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WGBH Boston Video presents

The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)

"When I was young I would paint and people would say 'We have never seen anything like it before.' I would play and people would say they had never heard anything like it before. There seemd to me no limit to what I could do."- Orson Welles

Stars: Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst
Other Stars: Marion Davies, John Housman
Director: Thomas Lennon, Michael Epstein

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:52m:24s
Release Date: 2000-11-14
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+CC+ D-


DVD Review

The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a fine piece of documentary work that culls together new and old interview footage, headlines, documents, photos and clips from the greatest movie of all time, to tell the story of two very similar, bullish men and how their extravagant, successful lives met at a crossroads, ultimately leading to the ruin of both.

One can be fairly sure that anyone who went to film school or at least took a film appreciation class to get some easy high school or college credit were forced to watch Citizen Kane. Considered by many—including this reviewer—as the greatest film of all time, Kane played to smaller audiences in 1940 than it did in classes across the world in every year since. How did the film that was nominated for 6 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, play in one RKO owned theater in New York City?

This is the story of two boy geniuses, intent beyond most to pursue their dreams to fruition, to push common conventions past their limits. These were men with insatiable appetites that could no more be curbed than their self-belief cooled. This is the classic story of the irrepressible force (Orson Welles) versus the immovable object (Hearst).

Hearst, the son of one of the richest men in the west, decided his calling lay not in Harvard, nor his father's mines or on his ranch, but with a small unsuccessful San Francisco newspaper his father owned. Hearst, of whom his father said: "The one thing I noticed about my son is if he wants cake, he wants it now. And most of the time he gets that cake," soon became the owner of the greatest nationwide chain of newspapers, a feat not likely to occur again in our lifetime. TV did not exist, and radio was still in its infancy. The power that Hearst wielded came as no surprise to him. When his reporter telegraphed from Cuba asking to come home from a war that didn't exist, Hearst told him, "You provide the pictures and I'll provide the war."

Welles too came from a well-to-do background: his father was an accomplished inventor and his mother a concert pianist. Unfortunately both died before he was fifteen. Welles was labeled a genius at the age of three, and was reported to have learned magic at age five from Harry Houdini. But like Houdini, no one can really be sure whether Welles had been conjuring the many tales of his childhood. That he was a cartoonist and poet by the age of 10 is known, but no one is really sure if he truly learned the classics in the palace of the Maharaji or if he did bullfight in Spain as he'd said. What we do know is that this young man was directing plays in Harlem at the age of 20, and turning the burgeoning medium of radio on its ear by the time he was 24. Forget Steven Spielberg—he was 28 when they handed him the reins of his first feature film. Not only was Welles just 25: they gave him the most lucrative contract at the time in Hollywood history—and the kind of artistic freedom not even his contemporaries (like DeMille) could muster.

His "Negro" Macbeth, Mercury Theater's Julius Caesar, and infamous radio program War of the Worlds a huge success, Welles packed his bags for L.A. to conquer the next medium: film. He thrived on controversy, and had always come out the better for it. It may have been hubris that lead him to choose William Randolph Hearst's life as the subject of his first film, but Welles, who had been branded a Communist threat by the FBI, would live and die by the sword.

Hearst, who won and served two terms in Congress (despite having, to this day, the worst attendance record ever), had aspirations for the presidency, and was disappointed that he could not buy it. Hearst's thirst for power and inability to gain it lead to his nickname, "William Also-Randolph Hearst." It was much of this aspect that Welles' used to foster the character of Kane.

When you place the bullish, often reckless way these two men went at the world and their appetites, you begin to understand just how similar that the two adversaries truly were. It is also more evident having seen this documentary that the character of Charles Foster Kane was as much if not more the portrait of Orson Welles, amazingly foretelling with eerie accuracy the latter years of his life. Here was a man who, with genius and good intentions, took his craft to the top of mountain, then fell prey to his own pride and lost everything.

Hearst had little problem making up the news if it suited him, and gave less thought to blackballing any man who even looked at him the wrong way. How did Welles think Hearst would react when he became aware of the content of Citizen Kane? Hearst simply told the then Hollywood-owned movie theaters, "If you run this film we will not take advertising for your other films, and will not run any reviews." Certain death for the business - let alone one man's career.

(Note: I was momentarily frightened stiff at the beginning of the program when a 10 second spot for Scot's Lawn Fertilizer came on that they had left all the commercials in! This did not turn out to be the case. Scot's sponsored the program and were repaid via this 10 second spot on the disc, according to WGBH Boston Video. If you think of it as something similar to a production company's logo, it lessens the impact of a commercial on DVD! I am calm. I am peaceful... )

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Considering the source of this episode, I'd have to say the transfer holds its own pretty well. There are many older clips fully speckled, ripped and dirty, but the interview segments shot for the show (not the ones with Welles) are very crisp with only minor aliasing and dot crawl. There are many older clips that are in suprisinly good shape. Black levels are on line, and shadow delineation is very good. An above average transfer of a TV show by a small company.

Image Transfer Grade: C

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: There are no bells and whistles on this yeoman's transfer; a dialogue-heavy track, anchored to the center channel. Dialogue is clear and mostly free of hiss. It fills the purpose.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 11 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Weblink to The Battle Over Citizen Kane website
  2. Info on other WGBH Boston Video DVDs (Everest: The Death Zone, The Miracle of Life, Africans in America and To the Moon)
  3. Information on how to request a WGBH Boston Video catalog
Extras Review: Outside Welles' filmography, there is not much in the way of supplemental material to support the title of "Collector's Edition," something I would suggest should be removed if there are to be any further printings. Chaptering is weak for a near two-hour show.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

If you think I was long winded and like a trailer told the whole story without remorse, you MUST see this documentary. I really have only scratched the surface. If for no other reason, you must see this to learn what "Rosebud" actually means! I highly recommend this disc, and wait with baited breath for the release of the newly restored Citizen Kane to make it onto DVD... so that, even posthumously, Welles will be able to add to his list of media conquered.

Robert Mandel 2000-11-17