If you’re a movie buff, you’ve seen Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ epic take on success and scandal that lampooned news tycoon William Randolph Hearst and went down in history as one of the greatest movies of all time. But even the biggest movie nerds never knew just how hard Hearst fought to keep the movie off screens—until now. As Dalya Alberge reports for the Guardian, newly revealed memos show that Hearst engaged in a concerted effort to take down Welles and his acclaimed film.
Spoiler alert: Much of Citizen Kane, which follows the rags-to-riches story of egotistical newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane’s rise to hollow fame, is thought to be based on Hearst. In the 1930s, anyone who saw the movie’s portrayal of Kane’s marriage to a mediocre opera starlet would have drawn the connection to Hearst’s own maudlin affair with Marion Davies, a second-rate actress he turned into a star. Though Welles said that the film “[was not] based on the life of Mr. Hearst or anyone else,” it is widely thought that the movie was based on the journalism tycoon’s life.
The story used to go that when famous movie gossip columnist and Hearst employee Hedda Hopper saw the film, she immediately told Hearst the portrait of him it painted was scathing and easily recognizable. Hearst’s minions then banned mentions of the movie from his papers and worked to keep Welles, the film's prodigy director/writer/lead actor, down without much involvement from their boss.
But that story breaks down thanks to memos uncovered by Harlan Lebo while working on a book about Kane. In his new book, reports Alberge, Lebo cites memos that contradict the hands-off picture of Hearst once painted by historians. They show that not only did Hearst know about the film before Parsons and Hopper tipped him off, but that he fought hard to discredit Welles at every turn.
The plot was “much more complicated and dark than has been recognized before,” Lebo told Alberge—so dark that it involved a Communist witch hunt against Welles. Shortly before the opening of Citizen Kane, the FBI opened a file on Welles that contains a list of his associations that were supposedly “Communist in character,” from his involvement in the League of American Writers to his support of the Foster Parents’ Plan for War Children, a food relief organization for hungry kids whose lives were disrupted by war. A memo found by Lebo shows that Hearst’s Washington friends supported the investigation.
Did Hearst’s conspiracy work? Kind of. Thanks to the continuous bad press, the refusal of major chains to carry the movie and one of the greatest Oscar snubs of all time, Citizen Kane lost money at the box office and Welles’ career never reached the heights his first film promised. He had the last laugh, though: Today, his movie is considered a masterpiece—one that changed filmmaking and defines how historians think of Hearst’s own checkered legacy to this day.