Months before its release, Orson Welles’ landmark film Citizen Kane began generating such controversy that Radio City Music Hall eventually refused to show it. Instead, Citizen Kane, now revered as one of the greatest movies in history, made its debut at the smaller RKO Palace Theater on this day in 1941.
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 some 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 favorable 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 favorable, 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, he narrated documentaries and appeared in commercials, and he left behind several unfinished films when he died at the age of 70 on October 10, 1985.