13 Classic Facts About Citizen Kane


All art is subjective, and it’s therefore perhaps pointless to argue over which movie is the “greatest” ever made. We still argue, though. And when discussing the best film ever made, there is, remarkably, an apparently universal answer. Roger Ebert used to joke that Citizen Kane is “the official answer” to the question “What’s the greatest film of all time?”—and it’s easy to see why. In the nearly eight decades (it turns 75 years old today) since its release, Citizen Kane has remained one of the clearest expressions of creative freedom and artistic innovation ever put on film. Its co-writer, director, producer and star—Orson Welles—was granted an incredible amount of control over its production, and he put it to good use, setting new standards for cinematography, makeup effects, and storytelling on the big screen.

If much of what we see now in Citizen Kane seems commonplace in the landscape of cinema, it’s because this is the film that set the precedent. If much of how we view auteurs in film now seems clichéd, it’s because Welles got there first. When stating the importance of Citizen Kane, Ebert said it best: “It consolidated the film language up until 1941 and broke new ground in such areas as deep focus, complex sound, and narrative structure.”

So, in celebration of the “official” Greatest Film of All Time, here are 13 facts about Citizen Kane.


By the time he came to Hollywood, Orson Welles was regarded as one of the great young geniuses of his time. His work in the theater earned him the cover of TIME magazine by the age of 23, and the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds—arguably the first “mockumentary” ever made—caused such a national panic that he was forced to apologize for it. It was no surprise when Hollywood began seeking his talents, but what was surprising was just how much freedom he was given.

When George Schaefer, the head of RKO Pictures, was hoping to generate a creative shakeup at his studio, he signed a deal with Welles that granted the wunderkind direct access to Schaefer himself and, among other things, gave Welles final cut on his films. Because Welles was a first-time film director, the move generated immense controversy in Hollywood, particularly when Schaefer cut the salaries of RKO employees while still granting Welles creative freedom over his work.


When Welles was granted his ambitious RKO movie deal, his initial plan was to make an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness, featuring first-person camera techniques, elaborate sets, and Welles’ own narration. Though production got far enough that test footage was shot featuring miniature set designs, RKO ultimately shut the movie down because the budget grew too high. In searching for an alternate project, Welles happened upon a massive screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz called American. After several rewrites, this screenplay would become Citizen Kane.


In the end, both Mankiewicz and Welles would win an Academy Award for the screenplay for Citizen Kane, but it’s still not entirely clear how much work each man did on the final product. Welles once claimed that Mankiewicz was responsible for the first two drafts, while he had significant input on the third. A contract signed by Mankiewicz apparently stipulated that the studio was allowed to omit his name on the script, while a Screen Writers Guild rule at the time stated that a producer (in this case, Welles) could not be given a writing credit unless he wrote the script “entirely without the collaboration of any other writer.” In the end, the two parties agreed to share credit.


At the beginning of filming Citizen Kane, Welles was an acclaimed theater and radio director with no real experience in cinema. In an effort to learn the ropes of a new craft, Welles turned to one of the most acclaimed films of the day: John Ford’s iconic Western Stagecoach. He once claimed he watched the film “every night for a month” in an effort to dissect the craft behind its production, and when asked to name his cinematic influences, he once gave the following answer: "The old masters, by who I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."


Though he was not yet famous for the excesses that would make him notorious later in life, Welles nonetheless had some peculiar eating and drinking habits during the production of Citizen Kane. His habit of consuming more than 30 cups of coffee each day led him to succumb to caffeine poisoning. He switched to tea, believing that the time it took to make each cup would slow him down, but having an assistant make it for him meant that he drank so much his skin changed color. In addition, Welles would sometimes simply not eat for long stretches, then sit down to a meal that included “three large steaks with side items.”


Throughout the course of the film, Charles Foster Kane has to look, at various times, impossibly youthful and very, very old. Welles once recalled that, for the scenes of Kane’s early years, his face was “yanked up with fish skin” to give him a youthful look, even at 25, that’s “impossible in real life.” For the scenes of Kane’s later years, he turned to Maurice Seiderman, an aspiring (non-union) makeup artist who was, at the time, sweeping the floors in the RKO makeup department. Welles noticed that Seiderman was using his spare time experimenting with latex to create artificial face appliances and, impressed with his ingenuity, asking him to work on Citizen Kane. Latex face appliances are now common practice in movie makeup effects.


If any name can rival Welles’ in discussing the making of Citizen Kane, it is that of Gregg Toland, the iconic cinematographer who turned the film into an exercise in cinematic innovation. According to Welles, Toland actually approached him and volunteered to shoot the film. When Welles said “I don’t know anything about movies,” Toland replied: “That’s why I want to do it, because I think if you’re left alone as much as possible, we’re going to have a movie that looks different. I’m tired of working with people who know too much about it.”

So, the pair got to work, and Toland was given the freedom he so craved. He modified cameras and lenses to create the film’s famous “deep focus” shots. He worked with visual effects expert Linwood Dunn to create masterful composite shots (the scene in which Kane discovers Susan Alexander’s suicide attempt, for example, isn’t just one shot, but three shots stacked atop one another). He stretched muslin over the tops of sets to allow the ceilings to be visible while microphones could also be placed above the actors, and he and Welles famously chopped holes into the floors to allow for even lower camera angles. All of these elements combine to make Citizen Kane a master class in cinematography, and an example of every camera trick of the era finally combined into a single film. As Welles would later put it: “In this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do. So anything that I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.”


Welles’ commitment to his performance as Charles Foster Kane meant that he poured tremendous energy into the role, sometimes at the risk of his own wellbeing. During the scene in which Kane rampages through Susan’s room, smashing furniture and ripping things off the walls, he badly cut his left hand. Then, during the scene in which Kane confronts Boss Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) on a staircase, Welles fell and injured his ankle so badly that he was forced to reschedule certain scenes and direct the film from a wheelchair for several days.


Though he’d been granted incredible creative freedom to make the film, Welles still had to answer to studio executives who wanted the film to turn a profit, and was apparently worried they wouldn’t approve of the often innovative nature of his production. For the “News of the World” newsreel sequence, he even went so far as to claim the footage shot was just “tests,” so the RKO office wouldn’t worry about it.

When RKO executives actually did visit the production, Welles used his natural flair for showmanship to distract them. According to Seiderman, the crew was told during these occasions: “Don’t do anything. Smoke cigarettes and talk.” Meanwhile, Welles would perform card tricks for executives until they left.

“He would invite us over but he’d keep us outside the screening and then do tricks and stuff to amuse us,” George Schaefer’s then-assistant Reginald Armour recalled.


Though he had massive creative freedom on the film, Welles also still had a budget, and as a result certain creative shortcuts were used to reduce cost on Citizen Kane. In one instance, a scene between Kane and Susan that was originally intended to take place in an ornate Xanadu living room was instead shot in a redressed hallway. In another, the production got even more creative: For the scene in which Kane and his entourage visit the beach, the large birds flying in the background are actually a previously created shot of pterodactyls from either King Kong (1933) or Son of Kong (1933).


Because he had worked for many years with the Mercury Theatre Company (which he co-founded with John Houseman), it was Welles’ natural inclination to include his theatrical collaborators in Citizen Kane. Among the actors making their cinema debuts are Mercury players Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), and Ray Collins (Jim Gettys).


Even before its release, rumors swirled that Charles Foster Kane and his life story were based on the life of media baron William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful men in America at the time. Like Kane, Hearst built a massive California palace and stocked it with exotic animals. Like Hearst, Kane fell in love with a performer and became a sort of patron to her (in the film it’s Susan Alexander; in real life it was Marion Davies). One Kane line in particular—“You provide the prose poems; I’ll provide the war”—seemed to be directly lifted from a famous Hearst quote: “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.” There’s even a popular legend that the film’s inciting MacGuffin, “Rosebud,” was inspired by a pet name for a portion of Davies’, um, anatomy.

Though he denied the film was based on Hearst at the time, Welles would later say: “I thought we were very unfair to Marion Davies, because we had somebody very different in the place of Marion Davies, and it seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick, and does still strike me as being something of a dirty trick, what we did to her. And I anticipated the trouble from Hearst for that reason.” He would later effusively praise Davies in the foreword to her memoir.

Louella Parsons, a Hearst columnist and tremendously influential media figure at the time, requested a private screening of the film prior to its release. According to post-production sound engineer James G. Stewart, Parsons left, “outraged,” before the film even ended. (Her chauffeur, who stayed until the end, called it a “very good picture.”) Parsons then began demanding to speak to Schaefer, claiming that RKO Pictures would face “the most beautiful lawsuit in history” if the film was released. Editor Robert Wise was then asked to screen the film for the heads of all the other major studios of the day, as they all feared Hearst’s influence and worried that the film’s release would impact all of Hollywood if it incurred the full measure of his wrath.

Hearst’s vast newspaper empire banned all advertising of Citizen Kane, and numerous theater chains refused to show it, contributing to its eventual financial failure at the box office. Welles once claimed that the retribution grew so vicious that he was warned by a policeman that “an underage girl, undressed, and photographers” were waiting for him in his hotel room, so he simply abandoned the room and left town.


The film hinges on the word “Rosebud,” and on a group of reporters attempting to find out why it was Charles Foster Kane’s last word. It’s eventually revealed that “Rosebud” was written on a sled Kane owned as a child, symbolizing a sense of joy and innocence that he constantly worked for in adulthood but perhaps never gained. This plot device is among the most iconic in cinema history, and has been parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Family Guy. In 1982, one of the “Rosebud” sleds from the film was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. The buyer was director Steven Spielberg. Though some of the “Rosebud” sleds were burned during the Citizen Kane production as part of the final scene, it’s still unclear if Spielberg’s copy is the only one remaining.

Additional Sources:
The Complete Citizen Kane (1991)
The Making of Citizen Kane, by Robert L. Carringer

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.


No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.


Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.


The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.


Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.


David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.


In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.


Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”


The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.


More from mental floss studios