Citizen Kane --- In and Out Of The Warehouse
Following its general release during the 1941-42 season, Citizen Kane went into hibernation that would last nearly fifteen years. While Orson Welles struggled to resurrect a Hollywood career, exhibitors with bitter memories of Kane in first-run shunned it like a plague. Despite maintaining one of the industry’s heaviest reissue schedules, RKO couldn’t be bothered with this one. European audiences discovered Citizen Kane after the war, but hosannas published in foreign language publications were not enough to revive interest stateside. Further impediments arose when nitrate-based film was phased out in favor of safety stock. This had been a major safety issue largely ignored during interims between disastrous booth fires wherein projectionists sometimes lost their lives. An economic alternative was needed, and by the late forties, industry heads had one. Most were converting by 1950. Within a few years, nitrate was out, along with thousands of features and shorts previously printed on the unstable stock. Extant prints of Citizen Kane would be cleared from RKO exchanges along with the rest. 35mm prints of old titles were available in the event of a (safety-based) reissue, but who needed the expense of new prints where the feature wasn't wanted? Proven hits naturally lent themselves better to grindhouse situations on the lookout for cheap program filler. Cat People showed $65,000 profits for a 1952 revival, over and above $183,000 it garnered in black ink during the original release ten years earlier. Cost-conscious RKO used low-grade newsreel stock to generate 35mm safeties for these fifties engagements, compromising visual splendors otherwise to be had in Val Lewton’s horror series and Astaire/Rogers musicals. It would be 1956 before Citizen Kane was back on release schedules, just in time for RKO to take its place as exhibition’s supreme pariah …
December 1955 saw an announcement that RKO’s film library would be sold to television. Shock waves went through exhibition corridors, but it wasn't an altogether unexpected move. Studios had been hinting possibilities along this line for several years. Howard Hughes sold the caboodle (742 features) to General Teleradio, who quickly firmed a deal with the C&C Super Corporation. Paying $15.2 million for rights, C&C soon had 75% of existing television sets within range of RKO movies, and broadcasts began as of March 1, 1956. Prints were even muddier than ones RKO generated for theatres, South American labs having been commissioned to deliver thousands of them in 16mm at bulk rates. As for the movies themselves, industry observers noted elderly specimens of the same poor quality that most stations want to retire among the 741 offerings, many dating back to early days of sound. C&C sweetened the deal by licensing the group in perpetuity. Member stations could run RKO forevermore, with no limit as to the number of airings. After fifty years, I wonder how many present-day managements are even aware of that ongoing privilege? A number of stations could be running Citizen Kane right now, as those 1956 contracts would likely remain in effect, despite Warner’s eventual purchase of the library (there was a Midwest channel that dumped their 16mm prints nine years ago, and titles I ended up with included note cards with a record of broadcasts over the years. The Body Snatcher print had run nineteen times between 12-30-58 and 1-6-98). Exhibitors in 1956 felt betrayed by RKO and said so loudly in print, stopping just short of a boycott against the company’s product. A handful of reissues nevertheless emerged that year. Showmen asked why they should book RKO product that might show up on free television the very night of their engagement. C&C included a rider with TV contracts in which listed titles were withheld from the initial group sold, including ones designated for 1956 theatrical release --- King Kong, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and Citizen Kane, among others. New campaigns were prepared for these, RKO reasoning perhaps that fresh posters might lessen hostility among theatremen. Availability for TV was promised no sooner than July 31, 1956 --- no later than December 22, 1957, a pretty indefinite window for exhibitors already taking grief from patrons asked to pay for shows they’d just seen at home. Citizen Kane was back in exhibition news when Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey, Jr., former operators of Harvard’s Brattle Theatre, acquired the 55th Street Playhouse in New York and booked Kane there for an "exclusive" revival in February 1956. The renovated art house was the setting for a benefit performance of the 1941 release, with proceeds going to the Film Preservation Fund of The Museum Of Modern Art. Their effort raised $500 for MOMA and favorable publicity for newly viable Kane in theatres. RKO announced a limited art-house re-release for March. Engagements would be carefully selected, said vice-president in charge of worldwide distribution Walter Branson. We are satisfied that there is public acceptance of this unusual picture in the proper theatres, and we feel that by continued careful handling on a very selective basis, appreciative revenue can be realized by exhibitors. Would theatres other than art-houses be considered? Drawing power, location, or policy would determine that, said the RKO executive. One mainstream house did break records with Citizen Kane in 1957 by preceding its run with four days of radio saturation and commercial copy emphasizing the Hearst/Kane link (Hearst had died in 1951). The Casa Linda in Dallas was rewarded with triple the theatre’s best receipts since opening. As with any attraction, exploitation was everything.
RKO closed its exchanges in 1957. Remaining prints went to independents. These small depots scrounged for whatever coin was left in pictures now heavily saturated on television. RKO titles continued playing kid shows and grind schedules well into the sixties. My examination of theatre ads for the Winston-Salem/Greensboro territory found many turning up years after late night TV would have presumably wrung them dry. Mighty Joe Young was an evergreen for triple features at Greensboro’s National Theatre. I found three bookings for it there in 1964 –65. Winston-Salem’s Carolina Theatre regaled youngsters with rock and roll on stage and Gunga Din on screen in 1965. WBTV’s horror host Dr. Evil popped in at the Lincoln a few blocks down and I Walked With A Zombie accompanied his live show. All these would have been booked for no more than fifteen to twenty dollars flat. The situation overall was much the same as it had been ten years earlier. Action and monsters were what sold. Citizen Kane was for art houses and television. With its running time of 119 minutes, Kane came in for particularly brutal treatment by station editors. Two-hour slots were as much time as movies generally got for daytime or early evening telecasts. Imagine whittling twenty or so minutes out of Citizen Kane for a Saturday afternoon run. The opening newsreel was usually first to go. It’s self-contained and easily snipped. The mutilation attendant upon Citizen Kane’s placement in a ninety-minute time frame can only be imagined, yet this is how many viewers saw the film between 1956 and the nineties. Its placement on various ten-best lists assured pride of place among revival house booking sheets, but for distributors, it was hardly worth shipping a 35mm print. Manhattan repertories were paying just fifty dollars flat to play Citizen Kane for three days in 1965. Rentals earned have barely covered the cost of handling, said The New York Times. The tide turned in March 1966 when Janus Films acquired theatrical rights for Citizen Kane (and King Kong) from RKO General, Inc. Withdrawing the two from theatres, Janus partner Saul J. Turell promised their reappearance will be backed by a promotion campaign aimed at the growing audience of what the trade calls film buffs. A fresh campaign might obtain higher prices from exhibitors as well. The existence of this audience is reflected by six theatres devoted almost exclusively to the showing of film classics, as well as in the proliferation of university courses and film societies, said Turell. Citizen Kane would now command $175 against fifty-percent of all gross receipts, whichever was higher. Janus control did not extend to free showings. These were still handled by Films, Inc., the 16mm distributor supplying non-theatrical venues. Their 1971 Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogue labeled Citizen Kane a "special", with prices on a sliding scale. $50 to $100 for schools and convents, $65 to $250 for colleges, universities, museums, and film societies (depending on audience size). Thanks to these, Citizen Kane would at last get back some of its lost prestige.
Digital magic has spoiled twenty-first century Kane watchers. For a cold splash of what patrons settled for three decades (plus) ago, check out grisly frame blow-ups Pauline Kael offered in her groundbreaking (and controversial) The Citizen Kane Book in 1971. Revisionist as to text, her illustrations only emphasized the film’s appalling (and ongoing) state of preservation. Still years away from restoration efforts and DVD (near) perfection, audiences for Kane took what they could get, and often what they got were prints murky as those images Kael relied upon for her book. The fact we can now enjoy home theatre presentations far superior to anything seventies patrons had in public spaces (on discs we can own as well) is something none of us should take for granted. Of course, it was video that would once again banish Citizen Kane from theatres. Why drive across town and pay an admission when you could stay home and watch your Nostalgia Merchant VHS tape (even if it was poorly mastered from 16mm)? These began appearing in the late seventies. As had been the case in 1956 with television, RKO’s library would be among those first available to collectors. Having succeeded to theatrical rights in Citizen Kane, Paramount tried another reissue in May of 1991. Their total gross was a rewarding $1.585 million, unusually good for any library title in our age of video. Projection TV has largely overtaken film as the format of choice for institutions and groups lacking equipment and resources to book 35mm. Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. licenses titles for most of the film companies. Virtually all the other rental houses have gone by the wayside. I wonder if Swank even offers Citizen Kane on 16mm anymore, never mind condition of the print in the event they do. Television runs of Kane are mostly limited to TCM, a good thing as they’re always complete, uninterrupted, and look wonderful --- not so good, however, if your cable service doesn’t offer TCM, or you don’t have cable at all. Minimal effort can put us all by way of an excellent DVD. Incredible you can have something this good starting at $9.81 used on Amazon. Those days of watching it chopped in syndication, riding subways to distant art houses, pursuing worn 16mm costing hundreds of dollars --- all seem remote indeed. Orson Welles lived long enough to see the beginning of this transition. Would he be pleased by its culmination?