X is for Xanadu
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
I was going to write something about Orson Welles yesterday, but then I realised that I still needed something for the letter X. So W ended up being for Weissmuller, and X is now for Xanadu, the outlandish home of tycoon Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles’ fictional stand-in for publisher William Randolph Hearst.
There was always something of the mischievous and daring little boy about Orson Welles. At sixteen, while on holiday in Ireland, he lied about his credentials and bluffed his way onto the stage at the Gate Theatre. At nineteen he was running his own theatre festival. He directed an all-black Macbeth and an anti-Fascist Julius Caesar, and was the director of an infamous theatre company, before panicking all of America with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
At twenty-seven, the boy-wonder of Hollywood, he secured an unheard-of deal at RKO: complete control over his first film, Citizen Kane. He declared the experience of making the film to that of an excited child playing with the world’s greatest train set. His genius was never questioned, least of all by himself (“there but for the grace of God, goes God” was a well-used joke about the enfant terrible), and he got away with a lot, on stage, over the air and in Hollywood.
Until a few years ago I knew little about William Randolph Hearst, but then I watched a wonderful PBS documentary about the film. Loathed by many during his lifetime, the vastly wealthy publisher was something of a mixture of Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump: he ruthlessly crushed his business rivals and his arrogance and ostentation were notorious.
Hence San Simeon, his private estate (Xanadu in Citizen Kane). The entire estate is a quarter of a million acres. There were 127 acres of gardens, fountains, walkways, and a private zoo. In the castle itself there were 165 rooms, each filled with treasures that Hearst collected.
For Welles with his Leftist politics and uncanny knack for showmanship, Hearst was too rich a target to resist.
Millions of words have already been written about the development, production and reception of Citizen Kane. Welles’ debut film remains a landmark in American cinema, and no history of Hollywood is complete without it. Welles – the Boy Wonder of the Mercury Theater co-wrote, starred in and directed the classic, and like Icarus, it’s fair to say he flew too close to the sun (he would never reach the same level of artistry or have full control over his projects).
Hearst did everything in his power to prevent it from being released, and to this day the film remains controversial: many feel (as Hearst did) that the movie unfairly slanders Marion Davies.
I won’t go on too much about Citizen Kane: although I think it is technically brilliant and a near-perfect example of how to use all the resources of a motion picture to tell a story (and it’s quite a story), I still regard the film as something of a cold technical exercise. The performances are wonderful; the cinematography is a marvel; the production design is phenomenal; but I cannot fully engage with it. I have seen it many times, on the big screen and the small, and have watched it while listening to Roger Ebert’s exhaustive and laudatory commentary, and each time I see the film I seem to enjoy it less. Maybe I’ve simply seen it too many times.
That said, I wanted to single out Gregg Toland‘s gorgeous cinematography.