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Ten Random Observations About Citizen Kane

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Citizen Kane is the movie I have seen more than any other. I have shown it well over 30 times in the past 5 years that I have been teaching film studies classes at the college level, and this is in addition to the dozens of times I watched it previously — in every conceivable format — going back to when I saw it for the first time on VHS at the age of 12. I would estimate I’ve now seen it more than 60 times, a number that will only increase exponentially as I continue to teach it over time. (I once tried teaching an “Intro to Film” class without screening it and it didn’t feel right; it was like teaching a class on the history of rock and roll and not discussing Elvis.)

Anyway, after watching a movie so many times, you begin to notice all kinds of funny things. Small things. Things that nobody would notice after only a few viewings. There are certain tiny details in the movie that you grow to appreciate and look forward to seeing with each successive viewing. Conversely, there are also certain aspects of the movie that you grow to dislike. This post is nothing but a collection of random and, I hope, amusing observations about Citizen Kane from a man who has, by any objective standard, viewed it too many times.

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1. Agnes Moorehead, who plays Mrs. Kane (Charlie’s mother) only appears in three shots in the entire movie. I’ve always noticed how the shots in which she appears are “long takes” but I never bothered to actually count them until recently. I was astonished to find that her scene consists of so few shots because her character is so important and makes such a big impression that it seems like she’s in many more shots than she is — and that her screen time is greater than it is.

2. Agnes Moorehead gives my favorite performance in the film. Like most of the rest of the cast, she was a theatrical actress making her motion-picture debut and, while one tends to think of theatrical acting as “broad” (since stage performers have to play to the proverbial “cheap seats”), her performance is the most naturalistic in the film. The best moment is when she says, in close-up, “I’ve got his trunk all packed. I’ve had it packed for a week now.” Her face betrays no emotion when she says this. Her line reading is almost entirely flat and neutral, and yet her voice becomes breathy and just the tiniest bit higher-pitched on the words “week now,” which indicates that her character is heartbroken at having to send her son away.

3. My least favorite line of dialogue, by a wide margin, is: “I’ve got to make the New York Inquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light.” Charles Foster Kane says this to his colleagues Bernstein and Leland after staying up all night preparing his first edition of the newspaper as its editor. He concludes the line by turning off the gaslight. This annoys me to no end because it’s the kind of “period dialogue” that nobody would ever actually say. Kane might as well have added, “It sure is great owning a newspaper in the 1890s!”

4. One of the funniest moments in the film is one I didn’t notice at all until I had seen it many times. When Kane gives his “Declaration of Principles” to Solly, the copy boy, and asks him to run it on the front page, Solly is smiling and seems bemused at having to “remake” the front page again at Kane’s insistence. Then, when Leland asks Solly to bring him the declaration after he’s done with it (because Leland feels it will become an historically important document), Solly turns to leave and visibly rolls his eyes. The implication is that Solly likes Kane but not Leland. Ever since noticing it for the first time, it’s a moment that never fails to make me laugh.

5. My favorite bit of acting from Orson Welles comes during his gubernatorial campaign speech, specifically the line, “I would make my promises now . . . if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them!” The way Welles leans into the crowd, ingratiatingly smiling and nodding, as he delivers the “punchline” after the pregnant pause absolutely nails a very specific kind of obnoxious self-satisfaction and entitlement.

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6. There is one line in the film that is awkwardly dubbed, I suspect for censorship reasons. “Boss” Jim Gettys summons Kane and his wife to the home of Kane’s mistress, Susan Alexander, in the hopes of blackmailing his rival into quitting his gubernatorial campaign. At one point in the middle of a lengthy shot, Gettys says, “We got evidence that’ll look bad in the headlines. Do you want me to give you the evidence, Mr. Kane?” The first of these sentences was clearly overdubbed by Ray Collins, the actor playing Gettys, in post-production and it is obvious that the line he spoke on set was something completely different. If anyone knows what he originally said, and why the line was changed, please let me know!

7. Joseph Cotten is terrific as the young and middle-aged Jedediah Leland but not so good as the elderly Leland. I’m really not sure if this is a problem with Cotten’s acting or with the way his scenes were written and/or directed but the continuity of his character makes no sense to me. I understand that time slows some people down but how does the urbane and sophisticated Leland end up in a nursing home speaking with an exaggerated southern drawl? I’ve entertained the thought that perhaps Leland is putting on an “act” for Thompson, the reporter interviewing him: he does, after all, pretend to forget the name of Xanadu, Kane’s palatial estate. But Roger Ebert notes on the Blu-ray/DVD commentary track that Cotten was unhappy with his old-age makeup, which he felt had been rushed (is that why he’s wearing a visor?). I think it’s more likely that Cotten’s dissatisfaction with his make-up is somehow responsible for his less-than-stellar performance in the scene.

8. A great bit of non-verbal acting in this same scene: when Leland asks Thompson to bring him cigars wrapped up to “look like toothpaste or something,” the nurse who’s closest to Leland turns and shoots a knowing look at the other nurse present. Assuming Thompson does arrange for a delivery of cigars, there’s no way his package is making it past the hospital’s front desk.

9. Everything that Fortunio Bonanova (the actor who plays Matiste, the singing coach) says and does is hilarious.

10. Towards the end of the film, Susan is working on a jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a cavernous room in Xanadu. She asks Kane what time it is. He responds “Half past eleven.” She clarifies, “I mean in New York?” He responds, “Half past eleven.” Does this grown woman really not know that Florida and New York are in the same time zone?

Bonus track: Ever since becoming a teacher, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the notorious, screeching “eyeless” cockatoo. It never fails to wake up sleeping students:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

26 responses to “Ten Random Observations About Citizen Kane

  • cindybruchman

    Fantastic post. Love your observations.

  • jilliemae

    It’s amazing that no matter how many times we watch great films, we always manage to discover new little quirks. Great observations!

  • Susan Doll

    Interesting list of observations. About #10: I, too, have noticed the time comment, but, for me, I am always saddened by it. It indicates how out of touch or disconnected Susan has become with the outside world, because Kane has her cooped up like that caged bird, or one of his statues. She has no sense of time because of the repetition of her life. This is told to us via the jigsaw puzzles, which loosely mirror the seasons of the year–as though much time has passed with the monotony of endless days.

  • Donald Liebenson

    My high school humanities teacher showed us “Citizen Kane” and insisted that Joseph Cotten constantly seen smoking cigars in “Shadow of a Doubt” was Alfred Hitchcock’s in-joke reference to Leland asking for stogies in the nursing home.

  • Robert Jacob (@rljacob)

    Is there a story behind that cockatoo flash? What is it for?

    • michaelgloversmith

      ALL of the transitions from one scene to the next in KANE are clever; there is always an aesthetic decision (whether through image or sound) to justify it. Since the cockatoo’s screech immediately follows the butler’s line about Susan Alexander leaving Charles Foster Kane, I’ve always felt like it was an “expressionistic” use of audio — as if the bird’s cry seemed to be emanating from the depth’s of Kane’s soul (in much the same way that the sound of a woman shrieking outside of the tent when Kane slaps Susan is meant to tell us how Susan feels). Remember Welles’s radio background. He always used sound creatively.

  • Donald Liebenson

    A couple of other “Citizen Kane” observations:

    1. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that girl” gets me every time, but my favorite line in the film remains, “Rosebud? I tell you about Rosebud. How much is it worth to you?”

    3. My favorite “Citizen Kane” reference is in “Hellzapoppin'” when Johnson picks up “Rosebud” and remarks, “I thought they’d burnt that.” And this was just months after “Kane” had been released. Talk about a spoiler alert.

  • Mitchell

    One highly amusing line I noticed after perhaps the thirtieth time I watched it: at one point he says to a reporter “Hurry up young man. We asked them quicker than that when I was a reporter!”

    It’s only after seeing the whole thing that you realize THAT HE NEVER WAS A REPORTER!!

    Another instance of the self-reinvention of Charles Foster Kane

    • michaelgloversmith

      Great observation, Mitchell. Incidentally, did you know that the reporter interviewing Kane in that scene is none other than Gregg Toland, the film’s director of photography? Also, Kane’s first spoken line of dialogue as a young man is “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio,” which is, of course, a sly reference to Welles’s notorious “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.

  • mike walker

    This was a great read. You made some great observations, I especially liked #10. I was thinking the same thing when Susan asked about the time…it just seemed like a weird exchange between the two.

  • Domonique Andrews

    Whoa, I’d thought I’d missed your post on this. Thank God I had to check the date of the paper again.

    1 and 2) Interesting observation. For only seeing this movie once, in this class, maybe it’s silly I have to say my first impression is to outright hate the mother with all my passion. I personally think “sending him away for him to have a better life” slants to bull. The mom inherited a bunch of money, what do you think she going to do? Party ’till she drops. All they needed was to get rid of the kid! This movie did go rather quickly for me to hear every word of that discussion I didn’t see any evidence that the parents left all their money with Charlie. I could be way off here, but that’s how I saw that. Maybe she meant well by sending him away, but most of his problems do start with her.

    3) Yes, I questioned the gas light myself. Surely they would have had incandescent light bulb lamps by the 1890s and 1900s, I mean, even the middle class had lamps back then, I’m pretty sure.

    6) Huh, a dubbing moment? Didn’t notice that. I do wonder how much censorship did in fact go into the film, if Welles supposedly had the most control as he ever had in it… Perhaps the original dialog was lost in the recopies over the years.

    8) I love how Lealand talking about the cigars and the nurse is standing right there. As if she’s deaf. I really just thought he was supposed to be a moron.

    9) Same as what I said above.

    10) That made me jump, and I *was* awake. Interesting attention grabber on Welles’ part.

    P.S., my mother would root for the Elvis thing. Haha.

  • Andrea Ostrov Letania

    “Does this grown woman really not know that Florida and New York are in the same time zone?”

    On the one hand, it could be read as her being ignorant(and stupid).

    In another way, one could easily lose one’s sense of time and place in Xanudu, which is like the hotel in The Shining.

    It’s always “11:30” there. Time stands still… in a place with artifacts from all over the world.

  • John Charet

    Great observations on an undisputed masterpiece:)

  • Mitchell

    Another point that I have not seen discussed anywhere, and therefore it might not be accurate, but I feel that Leland does not only idolize Kane. I believe he is deeply in love with him. Cotton’s way of looking at him seems to betray this in every scene they are in together. I think this really comes out in Leland’s reactions to Kane’s two marriages. Emily doesn’t bother him because he and we both know that this seems to be a politically expedient marriage and therefore no ‘threat’ to Leland. But Susan Alexander’s thrall over him is sexual and he can’t compete. He also sees Kane doing foolish things for Susan and not fulfilling the destiny he seems to see for Kane.

    I usually don’t dig for a Gay subtext but I think looking at it through this lens would go a long way to understanding Leland’s request to go to Chicago, his writing of the review, etc. I welcome arguments against this point most heartily.

  • John Juodvalkis

    I watched the movie for the first time about a year ago and then I watched parts of it again with the DVD commentary by Roger Ebert . I was blown away at some of the things that Ebert pointed out that was going on in the movie ( like the scene where Welles is walking towards the office windows that appear to be normal sized at first) I still haven’t actually watched movie more than once in it’s entirety, so I don’t have any deep observations to throw in here. I just wanted to mention that this article reminded me that I should rewatch it again. I also wanted to mention that this article blew my mind because it taught me that Charlie’s mother is also Endora from Bewitched.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Great to hear from you, John! Hope you’ve been well. Agnes Moorehead rules.

      • Mitchell

        There are many performances lauded as ‘the greatest performance on film’: Falconetti in the Passion of Joan of Arc is one that you hear a lot. Welles himself thought that Raimu in The Baker’s Wife by Pagnol was the greatest. For my money Agnes Moorehead’s turn as Fanny Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons, is, if not the greatest, certainly one of the most stunning.

  • dontpanic79blog

    I just watched the film for the first time this evening with one of my college classes. After the scene with the bird, my professor mentioned that this film has been studied for decades and people seem to be universally confused by the bird. I have the same kind of bird, and I have heard that same sound. He usually makes it if he can hear noise but cannot see anyone, usually if we have not yet opened the door to his room in the morning. Basically, he is calling out to be paid attention to in a very primal way. Considering the scene that immediately follows the bird, I took it as symbolism of the primal feeling displayed in Kane’s destruction of the room, in a moment when he too must be internally screaming to be paid attention to.

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