One of Hollywood’s most famous clashes of the titans–an upstart “boy genius” filmmaker versus a furious 76-year-old newspaper tycoon–heats up on January 8, 1941, when William Randolph Hearst forbids any of his newspapers to run advertisements for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Though Welles was only 24 years old when he began working in Hollywood, he had already made a name for himself on the New York theater scene and particularly with his controversial radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds in 1938. After scoring a lucrative contract with the struggling RKO studio, he was searching for an appropriately incendiary topic for his first film when his friend, the writer Herman Mankiewicz, suggested basing it on the life of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a notoriously innovative, often tyrannical businessman who had built his own nationwide newspaper empire and owned eight homes, the most notable of which was San Simeon, his sprawling castle on a hill on the Central California coast.
After catching a preview screening of the unfinished Citizen Kane on January 3, 1941, the influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wasted no time in passing along the news to Hearst and his associates. Her rival and Hearst’s chief movie columnist, Louella Parsons, was incensed about the film and its portrait of Charles Foster Kane, the Hearst-like character embodied in typically grandiose style by Welles himself. Even more loathsome to Hearst and his allies was the portrayal of Kane’s second wife, a young alcoholic singer with strong parallels to Hearst’s mistress, the showgirl-turned-actress Marion Davies. Hearst was said to have reacted to this aspect of the film more strongly than any other, and Welles himself later called the Davies-based character a “dirty trick” that he expected would provoke the mogul’s anger.
Only a few days after the screening, Hearst sent the word out to all his publications not to run advertisements for the film. Far from stopping there, he also threatened to make war against the Hollywood studio system in general, publicly condemning the number of “immigrants” and “refugees” working in the film industry instead of Americans, a none-too-subtle reference to the many Jewish members of the Hollywood establishment. Hearst’s newspapers also went after Welles, accusing him of Communist sympathies and questioning his patriotism.
Hollywood’s heavyweights, who were already resentful of Welles for his youth and his open contempt for Hollywood, soon rallied around Hearst. Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer even offered to pay RKO $842,000 in cash if the studio’s president, George Schaefer, would destroy the negative and all prints of Citizen Kane. Schaefer refused and in retaliation threatened to sue the Fox, Paramount and Loews theater chains for conspiracy after they refused to distribute the film. After Time and other publications protested, the theater chains relented slightly and permitted a few showings; in the end, the film barely broke even.
Nominated for nine Oscars, Citizen Kane won only one (a shared Best Screenplay award for Mankiewicz and Welles) and Welles and the film were actually booed at the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony. Schaefer was later pushed out at RKO, along with Welles, and the film was returned to the RKO archives. It would be 25 more years before Citizen Kane received its rightful share of attention, but it has since been heralded as one of the best movies of all time.