William Randolph Hearst’s Campaign to Suppress Citizen Kane
How Orson Welles underestimated the notorious media mogul.
It was a clash of the titans. William Randolph Hearst, the lord and ruler of San Simeon. And Orson Welles, the ambitious young man with a golden touch, who set out to dethrone him. It was a fight from which neither man ever fully recovered.
Long before Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was released in 1941, there was a buzz about the movie and the "boy genius" who made it. At a preview screening, nearly everyone present realized that they had seen a work of brilliance—except Hedda Hopper, the leading gossip columnist of the day. She hated the movie, calling it "a vicious and irresponsible attack on a great man."
Citizen Kane was a brutal portrait of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst learned through Hopper of Welles' film, he set out to protect his reputation by shutting the film down. Hollywood executives, led by Louis B. Mayer, rallied around Hearst, attempting to buy Citizen Kane in order to burn the negative. At the same time, Hearst's defenders moved to intimidate exhibitors into refusing to show the movie. Threats of blackmail, smears in the newspapers, and FBI investigations were used in the effort.
Hearst's campaign was largely successful. It would be nearly a quarter-century before Citizen Kane was revived--before Welles would gain popular recognition for having created one of cinema's great masterpieces.
"Hearst and Welles were proud, gifted, and destructive—geniuses each in his way," says producer Thomas Lennon. "The fight that ruined them both was thoroughly in character with how they'd lived their lives."
Orson Welles was just twenty-four when he took aim at William Randolph Hearst. The brash upstart was well on his way to claiming Hollywood as his own. A few years earlier, his infamous radio broadcast, War of the Worlds, had terrified listeners and won him the sweetest contract Hollywood had ever seen. With a reputation as a gifted radio and theater director, Welles' arrogance was founded on a track record of success and a lifetime of encouragement.
"Everybody told me from the moment I could hear that I was absolutely marvelous," Welles once told an interviewer.
Hearst was a 76-year-old newspaper magnate whose daring and single-mindedness had made him a publishing legend. The son of a wealthy mine owner, he too had been raised to believe he could have everything. He built his empire selling newspapers filled with entertaining stories that were often scandalous and, occasionally, pure fiction.
"We had a crime story that was going to be featured in a 96-point headline on page one," remembers Vern Whaley, an editor for Hearst's Herald-Examiner. "When I found the address that was in the story, that address was a vacant lot. So I hollered over at the rewrite desk, I said, 'You got the wrong address in this story. This is a vacant lot.' The copy chief that night was a guy named Vic Barnes. And he says, 'Sit down, Vern.' He says, 'The whole story's a fake.'"
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., remembers his father asking Hearst why he preferred concentrating on newspapers, with their limited, regional appeal, rather than spending more energy on motion pictures and their worldwide audience. Fairbanks recalls Hearst's reply: "I thought of it, but I decided against it. Because you can crush a man with journalism, and you can't with motion pictures."
Hearst began his empire with one small newspaper in San Francisco, then expanded to New York where, with flair and daring, he created the top selling of the city's fourteen newspapers. But he always wanted more, and eventually he controlled the first nationwide chain--with papers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta. Soon, an estimated one in five Americans was reading a Hearst paper every week.
Hearst's urge to acquire extended to art objects, mansions, and women. He owned eight homes, each stocked with priceless antiques and works of art, but spent most of his time in his California castle. Called San Simeon, the estate was on a piece of property nearly half the size of Rhode Island. George Bernard Shaw commented, "San Simeon was the place God would have built—if he had the money." Hearst's companion was Marion Davies, a showgirl whom he loved and propelled into Hollywood movies. Together they entertained Hollywood's biggest, best, and brightest; San Simeon became a social mecca for the stars.
Marion Davies was widely liked in Hollywood: straightforward, full of humor and charm. The battle over Citizen Kane was in large part a fight over her honor: It was said that Welles's treatment of Davies riled Hearst more than any other aspect of the film. Even Welles agreed that Susan Alexander, the Davies character, was unfair:
"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."
Never one to shy away from trouble, Welles built his career on a streak of controversial productions--the more upset and swirl he could create, the better. His production of Macbeth was set in Haiti and employed an all-black cast...his Julius Caesar was reimagined as a contemporary drama about facism...and finally, his radio staging of War of the Worlds, about Martians invading Earth, caused so much terror and uproar it might have ended his career. But his talent and ferocious energy seemed to lift him above the fray, delivering him unscathed to his next challenge. When he graced the cover of Time magazine, he was only twenty-three years old.
Welles was the talk of Hollywood when he arrived. His contract demanded two films, but Welles demanded they be revolutionary. He cast about for months for a project, presenting two ideas to the studio, neither of which went into production. With the pressure mounting, Welles was desperate. "He did a lot of drinking," says Bill Alland, Welles' longtime associate. "He did a lot of chasing around. But he also did a lot of work." When Herman Mankiewicz, a Hollywood writer and friend of Welles who had been a guest at San Simeon, proposed the story of Hearst, Welles seized on the idea as his last best chance.
Producer John Houseman, who worked with Mankiewicz on the Citizen Kane script, recalls the creation and evolution of Charles Foster Kane, the character modeled on Hearst, which Welles himself would play. "We were creating a vehicle suited to a man who, at twenty-four, was only slightly less fabulous than the hero he would be portraying. And the deeper we penetrated into the heart of Charles Foster Kane, the closer we seemed to come to the identity of Orson Welles."
But in the course of making Citizen Kane, Welles' huge ego and his youth would blind him to the extent of Hearst's power and reach; he tragically underestimated Hearst's ability to counterattack.
Indeed, Welles proved no match for the old man. Hearst threatened to expose long-buried Hollywood scandals his newspapers had suppressed at the request of the studios. His papers used Welles' private life against him, making blunt references to communism and questioning Welles' willingness to fight for his country. Major theater chains refused to carry Citizen Kane. Hearst's campaign to discredit Welles was ruthless, skillful, and much aided by Welles himself, who had never bothered to hide his contempt for Hollywood. When Welles' name and his film were mentioned at the 1942 Academy Awards, they were booed. Nominated for nine awards, Citizen Kane lost in every category except one. (Welles shared the award for best screenplay with Herman Mankiewicz.) After the Academy's repudiation of Citizen Kane, RKO quietly retired the film to its vault.