Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

How “Citizen Kane” Challenged the Hollywood Studio System

on August 5, 2021
Charles Foster Kane played by Orson Welles.

Citizen Kane was made in 1941 during the height of the Hollywood studio system.  Orson Welles was a well-known theatrical actor and director by then.  He brought his theatrical vision and independent imagination to Hollywood, but the standardized operations of the studio system did not allow for too much independent creativity.  Studio movies had to reflect the look and feel of each individual studio.  Welles was unable to deliver on this and earned a reputation for being unreliable and difficult.

Even today, Citizen Kane stands out as an unusual movie.  The script was written along the lines of a news story/detective story.  In the beginning, a news reel summarizes the life of a dead media mogul.  But an enterprising journalist wants more.  He wants to understand the real man and embarks on a journey to find out, intrigued by Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.”  This kind of “parallel narrative structure is the first thing most viewers notice” (Lewis 158).

Using this kind of narrative supports Kane’s character as a hardcore newspaperman.  It seems perfectly natural to explore his life through this kind of device. (Welles had also used the news story device very successfully in his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds). 

Charles Foster Kane is a conflicted character in the sense that he longs for his lost childhood (represented by the snow globe), on one hand, and enjoys the authority and power that his wealth affords him, on the other.  He tries to control the events and people around him, to his own detriment.  He is a tragic Shakespearean figure who gains everything—and loses everything.  Welles supports this conflict through the narrative and the composition of his camera scenes.

Throughout the film, Welles carefully stages nearly every scene using depth-of-field choreography and cinematography, reflecting his vision and theatrical experience.  Lewis uses the childhood scene, in which a deep-focus camera shot shows the young Kane outside playing in the snow, as an example.  Inside, he is still framed by the window in the background. His father is stage left, protesting his wife’s action.  Stage right, and looming larger in the scene, Mr. Thatcher (the banker) and Mrs. Kane (the mother) are signing the papers which will sign away young Kane’s childhood forever (Lewis 159).  It’s a brilliant and powerful scene.

Welles was a master at composing black-and-white camera shots using chiaroscuro lighting (deep contrasts of dark and light) (Barsam 180) and German expressionism (Lewis 159).  His sets are often large, exaggerated, and overblown, especially Xanadu.  The inside of the castle reeks of funereal sadness and gloom.  Hoarding priceless artworks and zoo animals cannot lighten the darkness.  Kane’s world is empty, twisted, and dark—like the character himself.

Welles’ camera is not stationary.  He uses the camera to make creative transitions and keep the story going.  When the journalist first meets Susan at the El Rancho, the camera leaves the Thatcher Library and rolls over to the roof of the El Rancho, where it points down through the skylight onto Susan.  The viewer feels like he is eavesdropping on a private conversation.  Despite this intrusion, Welles has met his goals “to simulate a theatrical look (blocking actors . . .) and to create a realist aesthetic (an artistic conception . . .) through composition in depth” (Lewis 160).

Welles uses low-angle shots to make characters appear larger.  Reflections in glass and mirrors include more characters into the scene and reveal their reactions.  He uses a brilliant montage of scenes in the beginning of the movie which transition into one another, creating new scenes.  Welles also included a combination of both live and dubbed sounds into Citizen Kane, drawing on his radio experience (Lewis 161).

 Citizen Kane defied the parameters of most studio formula movies because it is a piece of art.  It has become a classic film that has influenced generations of independent filmmakers.  And it is a true reflection of the master himself— Orson Welles.

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

Lewis, Jon. American Cinema: A History. New York: Norton, 2008.

Welles, Orson, Dir. Citizen Kane. Perf. Orson Welles. Warner Bros., 1941.

(The character of Charles Foster Kane was based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.)

Dawn Pisturino

December 20, 2017

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.


6 responses to “How “Citizen Kane” Challenged the Hollywood Studio System

  1. Iowa Life says:

    Thanks for the explanation. The movie always intrigued me but it was beyond my comprehension. I’ve always resented Hollywood’s ‘gatekeepers’ as to what gets made or not. The worst thing that ever happened was their control over distribution, so that even if an indie was made outside the system, it could never get distributed.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you for commenting! Yes, Orson Welles was a brilliant artist who was not given enough appreciation by the Hollywood moguls. They wanted everything to be standardized and tightly controlled. Some big stars like Bette Davis got tired of it and sued so they could play other roles than the cookie cutter ones they were given. I think “Citizen Kane” probably describes a lot of rich, unhappy, successful people.

    Liked by 3 people

    • scifimike70 says:

      I think that Citizen Kane still has a lot to say today about the hidden sadnesses of great wealth and success. Welles scored as pivotal a triumph as Kubrick did with 2001: A Space Odyssey and as Hitchcock did with Psycho. I’m glad that I decided to finally see Citizen Kane a few decades ago when I bought it on VHS.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Welles was never again in a position to quite replicate what happened with Citizen Kane, but he certainly tried! Quite a fascinating artist. I would direct your attention to an interview I did recently related to Orson Welles, with novelist Jerome Charyn. I’d be curious to get your thoughts on it if you should happen to check it out, just scroll down or use the search engine on my blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: