On May 1st 1941, Orson Welles’ landmark film Citizen Kane, which had generated such controversy that Radio City Music Hall refused to show it, finally debuted at at the smaller RKO Palace Theater. Citizen Kane is now revered as one of the greatest movies in history.
George Orson Welles, an American actor, director, writer and producer who worked extensively in theatre, radio and film, was born on May 6th 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Despite his parents’ affluence, Welles encountered many hardships in childhood. In 1919, his parents separated and moved to Chicago. His father, who had made a fortune as the inventor of a popular bicycle lamp, became an alcoholic and stopped working. Welles’s mother, a concert pianist, played during lectures by Dudley Crafts Watson at the Chicago Art Institute to support her son and herself. She died of jaundice in 1924, and his father died when Welles was 15.
After his father’s death, Welles travelled to Europe with the aid of a small inheritance. Welles later reported that while on a walking and painting trip through Ireland, he strode into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and claimed he was a Broadway star. The manager of Gate, Hilton Edwards, later said he had not believed him but was impressed by his brashness and some impassioned quality in his audition. Welles made his stage debut at the Gate in 1931, appearing in Jew Suss as the Duke. He acted to great acclaim, which reached the United States.
By the time he began working on Citizen Kane, the 24-year-old Welles had already made a name for himself as Hollywood’s enfant terrible. He first found success on Broadway and on the radio; his October 1938 broadcast version of the science-fiction classic The War of the Worlds was so realistic that many listeners actually believed Martians had invaded New Jersey.
Having signed a lucrative contract with RKO studios, Welles was struggling to find a subject for his first feature film when his friend, the writer Herman Mankiewicz, suggested that he base it on the life of the publishing baron William Randolph Hearst. Hearst presided over the country’s leading newspaper empire, ruling it from San Simeon, a sprawling estate perched atop a hill along California’s central coastline.
A preview of Citizen Kane in early February 1941 had drawn almost universally favourable reviews from critics. However, one viewer, the leading Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, was incensed by the film and Welles’ portrayal of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane. She took her concerns to Hearst himself, who soon began waging a full-scale campaign against Welles and his film, barring the Hearst newspapers from running ads for it and enlisting the support of Hollywood bigwigs such as Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was said Hearst was particularly angry over the movie’s depiction of a character based on his companion, Marion Davies, a former showgirl whom he had helped become a popular Hollywood actress. For his part, Welles threatened to sue Hearst for trying to suppress the film and also to sue RKO if the company did not release the film.
When Citizen Kane finally opened in May 1941, it was a failure at the box office. Although reviews were favourable, and it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, Welles was booed at that year’s Oscar ceremony, and RKO quietly archived the film. It was only years later, when it was re-released, that Citizen Kane began to garner well-deserved accolades for its pioneering camera and sound work, as well as its complex blend of drama, black comedy, history, biography and even fake-newsreel or “mockumentary” footage that has informed hundreds of films produced since then. It consistently ranks at the top of film critics’ lists, most notably grabbing the No. 1 spot on the American Film Institute’s poll of America’s 100 Greatest Films.
After Citizen Kane, Welles’ diverse works consisted of everything from Shakespearean adaptations to documentaries. Some of his most acclaimed films included The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Chimes at Midnight (1966). In his later years, Orson Welles narrated documentaries and appeared in commercials, and he left behind several unfinished films when he died at the age of 70 on October 10th 1985.