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The Genius Of Welles, 'Kane' Endures

May 26, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

To see "Citizen Kane" (screening Friday at the County Museum of Art) today is to realize that it's as much about Orson Welles as it is William Randolph Hearst. In a moment of self-knowledge, Charles Foster Kane says that if he hadn't been very rich he might have been a great man; if Welles hadn't been such a genius, his fate as a film director might not have been so tragic. But Welles seemingly could no more resist indulging his brilliance than Kane his vast financial resources.

Welles must have decided to make movies for the same reason Kane decided to take over an ailing newspaper: "It might be fun." And just as Kane wanted to revolutionize American journalism, Welles wanted to revolutionize the movies.

And so he did, discovering fresh resources in the use of sound as well as image and camera movement. Yet "Citizen Kane" is no mere triumph of technique. It is surely the greatest expression of the American dream gone sour ever committed to film. In Charles Foster Kane, so superbly played by Welles himself, we witness an initial idealism gradually give way to megalomania, paranoia and finally a vast, all-encompassing loneliness--the loneliness of a man who never learned to love because, while growing up in the care of a guardian (a fate Welles endured and could empathize with), he never knew love.

If anything, "Citizen Kane" seems fresher, more dazzling and more outrageous than ever--especially if Kenneth Anger's claim that "Rosebud" had a very special meaning for Hearst is true. Unlike Kane, Welles has left us with a shining legacy, the greatest part of which is, of course, "Citizen Kane."

"Citizen Kane" (1941) screens Friday at 1 and 8 p.m. at the museum's Bing Theater as part of the first program in the 21-film retrospective "Genius: The Work of Orson Welles," which will highlight Welles the actor as well as Welles the director. Playing with "Citizen Kane" is "Jane Eyre" (1944), a typically handsome '40s studio version of the Charlotte Bronte classic in which Welles is a decidedly ripe, surely tongue-in-cheek Rochester to Joan Fontaine's earnest Jane. Phone: (213) 857-6201.

Joan Crawford offers a zesty variation on her Sadie Thompson in "Strange Cargo" (1940), an uneasy mix of Frank Borzage spiritual uplift and lurid prison escape melodrama which screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at UCLA Melnitz as part of the Borzage series. Clark Gable is in a group of escapees from a Devil's Island-like fortress in the Caribbean, and Crawford, a local cabaret entertainer, winds up on the lam with them--along with her Adrian wardrobe. There's plenty of electricity between Gable and Crawford (who always said it was for real), but it's a bit much to witness a bunch of hard-boiled types launch into a preachy soul-saving seminar, led by one of the cons, the Christlike Ian Hunter.

"The Mortal Storm" (1940), which follows "Strange Cargo," is another of Borzage's anti-Nazi films. It's far more satisfying than "Three Comrades," in which the anti-Nazi theme was relegated to the background; here, it is inextricably linked to its love story. What is chilling about this film is its depiction of how rapidly Nazism could spread--and how quickly freedom of expression evaporated as a result.

The setting is an Alpine town, the year 1933, just as Hitler is coming to power. When Robert Young reveals he's an increasingly fanatic Hitler supporter, his half-Jewish fiancee (Margaret Sullavan) is repelled and drawn to the independent-minded James Stewart. The plot is far from air-tight, the casting simply silly (i.e. Stewart as an Alpine peasant) but the film is notably uncompromising for a pre-Pearl Harbor Hollywood picture. Yet another Borzage film, "Disputed Passage" (1939), the second of Borzage's Lloyd C. Douglas adaptations, screens at 5:30 p.m. Phone: (213) 825-2581.

Arthur Bressan's "Buddies," which screens Tuesday through Thursday at the Nuart, is marred by mawkishness in its depiction of a friendship between an AIDS victim (Geoff Edholm) and a gay man (David Schachter) who has volunteered to devote time to the care of the dying man. However, the effect they have on each other--and upon us--is considerable. Phones: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.

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