Though based on a public figure who became the puppeteer of the New York media and a monetarily successful giant, Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) is beyond the concept of a supposedly heartless entrepreneur tycoon. From the surface, it is, indeed, a fancy, film à clef picture that illustrates the life of a man who was influential in all sectors of mainstream society. However, it’s really the tiny fragments of the film that the watcher must pay close attention to – the sentiments of the film and the understandings of the protagonist’s final utterances: “Rosebud”.
Separated from his mother before his teens, Charles Foster Kane led a life which disregarded the true feel of family surroundings. He was pretty much raised by a business man – but not in a filial manner. The simplicities of his life divided into two categories; the typical non-materialistic, innocent childhood and the other, a hierarchy lifestyle, the assuring one that promised prosperity. But the term “prosperity” is perhaps far too broad to comprehend. One thing is for certain; it is not justified to say that being made of 60 million dollars promises prosperity, which is made clear in Welles’ masterpiece. “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” Kane stated in a rather informal letter to his new guardian Mr Thatcher.
This is where it began for the twenty-five year-old. He was to take over the New York Inquirer, a petty equivalent of your failing local newspaper. He applied a great deal of principle to the new style, forming his (soon to be fake) “Declaration of Principles.” Sociologically, this was a crucial aspect of Kane’s life. This was a time when he operated his primary principles and values in business, ignorant to the fact that society was to shatter his early childhood socialisation. Promising the people the honest truth in New York’s fastest-growing publication, Kane’s sentiments came before his power. Seeing the success rate of his media influence, which made him into a single-entity conglomerate, subconsciously began to diffuse into his sentimental lifestyle. The material world slyly intoxicated his values which were dismantled by unrighteous actions; brainwashing society on “what [he] [told] them to think”. This two-way system is a timeless quibble in society. Both society and Kane play an equal part in this travesty.
It was society who moulded Charles Foster Kane into being the voice of New York, rather than allowing him a voice of his own. In a sense, he was New York. We can alter our gut-level principles when we acknowledge the influence we have on people and society. Hence, we can manipulate society, which is what Charles Foster Kane did. However, there is a flaw to shaping the world the way one wants it. By altering our sentiments and priorities, society around us changes. One civilian after another, leading to a plasticised population, which again, is what Kane achieved. He became his own enemy, trying to rid the fake from New York City, which was soon to be Kane himself.
Though dabbling heavily in his materialistic lifestyle, from both a journalistic and personal standpoint; he was living the fool’s paradise. Aside from the personal aspects, preserving the journalistic ethos is imperative for every writer’s sanity. Being true to oneself is being true to your readers. With that in mind, was Kane’s “Declaration of Principles” a success? Not quite.
At this stage, where does Kane’s last word “Rosebud” lie? It’s not as black and white as that. Because of its symbolism, it begs the studious to understand more of the businessman’s life. Take for example, his stately palace Xanadu. This isn’t just a humungous building, clustered with artefacts and meaningless objects; it’s a metaphor for Kane’s life. There are two angles the observer can deduct. One of them is the fact that the palace is incomplete,but at the same time smothered with millions of dollars’ worth of material items. From that we can reflect on Kane’s life as emotionally unsatisfactory, yet materialistically triumphant. The other angle is Welles’ interpretation; that the giant dwelling resembles his diminished, unsocial relationship with the outside world.
This thought links quite aptly with his society-inspired, fabricated public image. By being fooled into thinking that he wholly governed society, his obsessive addiction to a materialistic way of living eventually lead him into being a social outcast. People, in society, have boundaries. Charles Foster Kane didn’t. Even though propulsive and influential characters can induce large groups, each and every individual and group has a social boundary, be it physical or sentimental. In Kane’s situation, in society’s eyes, he transitioned from being a leader-like icon to a simple, public figure. In a material world, which Kane aggressively lead, leaders come and go. Public figures don’t. But society has a multitude of them, which resulted in Kane becoming nothing significant anymore.
Like a viewer who can only realise this upon reflection of his Kane’s life, he, too, was only to notice his sentimental insufficiencies around the time Susan Alexander Kane (his last wife) abandoned him. “Rosebud” is definitely not encircled around Susan’s leave, but a major aspect lies in the background of their flawed relationship. Kane forcing her into a money-orientated dimension, where he indoctrinated his ideologies upon her, she was the first to come to the realisation that she was living a plastic reality, like he. Bearing in mind that he trailed a life of miniscule, intimate female presence since being with his mother, Kane’s perception of pleasing women (jewellery, houses, etc) was mockingly naive and delusional. In a sense, he was still that innocent child but in a business man’s body. There was no intermediary character within.
However, around the time he first met Susan, it was a time of mid-life crisis, and it was then he began to push aside all material successes and take an interest in the young laywoman. For once, during the peak of his so-called “prosperity”, he had disassociated himself from his usual selfishness and basked in the company of someone else – someone socially inferior who began as his normative character. Unfortunately, he used his strength as a social tool to blend her into his universe of material ravenousness. With all these factors, this leads to one of Citizen Kane’s most intriguing themes – memories.
This is not conspicuously shown in the movie, but is graphed together by acquaintance Mr Bernstein and college friend Jedediah Leland. Both had dissimilar fates and both had aptly structured views on memories, which, somehow collectively, formed deeper clarity as to what the meaning of “Rosebud” was. Mr Bernstein, an aged but healthy and content man was highlighted for his complex ferry quote, where he spoke of an anonymous, beautiful woman who aroused him. Though that was Bernstein’s first and only sight of the woman, the memory laid happily ripe in his mind. On the contrary, Leland, a friend of Kane’s who worked with him for years and was fired, grew up to be an obsessive smoker and under strict nurse care. Contrasted with Bernstein, Leland was a cynic on memories, stressing that “[memories are] the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race.” What is interesting to note is that Mr Bernstein appeared as the neutral and faithful character of the film, whereas Leland was conveyed as the disloyal and doubting figure. Bernstein, therefore, was the normative character to Kane; what he ought to have been. Leland resembled Kane almost mirror-like. But what’s important to appreciate from both protagonists was their perception of reflections of the past. Kane, however, didn’t have any perceptions of either his jovial or erroneous history. Not until, of course, his encounter with the snow globe. Then we had it – “Rosebud”.
Stripped of his childhood and thrown into the deep-end of the notorious, New York hellhole, society malformed Kane into a short-lived, aristocratic figure. And though he designed civilisation through his media prowess; society, as a being, targeted him and challenged his supremacy and sentiments. This gradually forced him out of the social populace due to his incompetent and unwise management of his own powers. All of this is a part of his famous last word. So, “Rosebud” resembled a multitude of aspects of Kane’s discordant life. It represented his bewilderment in wealth, his errors as a public leader and the downfalls of his hallucinogenic materialism. It depicted the emotional incompetence with women; the flawed priorities in his marriages and the ignorance of what satisfied love and intimacy. Most of all, “Rosebud” implored the memory of pre-New York; the simplicities of life. It wasn’t just a childhood sled eternally buried in the snow. It was the undying, mutual love that Kane had for his mother. For once, Charles Foster Kane recalled a simple time in his life, which he could not relive, where he felt a euphoric sensation of love on mutual terms.
“Rosebud” is the reflection on the roots of life; our primary principles, our primary values, and our contentment, regardless of social class. And though it is the 70th anniversary of the film’s screening, the morals and sentiments behind it all seem truly timeless.
Fintan YT Walsh