination as vivid as Welles', could have envisioned the combination of dramatic content and on-air timing that was needed to terrify millions. But once it was done, Welles certainly capitalized on the opportunity.

At a press conference the morning after the broadcast, Welles was as sincere as a choirboy, answering questions with a furrowed brow, the gentlest of tones, and shocked surprise at what had occurred the night before. Welles, a commentator said much later, "was masterful in his astonishment." Welles repeated over and over again how "deeply regretful" he was. However, he also carefully expressed his surprise that a radio drama could convince millions that the end of the world had come.

"It would seem to me unlikely that the idea of an invasion from Mars would find ready acceptance," Welles told reporters. "It was our thought that people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable."


Excerpted from Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo. Copyright © 2016 Harlan Lebo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



A Note on the Illustrations and the Text

Citizen Kane: A Recollection


1 Before the Beginning

2 The Beard and the Contract

3 The Script

4 The Consequences of His Actions

5 RKO Production #281

6 A Great Deal of Doing

7 No Visitors, Please

8 Giggling Like Schoolboys

9 Cryptic Notes and Bigger Hams


10 Conflict

11 Negotiating and Placating

12 Mr. Hearst

13 Release

14 Triumph

15 After the End

Viewer’s Guide to Citizen Kane

Cast and Production Credits

Gregg Toland: “I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane”

Bernard Herrmann: A Conversation at the George

Eastman House

Citizen Kane: Scene- by- Scene Guide

The Bud get

RKO Soundstages

Resources About Orson Welles and Citizen Kane



List of Illustrations


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