[1941] Citizen Kane

“What’s in a name?”

The sled isn’t interesting; knowing the origin of “Rosebud” doesn’t change Citizen Kane‘s knee-high depth of character and story. Troves of thinkpieces, even within Citizen Kane, have been written and reported about the significance of Charles Foster Kane (an ebullient Orson Welles) and the meaning of the infamous sled, last seen burning in effigy in the great Kane fire sale. “A rose(bud) by any other name,” says A.O. Scott’s review of Kane‘s metanarrative, Mank, and he’s right. It’s objectively a MacGuffin, but because of the entire film before it, the fadeout itself is the film’s true MacGuffin: an unimportant event that has come to define the movie, 80 years later. It’s telling that there’s no mention of it in Mank, the movie about the movie.

What is interesting, and has endured as an endearing feature in Citizen Kane is the use of Christian nicknames—Charlie, Jed—to (successfully) humanize these characters. In no uncertain terms, the two men are caricatures of figures alive in Welles’ present; Citizen Kane is a deep allegory in character and in spirit and it’s hard to remember this. There’s a reverence with a wink here as the audience sees the “real” Charles F. Kane alongside the public CFK, who is, for all intents and purposes, a wealthy, successful, happily-married, self-made man. None of those who worship him would dare call him Charlie. Jedidiah Leland—Jed—does though. In-movie, it’s a sign of familiarity and a sign of humanity. Later, we only hear the rest of the cast refer to him as Mister Kane. It’s telling this movie wasn’t called Mister Kane, or Charles Foster Kane: Man of the People. No; it’s called Citizen Kane. He’s one of us—but he’s not one among us.

It’s commonplace in 2020 to begin to refer to a new acquaintance by their given name, perhaps after a first meeting. Familiarity has become a building block for trust, likely along with perceived intent and follow-through. These qualities have become a typeface for respect and responsibility. In the 1930s, the world and its moral compass swung the other way. Reality bred contempt and perception brandished respect. Lookers-on see the man Charles F. Kane, basking in his wealth and publicity, is surely the bastion of success. The “man every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with,” the public persona would have you believe. But Charlie needed a friend; citizen Charlie needed someone to tell him that.

Citizen Kane is one of Hollywood’s movies remembered as better than it actually was. It’s a technical marvel, known for its cinematography, editing, sound, and storytelling. So when we say “better than it actually was, ” it’s really dressing up a prize horse. It’s a great story on its own merits, but its mythology has evolved beyond casual. It doesn’t have immediate replay value for non-film historians or enthusiasts. It didn’t even win Best Picture in 1942 (no doubt influenced by real-life Kane himself, WR Hearst). But we should remember a movie for what it is, not what it was or what it should have been. Tinker away with Citizen Kane; it’s what Orson—Mr. Welles—did and what Charlie—Mr. Kane—would have done. This is his legacy!

I was struck by the McGuffin misdirect most of all. Charlie Kane, mythologized into extraordinary circumstance, was a kid with a snow sled, Rosebud. It represents a whole host of Jungian and Freudian tropes about repression and childhood and recurring infantilization. It became perhaps the first movie self-aware enough for analysis by Umberto Eco and his semiotic lens (he never did). This is why I was also struck by its forlorn familiarity. Only family gets to call him Charlie even though he so desperately desires it. Eighty years later we’re still debating why Citizen Kane tops best-ever lists. Citizen Kane‘s might is not in its largeness, but in its largesse: its dowry is familiarity with the familiar. Look quickly or you’ll miss it.

“What’s in a name?”

Ten nominees in 1941 range from The Little Foxes, to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, to Sergeant York, to Here Comes Mister Jordan. Dotted in between—The Maltese Falcon, a noir masterpiece—and winner (remember Citizen Kane did not win), How Green Was My Valley. If we redrew the year with knowledge of Citizen Kane‘s lasting legacy (including a movie about how it was written 80 years later), it’s almost certain that it should have won Best Picture in 1941.

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