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It's Worth Raising 'Kane,' Even On The Small Screen

May 12, 1991|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

"Citizen Kane" is 50 years old, but it still radiates the bloom of youth. Orson Welles was 25, the movies were about 40, and the talkies were only 14 when "Citizen Kane" was released in 1941.

To celebrate the anniversary, Turner Entertainment Co., which now owns "Citizen Kane," has released it to theaters again, though it will play only a few engagements in selected cities. Most people alive today who have seen "Citizen Kane" have seen it on TV. Even reduced to small-screen size, it remains a great big masterpiece.

One of the things that keeps "Kane" young is that it was in part a journalistic enterprise--of and about journalism. The character of newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane was based on that of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. In addition, Herman J. Mankiewicz, who shares the screenplay credit with Welles (also star, producer and director), was himself a former newspaperman.

Because it takes real events and people and fictionalizes them, "Citizen Kane" might even be called a docudrama, though the term wasn't invented for decades. Several years ago, I appeared on the CBS News program "Nightwatch" with Orson Welles (he in Hollywood, me in Washington) arguing about the merits of docudramas. He didn't think there were many.

When I mentioned that "Kane" might conceivably be lumped in that category, Welles grumbled, "I don't want to talk about the films," meaning films he had made. The subject was dropped.

Many of those associated with "Kane" are gone, although Robert Wise, the film editor, is happily still around and supervised restoration of the new prints. Wise became a great director himself. His films include "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story."

Herman J. Mankiewicz died in 1953, before "Kane" was rediscovered and acclaimed a classic. "I don't think at the time he died that he really knew what they had accomplished," says Frank Mankiewicz, Herman's son, former press secretary to Bobby Kennedy who now lives in Washington and is co-chairman of a big public relations firm.

The film is, of course, available on Turner Home Video. It's a little ironic that Turner is rereleasing the movie because the company infuriated Welles by threatening to colorize it. Before he died, Welles urged friends to keep Ted Turner and his "crayons" away from the picture. Colorizing tests were made, but then, fearing legal action, Turner's company backed off.

"Citizen Kane" remains in the original black and white, one of the black-and-whitest movies ever made.

One advantage of watching it on home video is that you can freeze frames and read make-believe headlines that fly by too fast in the film. When Kane dies at the beginning of the film, for instance, his paper, The Inquirer, says, "Entire Nation Mourns Great Publisher As Outstanding American."

But a rival paper, The Chronicle, sniffs, "Death of Publisher Finds Few Who Will Mourn for Him."

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