When it comes to discussions about the greatest film ever made, one movie is always part of the conversation. Citizen Kane is to cinema what "Stairway to Heaven" is to the rock 'n' roll set. Released on this day in New York back in 1941, this landmark film from then-25-year-old director/producer/star and co-writer Orson Welles is the stuff of legend. Not only was it Welles' first feature film, but the controversy around the central character Charles Foster Kane—largely based on the powerful real-life media mogul William Randolph Hearst—is a story in and of itself and something that not even Hollywood could make up.
Hearst was so outraged by the Welles project that he threatened all the movie studios—not just RKO, the studio that made the film—with refusing to promote any movies in his monolithic newspaper chain. His power was so immense that a contingent of studio owners, led by MGM's Louis B. Mayer, ponied up nearly a million dollars to purchase the picture from RKO and literally burn the negative. Thankfully the offer was refused and cooler heads somewhat prevailed.
Undaunted, Hearst then went after the theater owners and the result was that Citizen Kane was difficult for movie-goers to find in certain areas of the country. The immediate result was that Kane would only be a very modest commercial success at the time of its release. Despite Hearst’s campaign to bury the project, it did garner nine Academy Award nominations—including four for Welles alone—but only managed to win the coveted Oscar for Best Screenplay (written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles, although the writing credits would also become largely debated over the years).
Considering its legendary status today, it's startling to realize that Kane was largely forgotten for the first 15 years following its initial theatrical run. But starting with some television airings in 1956, which quickly led to a theatrical re-release, critics from around the globe began penning testaments calling Welles' debut one of the, if not the greatest film ever made. This tag has now been affixed to the film for the past 60+ years, and for good reason as Citizen Kane broke many of the established rules of cinema at the time. From its groundbreaking use of non-linear storytelling—a device used prevalently today in both film and television—to its landmark cinematography, featuring new and innovative angles and longshots from cinematographer Gregg Toland, who worked hand-in-hand with his cutting-edge director. Kane also contains probably the most famous one-word line in cinema history: "Rosebud," the mysterious whispered word that sets the suspense of the entire film in motion.
Unlike other media-focused films which tend to put a positive spin on the world of newspapers specifically, as in another of our cinematic classics All the President’s Men, Citizen Kane illustrated the negative side of media power and manipulation and was arguably the first to ever make such a statement. Following the path of a truth-seeker quickly corrupted by money and power who begins to push an agenda rather than reporting the news indeed brings a timeless relevance to this powerful cinematic classic. Citizen Kane is available both digitally and on Blu-ray.