Citizen Kane's Borrowings: techniques attributed to "Citizen Kane" which appeared in earlier films

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Monday, March 09, 1998 9:25 PM

Most of us know the esteemed position accorded "Citizen Kane" in film-history books. Arthur Knight's well-regarded 1957 book "The Liveliest Art" accords it space and praise. David A. Cook's "A History of Narrative Film" (Norton, 1981) gives "Citizen Kane" a full section (comprising of three of the four sections within a one of the book's seventeen chapters). A Prentiss-Hall textbook, "Understanding Movies" (Fifth Edition, 1990) devotes the final chapter to it, calling it "Synthesis," and using the film to deal with the topics of the previous ten chapters.

Pauline Kael wrote a "New Yorker" essay subsequently published in book form in which she discusses some of the earlier films to use techniques which others have attributed to "Kane." Some other such writers have not been cautious about acknowledging earlier films which have a better claim to originating "Welles's" techniques.

Mack Twamley and Vincent (vrv1@ix.netcom.com) recently posted in rec.arts.movies.past-films about "Citizen Kane" using footage from RKO's earlier "King Kong" as background. (messages
<6ds0k2$oih$1@usenet11.supernews.com> and
<3501739a.3102429@NNTP.ix.netcom.com>) Footage, though, is not the only thing in "Citizen Kane" to have been used earlier. For all the lavish praise heaped upon "Citizen Kane" for its originality, there are too many attributions to it that "scholars" have made that the film doesn't deserve.

Herein is my list of techniques employed in "Citizen Kane" which saw earlier use in films made by directors other than Welles.

Knight would write that, "Of [Welles's first] two films, 'Kane' has received the greater attention, … partly because of its unique four-part story construction… ." Yet multiple flashbacks and storytellers were to be found in: "The Power and the Glory" (1933). Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay about the rise of a railroad tycoon from obscure origins, opening with discussion of his death, then having two characters (one of whom had known him for many decades) relate in flashback the events of the man's life; when the film returns to the present, we hear the two narrator's opposing evaluations of the protagonist's moral character. (Sturges reportedly opened his written-directed "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) with a film-within-a-film revealed to having been shown in a projection room, so as to copy from Welles after Welles had copied from him.)

Fake newspaper headline merely an alternative: "You Only Live Once" (1937). In "Kane," we see a newspaper headline reading "Kane Governor" before we discover this is merely a mock-up in a newspaper office; subsequently, the Enquirer's personnel opt to print instead "Fraud at Polls." In "You Only Live Once," after the fate of Henry Fonda' character has been put in the hands of a jury, we see a headline reading "Taylor Freed in Massacre!," then one reading "Taylor Jury Deadlocked!" As in "Kane" four years later, a newspaper editor makes a selection, and it is for the third mock-up: "Taylor Guilty!"

Opening/closing on a mansion, in fact a matte, with smoke: "Rebecca" (1940)

Fake newsreel that is not revealed to be a film-within-a-film until its length has been run, and thus can be mistaken by the audience to not be part of the feature film: "The Bellamy Trial" (1929) with Leatrice Joy and Betty Bronson. Alexander Walker's "The Shattered Silents" describes film as "one long courtroom scene punctuated by flashbacks… . It opened without title or cast credits: simply a newsreel-type prologue of documentary impact leading up to the court-house and the start of the trial, a device calculated to gain authority from the public's familiarity with the new sound newsreels." (Oddly enough, although M-G-M distributed this film, it had been produced by the Hearst News Service.) As "Kane" viewers should know, "Kane" lacks opening cast and credits listings, although the film begins with a studio logo, a "Mercury" title, and a main title. Given that the main title and the fake newsreel are separated by the impressionistic death sequence, audience members of 1941 might not have been settled into the feature film before being hit with the title of "News on the March."

A marriage disravels in a shot of a meal being consumed at a table with a large gulf separating the spouses: "Rebecca" (1940). (The 1940 film does not have "Kane"'s quick cutaways from one year to another, but the latter technique does have predecessors, to be listed by me later.)

Shots are framed to include ceilings: many Hitchcock British films, several lesser-known American 1930s features.

Lengthy shots: "Rebecca" (1940), "Shop Around the Corner" (1940).

Expressionist photography to make scary a shot of a bald man: "Mad Love" (1936, photographed by "Kane" cinematographer Gregg Toland)

Deep focus: "Working Girls" (1931), "Rebecca" (1940), "Dead End" (1937, another Toland work)

Moving shot that "wipes" in a miniature or distant set: "King Kong" (1933), "Algiers" (1938). It is often reported that in "Kane," the catwalk of the opera house where Susan Alexander performs, was not physically connected to the stage, and neither of them were in reality linked to the intervening ropes, although all three "elements" were optically combined to make one shot. In "Kong," the exterior shot of the theater where Kong will be unveiled is made up partially of newsreel footage shot at the premiere of "City Lights." In "Algiers," the final shot begins with Charles Boyer and Joseph Calleia on a dock, then pans up to what they were watching: a ship leaving; that ship was optically added to "Algiers" by copying it from the final shot from "Pepe Le Moko," the film of which "Algiers" is a remake.

Blonde second wife shown lonely within large rooms: "Rebecca" (1940). (I credit Rudy Belmer's laserdisc commentary track for "Rebecca" for pointing out the "Rebecca"/"Kane" similarities cited here.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Welles's use of sound has drawn attention, not only for how he used it in "Citizen Kane," but also in his next film, "The Magnificent Ambersons." The following passage, from Knight's "The Liveliest Art," is typical:

"In radio Welles had developed a special montage technique using a crescendo of voices, each saying a sentence or sometimes merely a fragment of a sentence. This he carried over into film, photographing the various speakers in close-up against a blank background. Spliced together in quick succession, the shots gave the impression of a whole town talking--and, equally important, what the town was talking about. Welles even altered traditional dialogue techniques to create a more vivid, more realistic feeling in his scenes. It has long been a stage--and now a movie--convention to permit one character to complete a speech before the next begins to reply. Actual conversations of course, rarely progress in this fashion. One person speaks and then, often before he has finished the sentence, the listener interrupts with his own opinion. In a roomful of people, no one dreams of remaining silent until one speaker has completed his remarks. Numerous conversations take place simultaneously, overlapping one another, even drowning out one another. Welles, after seeking to reproduce this effect in radio, found it even more suitable for films, where the source of the words is always visible. He had toyed with it a bit in 'Citizen Kane,' as in the quick succession of breakfast quarrels that signal the growing estrangement between Kane and his wife… ."

But there were predecessors:

Cutting mid-line to have another character finish the line, as if everyone is thinking and talking about the same thing: "The Half- Naked Truth" (1932), which starred Lee Tracy and Lupe Velez, although the scene in question was of one-scene players.

Cutting mid-line to have another countryman finish the line: "Penn of Pennsylvania" (U.S. title: "Courageous Mr. Penn") (British 1941).

Overlapping dialogue: "Unaccustomed As We Are" (Laurel & Hardy short, 1929) and its remake, "Blockheads" (1938); "The Front Page" (1931) and its remake, "His Girl Friday" (1940).

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Knight praised in "The Magnificent Ambersons" "…the long carriage ride through the town's main street, the camera catching in the polished windows the reflection of buildings and people on the other side of the street to create an extraordinary sense of the three-dimensional reality of the town itself."

Yet the technique in "Magnificent Ambersons" had predecessors:

Shiny windows reveal other side of street: "Four Sons" (1928) and especially "Riley the Cop" (1928), both by John Ford. (It should be recalled that Welles would state that he learned film technique from seeing forty viewings of Ford's "Stagecoach.")

--

David Hayes

 

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