Campaigning For Kane --- Part One
Citizen Kane lost $160,000. Historians recall both the film and its star as having gotten a raw deal. Opinions differ as to how much grief Orson Welles brought upon himself. Controversy he invited did hobble the boxoffice. First-run bookings were lost as a result of RKO’s war with William Randolph Hearst as well as profits Kane might otherwise have earned. It was hard enough for this company to score hits even in the best of times. Welles might have had a smash had he dealt with MGM rather than RKO, but Metro would never have given untried talent such carte blanche, nor backed him in a showdown with Hearst. RKO president George Schaefer hungered for, and was willing to gamble on, prestige names that would help RKO grab a bigger market share. 1939’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame pointed the way with $3.1 million in worldwide rentals. Could Orson Welles deliver unique product RKO needed to compete with powerful majors like Paramount, Fox, and MGM? Welles promised something new in screen entertainment --- plus longer lines and runs in downtown palaces Schaefer coveted. Big companies owning said temples had little reason to court unpredictable talent like Welles, despite remarkable strides he’d made onstage and in radio. RKO’s production machinery was not so well oiled as these monoliths in control of all the best theatres. Orson Welles would team with a studio losing money on pictures that might have clicked with stronger distribution muscle --- Vigil In The Night, Swiss Family Robinson, Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Dance, Girl, Dance --- all handicapped coming out of RKO gates. Their sole money star was Ginger Rogers. She and bandleader Kay Kyser supplied most of the black ink on company ledgers. The 1940-41 product annual called for two Welles productions, the first of which would be John Citizen, USA, among those several preliminary titles for Citizen Kane. It should have been released early in 1941, but for sundry threats, legal and otherwise, made by Hearst once he found out the story was based largely on him. This was where RKO’s express toward greater prestige and profit jumped the track …
As Winter 1941 dragged into Spring, Citizen Kane missed scheduled opening dates and bestirred much speculation as to whether it would be shown at all. RKO was sufficiently intimidated by Hearst interests as to delay public exhibition, though ongoing press previews assured a kettle boiling as corporate heads dithered. Orson Welles suggested they show it in circus tents, and volunteered to take Citizen Kane on the road like an old-fashioned medicine show. He’d even buy the negative! That idea still appealed to him decades later when interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich. If they’d only sold it to me --- they would have gotten out from under, and I would have been independently wealthy for the rest of my life --- everybody would have been happy. At least Welles had a role model in Charlie Chaplin. He’d threatened to hire halls, if not tents, to show The Great Dictator when circuits refused to come to (his) terms the previous year. Was Welles just posturing here? The practical realities of trying to seat audiences in makeshift auditoria for gerryrigged movie presentations was alright if you were running 16mm for school groups, but well-intentioned filmmakers doing battle with theatre monopolies stood little chance playing first-run million dollar investments in venues with sawdust for floors. Samuel Goldwyn actually tried it a few years after Kane when he opened Up In Arms with wooden chairs and telegrams from independents applauding his Quixotic gesture, though audiences for that Reno, Nevada "premiere" still preferred the comfort of plush theatre seats. Welles finally went public and threatened to sue RKO unless they released Citizen Kane forthwith. Radio City Music Hall backed out of a prior agreement to host the premiere, necessitating a quick overhaul of an old two-a-day vaudeville house RKO had owned since the twenties. The Palace Theatre was dressed out in a wall of light, four stories high (shown here). A lavish front cost $26,000 to dress, while other advertising and ballyhoo expenses stood RKO $53,000 before the doors opened on May 1, 1941. For all the confidence on display at the Palace, RKO remained tentative as to playdates for Citizen Kane elsewhere. "A few test showings" was all they’d promise --- these would include Chicago (a lackluster engagement as Welles would later recall), Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington. They called it a roadshow, and surely Citizen Kane was that in terms of limited bookings and a long, hot summer in which to lose momentum before the belated general release set for September 5.
Citizen Kane topped an indifferent slate RKO identified as the First Five For 1941-42. Trade ads were colorful and replete with critical plaudits. Runner-ups on the schedule included Parachute Battalion, Father Takes A Wife (remembered, if at all, as Gloria Swanson’s pre-Sunset Boulevard attempt at a comeback), All That Money Can Buy (stylistically similar to Kane), and Lady Scarface. Block-booking obliged small and independent exhibitors to play all of these. Parachute Battalion (eventual profit --- $128,000) held far greater promise for showmen than Citizen Kane. It was close as they could get to the blockbuster everyone wanted, Warner’s Sergeant York, which would go into general release September 27. Kane was getting a black eye from theatremen hearing crickets and fielding patron complaints as it wound through small towns. Negative comment in the trades was virulent. You’d think Anna Sten was making movies again. There was a World Premiere At Popular Prices in Reading, Pa., complete with parade and baton twirlers --- fresh ad art sexed up Citizen Kane and assured customers they’d not pay the $2.00 asked of roadshow attendees. Pressbooks offered a revised campaign abandoning cartoonish ad art and de-emphasizing an uninspired tagline, It’s Terrific! New one-sheets at last suggested quality product, but they came much too late. Major circuits refused to play the film. Fox West Coast Theatres contracted for Citizen Kane, then opted not to exhibit it, effectively shutting out runs in areas they controlled. Welles had indeed underestimated the enemy he’d made in Hearst. That deluxe trailer for Citizen Kane was a production in itself, and much as it delights us today, chances are Welles' confection baffled viewers unfamiliar with the screen newcomer and whatever it was he was selling. RKO’s season was thus a sinking ship, and George Schaefer would go down with it. Father Takes A Wife lost $104,000. Excellent though it was, All That Money Can Buy (now known as The Devil and Daniel Webster) was down by $53,000. Citizen Kane took $990,000 in domestic rentals and $300,000 foreign. That loss of $160,000 was not so egregious in comparison with other RKO features bleeding as much every year, and surely it was dwarfed by the blow Welles would take with his next, The Magnificent Ambersons, a loser to the tune of $620,000, and one of the worst lickings RKO sustained that decade.
One critic described Citizen Kane as the picture of a man who is not really worth depicting, and here is the film’s weakness, but was it Kane he rejected, or the actor playing him? Welles was at the least unfamiliar as a screen presence. That voice was known well, but could it have become too overpowering (intimidating?) when combined with Welles’ looming physicality? He’s surely no leading man in the conventional sense. Rubber-necked masks and skull caps do not a romantic leading man make --- and what of those not ready for prime-time Mercury players? Joseph Cotten would break into romantic leads. The rest were at best character support, and few fulfilled the bright promise Welles foresaw in his Citizen Kane trailer. I could suggest revisionist casting that might have turned the commercial tide had the picture been made but months later. Consider the young man among reporters wandering amidst Xanadu treasures in the final sequence. Attentive listeners will identify that unmistakable Alan Ladd voice as it’s heard several times near the end (the still shown here finds him standing in clear view with other players). What if Ladd had played Kane, just after This Gun For Hire? Imagine following the sensation of his breakout role in that Paramount thriller with Alan Ladd as Charles Foster Kane! Welles would have had an unqualified hit and juice enough to stay on and direct no telling how many more RKO projects. At the very least, Welles and Mankiewicz might have rewritten Citizen Kane to accommodate a shared lead with Ladd. Consider this for instance --- Two-fisted enforcer (Ladd) for Big Jim (more sinned against than sinning) Gettys goes after C.F. Kane (Welles), but falls in love with Emily (Ruth Warrick) just as he’s closing in on that love nest his quarry shares with "singer" Susan Alexander. For Emily’s sake, Ladd lets Kane off with a warning, exacts his promise to lay off Gettys and stay out of politics, then decamps with Emily, who’s decided she prefers this bantam with the heart her venal husband lacks. Think they’d have bought that in 1941?