Navigate / search

Wait a minute, there’s no cane in Citizen Kane!

This is my entry for The Great Citizen Kane Debate being held in celebration of the two year anniversary of the blog True Classics

Citizen Kane-The Greatest Film Ever Made.

What does that even mean? How can a statement so obviously opinionated be an absolute truth?

I remember the first time I ever saw Kane. I was in college at Purdue University and enrolled in an English class simply called “Film.” I had always wanted to take a film class, and even briefly considered pursing an English degree with emphasis on film. Of course the practical side of one’s brain typically chimes in with “yeah, that’s all fine and good, but how will you make a living?” Sometimes I wish I had gone with my gut and told my brain to shut up…but that’s another story. On the first day of class we received the syllabus with a complete listing of the films covered. A wide range of films from different eras, genres, and countries including: Battleship Potemkin, His Girl Friday, Breathless, The Godfather, La Grande Illusion, North by Northwest, Our Hospitality, Psycho, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz…and of course Citizen Kane.

The films in the class were shown once a week in one of the auditoriums on campus. The audio was typically horrendous (and the seats incredibly uncomfortable) so I always tried to get copies of the films and watch on my own at home. Plus this allowed me to take notes, pause, and re-watch particular scenes. For Kane I was quite excited. I had always heard about it being the greatest film ever made and how it was a major influence on all filmmakers and the industry in general. Since we were watching from a technical perspective, I was watching for editing techniques, cinematography, visual effects, camera angles, etc. Since I was learning the anatomy of a film, and Kane is a perfect example in the study of filmmaking, I was quite impressed. After all, there is nothing more rewarding than to be able to actually see film techniques being executed perfectly…and being able to easily identify them. Needless to say, I was blown away…until I actually watched it.

Years later I sat down and watched Kane with the intent of being entertained. After viewing it several times and picking it apart piece by piece for essays I thought it would be nice to revisit it as a casual viewer. I hate to admit this, but I was not incredibly entertained. I was flat out disappointed. And every time I have watched it at home and even on the big screen at The Fabulous Fox theatre, I’ve had the same reaction- “meh.” Maybe it is one of those films that cannot be watched casually.

Just because it isn’t an entertaining film for me doesn’t mean it’s not important or valuable. Citizen Kane is one of the most culturally significant films ever made. It is a perfect “teaching” movie and in order to be fully appreciated, it must be viewed in context. First of all, Orson Welles was 25 years old and Kane was his feature length directorial debut. That in of itself is quite impressive, but Welles achieved much more. He had unprecedented control over cast selection and the most important aspect of filmmaking: final cut. In addition to his control of the production, Welles wrote a screenplay that unmistakably resembled the life and career of William Randolph Hearst– one of the most influential and powerful men in the country at that time.Think of Edward Arnold’s role as Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hearst had a similar level of control in the media and he successfully limited Kane’s release. It’s not surprising. After all, Welles uses Hearst’s pet name for his mistress Marion Davies’s “Dolores”– Rosebud. I have to give Welles credit because he certainly had guts.

“Honoring” a masterpiece

Imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery. Maybe a film is mocked because it is beloved, like the constant spoofing of Star Wars (“Come to the Dark Side, We Have Cookies!”). Perhaps when taken out of context a moment becomes utterly ridiculous, like that infamous line about badges in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Blazing Saddles ”Badges? Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” or in the case of UHF “Badgers? Badgers? We don’t need no stinkin’ badgers!). Sometimes we mock films because they’re so serious we need to lighten things up a bit. Citizen Kane has the distinction of being imitated many times, possibly to the point of becoming obnoxious. However there are a few instances that are absolutely hilarious. One of the first spoofs of Kane I ever saw was the Rosebud episode of The Simpsons from season five. I was young, and The Simpsons were delicious forbidden fruit (if you said “Eat my shorts” in school you would get in serious trouble. Although I got in trouble for saying “Don’t have a cow, man!” I also couldn’t wear my Bart Simpson earrings to school. Fascists!).

 I had not seen Citizen Kane yet, and I doubt most of the kids watching The Simpsons had either. In Rosebud we learn that Mr. Burns, born Charles Montgomery Burns, was sent to live with a billionaire when just a young boy. He was forced to leave his beloved teddy bear behind, named Bobo. Revealing to assistant and self-proclaimed “Burnsosexual” Waylon Smithers that he misses Bobo, he decides to start searching for him.  Of course Homer and the rest of the Simpsons clan are involved in the drama. The entire episode is like watching a condensed version of the film, except way more entertaining. The Rosebud episode is not the only time Citizen Kane is mentioned in The Simpsons. Below are some screenshots and video from other episodes:

ARVE Error: no video ID

The Simpsons is not the only television show to pay hilarious homage to Citizen Kane. Some are quite hilarious and others are, well, just plain stupid:

From Pinky and the Brain:

ARVE Error: no video ID

From The Critic:

ARVE Error: no video ID

From Family Guy

ARVE Error: no video ID

From The Real Ghostbusters (make sure to watch until the end of the clip. It’s just too hilarious…and so stupid)

ARVE Error: no video ID

Gotta love an Orson Welles-y ghost critter yelling out “wheeeeee!” once he is happily reunited with his beloved Rosebud.

I will concede that Citizen Kane is a technically perfect film. For the purposes of studying the ins and outs of filmmaking, it is the example. I will also concede that Welles was a master. He had a vision and he stuck to it, sometimes to a fault. He had the gift of recognizing what is visually appealing to the eye. He also knew how to make people uncomfortable. For example, at the beginning of Kane, we witness a quiet death. With the audience very much in that moment, the screen goes black, and a man announces “NEWS ON THE MARCH!”  I’m sure Welles wanted to see everyone in the audience jump out of their seats a little (it’s not the only time there’s a big swing in volume). Another uncomfortable moment is the party after Kane acquires the dream team from The Inquirer’s rival newspaper. The music and dancing is frenzied and manic with awkward close-ups of Mr. Bernstein and Leland. I found these moments were amplified on the big screen, and the audience did jump out of their seats.

Is Citizen Kane the Greatest Movie Ever Made? No. I will say that it is quite possibly the greatest film to get away with mocking the biggest and most powerful media tycoon. Welles accomplished an almost impossible feat and ultimately suffered because of it. He didn’t get the credit he deserved. Recently, Carly from The Kitty Packard Pictoral tweeted that boy-toy Taylor Lautner has his handprints/footprints on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Do you know who doesn’t? Orson Welles. I’m sure Citizen Kane has a lot to do with that.

If Citizen Kane isn’t the greatest then what is? To be perfectly honest, I don’t think there can be a film with the distinction of being “The Greatest Movie Ever Made.” What’s so wonderful about movies is that they have different impressions on different people. Maybe a person is fond of a movie because of the experience they had when they watched it. Maybe they were on a first date with their future spouse/partner, or maybe they watched it with a beloved relative (see Michael Nazarewycz’s recent essay at Classic Film and TV Cafe). Maybe a person hates a film because it reminds them of a horrible time in their life. That’s what makes a movie so special. The viewer decides what is the greatest…to them. Yes, some films surpass the norm to become masterpieces and perfect examples of a particular style of acting, directing or genre. To say there is one film that surpasses them all to become the greatest, I don’t think so.

Related posts:

Jill Blake

Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.

Comments

kimalysong
Reply

I agree with this post. I would never deny Kane’s importance to film and film history but it is not the greatest film ever made because that title in itself is ridiculous. I don’t believe only one film can be the greatest film ever made. Perhaps we can say Kane is the most influential film (but I am not even sure about that).

Kane is a film that everyone should see at least once (preferably more than once) but I actually think people would appreciate it more if they went in ignoring its status as the “greatest film ever made”. I think if you go into the film like that you are bound to be disappointed (I know I was the first time I watched). Just watch it with the mindset that it’s an important and influential film and then to me at least it does become enjoyable (well I guess because I am a nerd for film history).

And I am so jealous you took any film class. I never managed to take one in college!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

I hate it films are labeled or ranked. I really think it does affect one’s perception.

The film class I took was pretty cool. It was heavy on the writing, which I liked. Looking back on it though, I think the professor could have picked better movies. Or at least more varied. He had no pre-codes. No noir. At all. And he chose His Girl Friday as an example of screwball. It is a great movie, but I think The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby might have been better choices. Or he could have shown some Sturges or Lubitsch.

This is when I could teach a film class. Or at the very least have a captive audience and make them watch my favorites. ;)

kimalysong
Reply

Well I am obsessed with film lists (love the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They List especially) because I do think it’s a way to discover interesting films you might not have watched otherwise.

Then again these type of lists also leave out so many great films.

Teaching a film class would be fun. I actually think film should be a required course in high school. I think it’s a shame how little appreciation there is for film history these days!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Oh I definitely love lists, especially when they are themed. I guess I just don’t like the rankings that go along with them If that makes any sense.

And I agree– film should be a requirement. A good friend of mine is a high school English teacher in Nashville and he has a film club for his students. He shows them so great films. And they love it! I was lucky and had some awesome teachers who showed some great classics.

Efcee
Reply

I couldn’t agree more that rankings affect perception. There are many films that I see in rankings that I feel should rate much higher.

I still look at rankings. Sometimes they remind me of a film I forgot about or one I always meant to watch but never got around to doing so.

And a captive audience to watch your favorites? I think we need a captive audience to watch those we’ve just torn up…..Beef Tacos for everyone!!!!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

I think lists are incredibly useful for getting an idea on the most influential films. For the most part, many of the lists are a fairly balanced, comprehensive approach to film essentials. Maybe my beef is with the whole numbered rankings thing. Speaking of beef….

Angela
Reply

I love the Rosebud episode of The Simpsons! It’s not often that something appeals to both my love of classic film and The Ramones.

angelnumber25
Reply

Sometimes I also wish I had gone with my gut and told my brain to shut up, but I’m working to rectify that now :)
Great post. I totally agree that giving films titles like “the greatest ever,” is just way too complicated. It is a film I’ve gotten a lot more out of in subsequent viewings, but I can’t really say I’ve loved watching it ever.
I didn’t get to see a noir in my class either! My friends who took it a year or two before said they watched Double Indemnity, but that got swapped out for High Noon in my class.
And that pea commercial spoof is hilarious. I’ve never seen that before.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

It’s never too late to do something you love to do. It takes time and patience, but it will pay off!

I don’t know why noir gets left out. I love The Critic. Have you ever seen any episodes? It’s produced by Al Jean, who also produces The Simpsons. It is a must watch for film fans. Really, really funny stuff.

angelnumber25
Reply

No, I will definately need to check that out. Are episodes up on youtube?

I really laughed at that, but it is so sad to me that Welles was stuck doing commercials for wine and peas late in his career. That’s not where his talent should’ve been going.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

I’m not sure if it is on youtube or not. I know they used to air re-runs on Comedy Central. Don’t know if they do any more or not.

It is really sad that Welles ended up doing commercials. Have you ever seen the bizarre unaired pilot of The Orson Welles Show? So , so weird. A couple years ago I saw Terry Gilliam and he had obtained a copy and showed it at the panel. Most of the audience was like “who the hell is Orson Welles?”

professormortis
Reply

I guess entertainment is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ve always found Kane to be both a great film and great entertainment. I understand that it’s being labelled “the Greatest Film Ever Made” inflates expectations and I think hurts its standing with audiences, but for me it was always one of my favorites, and definitely one of my “all time great” films.

While we’re talking obscure Rosebud references: I saw the episode of Columbo that revolves around Rosebud as a kid, so I knew going in what the ending was.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Citizen Kane is not the only film that is puffed up. As much as I enjoy Casablanca, I do not think it is the best romance ever made. And the first time I saw it was disappointed. I have to say that it has grown on me and I quite enjoy it, but I never consider it to be one of the greatest love stories. To me it’s just a good movie.

I have seen that episode of Columbo before.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

professormortis
Reply

And you mention another film that I’ve always loved from the first time I saw it, and which most people I know really like a lot. Hell, I was Rick for Halloween once, rented a white tux and everything. I’ve always found it to be a great romantic film, but not necessarily in the “romance” as we think of it, more in the romance of a the idea of a man finding and reconfirming his ideals and love that must be abandoned for a greater cause. Of course, you have to take the film on its own terms for that to work-Rick and Ilsa’s story doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense under any serious scrutiny. The first time I thought about how short a time much have passed between their last meeting I had to stop and think about just how undramatic it was. Paris fell in June 1940, the film takes place in late 1941…maybe a year and a half at most? I love it now less for the romance, which I adored as a teenager and college kid, and more for the great ensemble cast and dialog.

If we keep going we’ll probably hit something we agree has an unjustly deserved reputation. Over at one of my old haunts they used to call me THE ICONOCLAST because I was reputed to never like the things that everyone else did, but that was a place dedicated to B and genre movies, not classic black and white films. Maybe I’m just a mark for a certain kind of hype.

I actually have never watched that, or any Columbo episode as an adult. It really was one of those weird things where you happen to tune in at the exact wrong moment.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Well we definitely agree about the excellent ensemble cast in Casablanca. I have to say it’s one of the best.

I really look forward to future classic film discussions with you. I think you have much to contribute.

Tonya Rice
Reply

Hey Jill.

Excellent points. There are indeed so many variances to determine what makes a film “great”. You hit a spot about hating a film due to a period in one’s life – I can attest to that. One of the “best romantic films of our time” is one I despise, clearly because it takes me back when it comes on or mentioned to a time (and person!) I’d prefer to forget (!).

I’m with you about majoring in film or at least with a film emphasis. I took a few film courses in college and LOVED them. I’d grown up loving the old movies that came on late at night, but the chance to study them later was bliss. Then I had the cool job working on campus in the Audio-Visual department (which was like the campus Blockbuster) so I got to watch them all anytime! The Welles class is the one I missed, but I’ve watched most of his on my own. Touch of Evil, I tried…. :)

Tonya

kittenbiscuits
Reply

How cool to work in the AV department! I always wanted to be that person. ;)

I so wish I could turn back time and tell young Jill to pursue the heart instead of the head. But I’m making up for it now.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Tonya. It means a lot.

Rachel
Reply

Oh God, that Ghostbusters clip is the most gloriously WTF homage I’ve ever seen. Thank you for collecting all those homage and parody clips together. In regards to the meat of your essay, I think you do give a good idea of the film’s influence and power, as well as its meaning to you. There are definitely some films out there that I respect deeply but there’s no, shall we say, chemistry between us. In my case, it doesn’t matter how much people talk to me about the brilliance of The Wild Bunch; it still doesn’t entertain me. Thanks again for this great essay, Jill.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Is it not absolutely insane?!? I usually don’t like embedding videos because it can be a little obnoxious, but I absolutely couldn’t resist. Glad you enjoyed them.

When I first started writing about my relationship with Kane it was not incredibly kind. I actually called it out for having no soul. Then I started thinking about the things I do like about it and I began to feel guilty. After all, it was quite an accomplishment at the time. I have to give it a teensy bit of credit.

I completely agree about The Wild Bunch. I just didn’t get it. I understand it was groundbreaking at the time. I understand the violence was something new. I think the cast is spectacular. But I just don’t get it. It’s a so-so movie for me. But I have problems with a lot of the films made in the late 1960s-early 1970s. I think the absence of the Production Code negatively affected many of those films. Lots of random naked breasts and lots of blood. And I don’t really mind nudity or blood. It just seems forced, if that makes sense. Like a teenager rebelling just for the hell of it.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

professormortis
Reply

For good or ill I’ve always thought The Wild Bunch was an intensely “male” picture. The themes are ones I feel appeal more to men. There’s also the fact that there is not one vaguely sympathetic female character in the film, just prostitutes, simpletons, cheats, and opportunistic castrating bitches, which makes the film pretty hard to defend (and the pretty awful Mexican characters don’t help much either). I’ll try to defend it as best I can: what I like about the film are the performances from the ensemble cast, the dynamic between Robert Ryan and William Holden, the way the scenes are shot and, yes, the action, are all positives for me. I enjoy watching Holden and Co. slowly realizing their time is up and they should go out with a bang, and more nobly than being hunted down by the railroad men. I’m also a sucker for stories about doomed and obsolete people, and I enjoy a little nihilism from time to time. Unlike Citizen Kane or Casablanca, though, I wouldn’t try too hard to defend The Wild Bunch, as much as I personally love it.

Kevyn Knox
Reply

I love to rank films (I am a list nerd indeed) but to say one film is the greatest ever made is just a ridiculous folly. You can say a certain film is your favourite, and you can defend that to the high heavens, and no one can rightfully deny you because it is a matter of taste. Incidentally, Kane ranks number five on my list of favourite films. But yes, greatest or not (a valid argument or not) there is no denying the brilliance of Kane. It may not have been quite as groundbreaking as many say (many of Welles’ and Toland’s cinematic tricks were taken from German Expressionism) but it certainly is a remarkable thing to behold. Great piece on the film and the debate.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Kevyn,

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I definitely love to list my own favorites, I just don’t like it when other people tell me how good or important a film is.

Glad to have you here. Look forward to future conversations!

Rachel
Reply

Professor Mortis, since I was the one who originally came over and dissed The Wild Bunch, I will add that I did think the opening shootout (“If they move, kill ‘em!”) is a a brilliant and exciting piece of filmmaking and I understand why people raved over the editing. Thanks for dropping by and defending the film. I think all of us are suckers for a certain kind of plotline and some movies satisfy you in a way that is more visceral than anything else.

professormortis
Reply

It’s tough for me not to butt in sometimes. One thing I always forget is the first time I saw The Wild Bunch, I was definitely underwhelmed; it’s seemed to grow on me each viewing since.

MovieMan0283
Reply

I enjoyed your honest approach to the film, because I think it captures something quite common. In fact it’s exactly this view of the movie that I had in mind when writing my own piece on Citizen Kane (it just went up today). I was lucky in a way because I saw the movie when I was 10, and I wasn’t thinking about editing techniques, camerawork, or the film’s influence/legacy but just what a great story it told about a fascinating character. Since then, I’ve obviously seen the film numerous times and read more about it, heard it broken down & analyzed and now it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. Luckily, though, I still have the memory of that first encounter as a kind of north star – though my piece ended up being pretty analytical and nitty-gritty, I nonetheless approached the movie from a story-character perspective, seeing all the disparate pieces as adding up to a whole. I’m ambivalent about film classes (I took many too, but got into classic movies as a kid so I pre-empted a lot of the I-have-to-watch-this-so-it-takes-the-enjoyment-out-of-it); part of me feels great movies should be approached first as fun, as being like other movies, and then one can go from there to study technique and depth. Very much a Kaelite in that sense.

I can’t wait to watch these You Tube videos! Same generation so I suspect a lot of these will ring a bell.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

MovieMan,

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I’ve added your blog to my Feed Demon and will keep track. I get to catch up on all the blogs I follow about once a week, but I will definitely read!

How lucky you are to see this film before it was spoiled by all the technical talk. I took one film class in college and that was it. I’m glad I didn’t take more. I have educated myself on classic film and I’ve had a blast. I am still learning. What I love is there is so much out there to be discovered. I have seen a lot but I have barely scratched the surface. To me, that is completely exciting.

Thanks again. Hope to see you around here and look forward to future discussions!

Helen
Reply

Again, great essay and you know how I feel about Citizen Kane. Because everyone knows The Godfather & Godfather 2 are the best movies ever made. Just kidding folks!! I just happen to be one of those people who never saw the film until it was hyped to such a degree that the promises made could never be kept in any realistic sense. Maybe if I’d seen it years ago, I’d have a more favorable opinion.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

That’s like when I finally saw Casablanca. It’s a good movie. A great movie. It has an excellent cast. It’s not the greatest romance ever made. I can completely get behind Rick’s sacrifice for the woman he loves when there is very little chemistry between him and Ilsa.

shadowsandsatin
Reply

Congratulations on your well-deserved award in the Great Citizen Kane debate, Jill! I’m proud to know ya!

Talk to me!

%d bloggers like this: