Wednesday, May 9, 2012

TV Bites: Citizen Kane

Hearst Castle Rich Biscuits w/Pear Honey

This is the third movie I've written about released in 1941. The first being The Lady Eve, then The Maltese Falcon, and now Citizen Kane. What an amazing year for movies, no?

And this is part one of my breakfast double bill. Not because you should watch these films in the morning, but that I've paired them both with two breakfast dishes. Though, feel free to snack on them at any time of day.

When I was at vocational film school (what we used to call it - not much on theory, but a lot of practicality), my film history teacher used to do "Citizen Kane Day." What that entailed was coming in at 10am watching the film from beginning to end. Take a lunch break. Watch the film again as she paused during each sequence, pointing out and discussing details, then take a dinner break, come back and watch the whole thing again with no pauses. A very memorable and educating experience it was.

So, let's just dive into it. I'm not trying to be lazy or anything here, but as has been remarked by many - there is probably no other film which has had so much written about it, analyzed, dissected, deconstructed, poured through, and poured over, no more so than Citizen Kane. You want analysis? Here you go.... pages and pages of it!

Maybe you want to hear from experts? Martin Scorsese? Steven Spielberg? Peter Bogdanovich? Francois Truffaut? How about Eric von Stroheim ranting?

Maybe you want to hear from some big time film critics? Pauline Kael? Andrew Sarris's rebuttal to Pauline Kael? Would you prefer Roger Ebert? AO Scott? How about Bowsley Crowther's original 1941 NY Times review?

Is that not enough? How about ex-presidential candidate Donald Trump (interviewed by Errol Morris!) speaking about the film?

Would you like to watch some documentaries about the making of Citizen Kane? Here's one, first shown on PBS. Oh yeah, a lot of people have disputed the validity of it. How about this one then?

What can I possibly add to all this??? I mean, seriously! Pretty much nothing. But with all that's said and done, it's still the probably the most important and revolutionary film ever made in Hollywood.

So I'll just muse a while, throw a couple of tidbits out there, and hopefully you'll be satisfied and then we'll move on to the recipe. Fair enough?

Citizen Kane is available for streaming @ YouTube and Amazon.


"Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money."

That line. I have repeated that line to myself and others for most of my life. Spoken by Mr. Bernstein, I love that line because it sums up so much of what I believe. It's "the one with the best stories wins" philosophy, not "the one with the most toys wins."

But let me clear. There's nothing wrong about making money. Money is a great concept which allows us to trade goods and services with each other. But money, as Citizen Kane shows us, is not always the means to happiness nor freedom as it's oft sold as. Money can offer you power over others, but not always power over yourself. And it can all vanish in a moment. This all doesn't mean you don't work hard or work a lot. But my priority, like Welles (if I can be so bold as to compare myself), has never been about just making money. So that one line is reason alone for why I love this movie.

And there is Welles himself. A man constantly on the verge of losing everything, yet forever risking it all for a good story and hopefully to create something worth more than money.

Another quote from the movie: "Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or lost. No, I don't think it explains anything. I don't think any word explains a man's life. I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle... a missing piece."

In Welles' interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles blamed 'Rosebud' on Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who mostly wrote the screenplay, that it was his idea. Welles distanced himself from it, saying, "It manages to work, but I'm still not too keen about it, and I don't think that he was, either. The whole shtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way." He continued, "We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it." They only kept it in the script, he said, "because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville."

Pauline Kael, in her famous article on Citizen Kane in The New Yorker magazine, dismisses it thusly. "The mystery in Kane is largely fake, and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up—the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled."

In an article in The Village Voice, responding to Kael's, film critic Andrew Sarris quoted another quote by Welles from 1963 in which he apologized for 'Rosebud': “It’s a gimmick, really,’ said Welles, “and rather dollar book Freud.

But, Sarris wrote: "The problem with defending 'Rosebud' as a narrative device is that its very vividness makes it a running gag in our satirically-oriented culture. How can we possible take 'Rosebud' seriously, Miss Kael complains, after Snoopy has called Lucy's sled 'Rosebud?' [I believe the cartoon in question actually has Charlie Brown reading 'Rosebud' on Snoopy's sled. Lucy is in this cartoon.] The same way, I suppose, we can take 'Potemkin' seriously after Woody Allen has sent a baby carriage rolling down the steps of a Latin-American palace in 'Bananas.' Both Snoopy and Allen are paying homage to bits of film language transformed by the magical contexts of their medium into poetic metaphors. But whereas Eisenstein’s baby carriage moves from prop to agitprop as it becomes an archetypal conveyance of revolutionary fervor, 'Rosebud' reverberates with psychological overtones as it passes through the snows of childhood (les neiges d’antan) into the fire, ashes and smoke of death. Indeed, the burning of Rosebud” in Xanadu’s furnace represents the only instance in which the character of Kane can be seen subjectively by the audience. It is as if his mind and memory were being cremated before our eyes, and we were too helpless to intervene and too incompetent to judge. It is an act of symbolic summation and transfiguration worthy of Truffaut’s passionately paradoxical tribute to the film itself: 'It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius'."

"The grandeur of 'Rosebud' as a memory," Sarris continued, "is that it is meaningless and trivial to anyone but Kane. Its horror is its confirmation that we are isolated from each other by so much more than our politics and morals, by nothing less, in fact, than our very selves."

Yes, it's a gimmick. It's a trick. Welles was a magician, remember? How else to describe his War of the Worlds broadcast than a brilliant bit of "sleight of hand?" He liked to play - and perform - tricks.

"I don't think any word explains a man's life," but then the entire film is structured around a single word that when it does reveal its meaning, it kind of does just that. While it doesn't give us an "absolute true" picture of Kane (I mean we never really know anybody, we barely get to figure out ourselves), it is a "piece in a jigsaw puzzle." Even though Kane dies a lost soul, we know where that soul was last seen. We are given some window into "the why" of his life. That there is cause and effect, consequences. We are led to believe the universe has some laws pertaining to these things as well as laws of physics.

Was Kane himself correct to suggest "If I hadn't been very rich... I might have been a really great man?" Perhaps. Perhaps not.

So what is my point in all this? Bear with me a moment. Not long ago I was listening to an episode of Radiolab (if you're not familiar with the series, it's pretty awesome). They were speaking with author Jeff Jenson, who wrote this graphic novel, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story, which is about his father who was a police investigator on a serial killing case. The father spent hours interviewing the Green River Killer, who is thought to have killed over 70 women, trying to understand why he did what he did. But his father and the other investigators never seemed to get to a satisfying answer.

"Each answer just begs another why," Jenson said. And then in considering this puzzle - "the why" question - he delives into the story of Job. Jenson then concludes: "My point is sometimes when we ask 'the why' in the face of profound evil, I kind of wonder if what we're doing is that we're daring God to show himself. And I think what we want out of 'the why' is meaning - meaning to life. To reveal itself in a way that restores order and gives us hope that all of this isn't just meaningless chaos."

And that's what Rosebud is. It's a gimmick. It's a magic trick. Rosebud both means something, yet means nothing at all. It metaphorically gives us "a why" for the life of Charles Foster Kane, and yet doesn't. It is both comforting and disturbing. Welles I think understood the absurdity, the injustice, and ultimately the "meaningless chaos" of life, but he also understood we desperately need some good stories to keep us from going mad. I think if asked about it, he had to dismiss 'Rosebud' as a gimmick, else Welles would be suspect (if not ridiculed) for being taken in by his own gimmick. But that doesn't make the gimmick any less effective. And continues as an archetype we collectively reference.

But there's one more story to consider....

When Herman J. Mankiewicz was 10 years old and living in northeastern Pennsylvania, according to his biographer, he was given a bicycle for Christmas. The bike represented not just mobility, but also a sense of freedom for a boy who had a very troubled and loveless home life. One day, punished and forced to stay indoors, he snuck out of the house on his new bicycle to go the library. The library was another escape for him. But while there, the bicycle was stolen. His mother scolded him - it was his own fault. They never bought him a new one. And here's the thing, all his life Herman J. Mankiewicz would remember how much he loved that bike and how much it meant to him.

And, you know, that bicycle had a name. You bet it did, friends.... Rosebud.

Two final tidbits:

Earlier this year the unthinkable happened. Citizen Kane was finally screened at Hearst Castle. Seventy-one years after William Randolph Hearst returned the copy Welles had sent him unopened, it was screened in March at "the world's largest private pleasure ground."

And finally, Welles' first plan at RKO was to do an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. If you want to use your own imagination as to what it could have been like, in London they did a reading of the script last month. You can check it out online until June 30th here. It's really quite mesmerizing.


It should be generally agreed that the person who got the worst fallout from Citizen Kane was not Welles, not Hearst, but Marion Davies. Whether or not you feel she was a good, great, or mediocre actress, that she is forever confused with the character of Susan Alexander Kane, even Welles himself felt the need to apologize for and set the record straight.

He did so in 1975, in the forward to her autobiography, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst, in which he wrote:

"There are parallels, but these can be just as misleading as comparisons [regarding how much of Hearst there is in Kane]. If San Simeon hadn't existed, it would have been necessary for the authors of the movie to invent it. Except for the telegram [in which Kane tells his Cuban reporter, "You make the pictures, I'll make the war"] and the crazy art collection (much too good to resist), in Kane everything was invented....

And what of Susan Alexander Kane? What indeed.

It was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story, but the man was not Hearst. Susan, Kane's second wife, is not even based on the real-life soprano. Like most fictional characters, Susan's resemblance to other fictional characters is quite startling. To Marion Davies she bears no resemblance at all.

Kane picked up Susan on a street corner - from nowhere - where the poor girl herself through she belonged. Marion Davies was no dim shopgirl; she was a famous beauty who had her choice of rich, powerful, and attractive beaux before Hearst sent his first bouquet to her stage door. That Susan was Kane's wife and Marion was Hearst's mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today's changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them: they were pleasure domes, indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations. Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape from it. The mistress was never one of Hearst's possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than thirty years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.

Susan was forced into a singing career because Kane had been forced out of politics. She was pushed from one public disaster to another by the bitter frustration of the man who believed that because he had married her and raised her up out of obscurity she was his to use as he might will. There is hatred in that.

Hearst put up the money for many of the movies in which Marion Davies starred and, more importantly, backed her with publicity. But this was less of a favor than might appear. That vast publicity machine was all too visible; and finally, instead of helping, it cast a shadow - a shadow of doubt. Could the star have existed without the machine? The question darkened an otherwise brilliant career.

As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow - the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane - I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person

Here's an excerpt from the documentary Captured on Film - The True Story of Marion Davies:


So early on, now almost two years ago, when I first decided I was going to do this Chef du Cinema thing, I went on the prowl for interesting cookbooks that might have celebrity recipes and such, and on that prowl I saw a copy of Castle Fare: Featuring Authentic Recipes Served in Hearst Castle. I knew right then that I had to buy it and use it for Citizen Kane. All the movies I choose for this adventure should be this easy.

But of what to choose from the cookbook, that was pretty easy too. I knew it would have to be a breakfast meal to go with the awesome breakfast montage. As I leafed through the book, when I saw this recipe for Pear Honey, my eyes just lit up. And that meant we needed the Rich Biscuit recipe to go with it. (As mentioned, this is part one of a double bill of breakfast recipes, so stay tuned for the next.)

And I gotta tell you, don't restrict using the Pear Honey for just putting on biscuits. Try it as a glaze - fish, chicken, shrimp, or pork.

Now I should mention that in the book, it is noted: "The following Jam and Jelly recipes were clipped from a magazine by Mr. Hearst and he made notes above them: 'Have cook try these. Our Jams and Jellies should be put up like these. These would be good for our picnics, try them.'"

P.S. - For the biscuits, you'll want to have a biscuit cutter ready. Click here for instructions on how to make one.

Anyways, hope you're enjoying the spring weather and, as always.... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Rich Biscuits
adapted from a recipe in Castle Fare: Authentic Recipes Served at Hearst Castle
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

makes 12-14 biscuits

2 1/8 cups Bisquick
2 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream

Heat oven to 425*F. Stir ingredients until soft dough forms.

Turn out onto a well-floured board and knead gently about 10 times. Then roll out about 1/2-inch thick and cut biscuits (DON'T TWIST BISCUIT CUTTER!!!!). Place cut biscuits in pan and allow to stand about 5 minutes in a warm place.

NOTE: These aren't buttermilk biscuits and won't puff up. So don't expect them to.

Bake for about 10 minutes until tops are golden. Serve hot!

Pear Honey
adapted from a recipe in Castle Fare: Authentic Recipes Served at Hearst Castle
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

makes 1 pint-sized Mason jar

1 1/2 cups sliced pears, peeled and cored (about 8 ounces)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup (canned) crushed pineapple with juice
1/2 - 1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
4 teaspoons orange juice
2 teaspoons orange zest

As you core and peel pears, keep them in cold water until ready to use, then drain.

In a medium-sized saucepan, cook all ingredients at low simmer until pears are tender, turn translucent and mixture thickens, about 30-40 minutes (time will vary depending on ripeness of pears).

(Updated 5/31/12) Carefully pour mixture into 1-pint Mason jar. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight before using (will keep up to a month in refrigerator).

Citizen Kane Screenplay
The Battle Over Citizen Kane @ PBS
Citizen Kane at 70: The Legacy of the Film and Its Director, by DB Grady @ The Atlantic
WellesNet: The Orson Welles Web Resource
TCM's Citizen Kane Page

Citizen Kane (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition) DVD/Blu-ray/Streaming
The Making of Citizen Kane, by Robert L. Carringer
This Is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdonavich
Mank: The wit, world, and life of Herman Mankiewicz, by Richard Meryman
The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst, by Marion Davies
Castle Fare: Authentic Recipes Served at Hearst Castle


  1. Like your post-can't wait to try the biscuits & pear honey-but need to clarify something-it's Jeff Jensen-not Janson you heard on Radiolab.

  2. don't know how that slipped through. must have been a spell check thing or I'm going blind. thanks for spotting it. :)