The American Dream: Not Guaranteed

         Born in 1915, Orson Welles was an actor, writer, director, and producer who worked not only in film but also in radio, theatre, and television. In 1939, RKO Pictures brought twenty-four year old Welles to Hollywood with a six-film contract giving him complete control over the production process. First, Welles began filming a script written by himself and Herman J. Mankiewicz about an American newspaperman. Welles appointed Gregg Toland as director of photography, and together, they created a beautiful film that people still discuss the techniques used in this film (Cook 327, 328). Citizen Kane was released in 1941. At the time, the film was unsuccessful; however, in later years, the Welles was awarded for his incredible work on Citizen Kane. In the film, Kane’s (Orson Welles) dying words, “Rosebud,” sets the storyline as the media try to discover who or what Rosebud was to the late Kane. In the final scene of the movie, Rosebud’s identity is revealed to be an old wooden sled, which connects back to earlier scenes of Kane sledding as a child. Rosebud symbolizes Kane’s lost childhood happiness, which throughout his life he tries to regain.

         When he was very young, his mother gave him away to be cared for by a Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris). The scenes of Kane as a youngster clearly show him as happy and carefree. In one snowy flashback scene, the young Kane sleds down a hill outside his mother’s window. While living with Mr. Thatcher, Kane was required to focus on academics. He tried to maintain his youthful exuberance; however, under the circumstances, melancholy began to creep in.

         After growing up, Kane rediscovered happiness because he thought it would be fun to run the newspaper with his oldest friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten). Kane marries his first wife, Emily (Ruth Warrick), and they have a son together. For a time, he seems to have regained his lost happiness; however, eventually, Emily tires of his devotion to his newspaper and begins to complain about his long work hours. Their marriage continues to dissolve as the years pass. Welles demonstrates the marriage breakdown through a series of breakfast scenes that show the couple growing apart. The only solace that Kane can find is in his newspaper where he can make up headlines and stories to make him happy. Later, Kane gets into politics, and once again, he finds his lost youthful exuberance.

         One night, Kane heads to the warehouse in search of his youth, and before arriving, he meets Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and becomes infatuated with her. In order to keep her laughing when they first meet, Kane reverts back to childish silliness. He does not want to lose the fun and happiness he found in Susan, so she becomes his mistress. Due to a dirty opposing candidate, Mr. Gettys (Ray Collins) during the election for governor of New York, Kane’s happiness is stripped away from him. Mr. Gettys makes Kane’s wife aware of his affair, and she leaves him taking their son with her. Due to the ensuing scandal, Kane loses his chance for a political career.

         In his time of crisis, Kane turns to the two things that still make him happy—his newspaper and Susan. He marries Susan and decides to assist her in making her childhood dream of becoming a singer a reality. At The Enquirer, Kane controls the news by making up headlines to suit his purpose. He creates a fantasy world where Susan is a wonderful opera singer who receives rave reviews. Kane failed to realize that Susan no longer wanted to be a singer. He continued to force her to sing; therefore, she began to resent Kane and to spiral into a deep depression. By forcing her to sing against her will, Kane has killed Susan’s love and beautiful spirit that he has so admired. Kane builds an opera house for Susan in Chicago, and she bombs on opening night. Kane tries to clap loud enough to make up for the audience’s lack of applause. After this devastatingly embarrassing moment, Susan tries to commit suicide, which finally makes Kane realize how unhappy she is, and he tells her she no longer has to sing.

         Mr. Leland decides to burst Kane’s illusionary world that he creates out of his newspaper stories and headlines. While drinking, Leland begins writing a bad review for Susan’s opening performance; however, he passes out before completing the critical review. When Kane discovers what his friend had written, he seems to give up on the “happy world” he created and accept reality. He elects to finish the horrible review and writes the truth about Susan’s terrible singing. After finishing the article, Kane fires Leland, which severs their longtime friendship. After accepting reality, Kane loses the happiness that had always surrounded the newspaper for him.

        Kane turns his attentions to Susan. He tries to please her and make her happy. The harder he tries; the worse things become between the couple. Trying to keep up the joyful illusion, Kane moves them into the grand mansion, Xanadu, he has built for Susan in Florida. Susan begins to retreat into herself filling her long days working jigsaw puzzles. Kane tries to hold on to his imagined happiness by not letting Susan go; however, eventually, Susan leaves him.

         At the end of the movie, everything that has helped Kane regain his youthful happiness is taken from him: two wives, a son, his political career, his best friend, and his newspaper. After losing everything, Kane remembers the last time he was truly happy before his mother gave him up—a snowy day sledding on “Rosebud.” In Citizen Kane, Welles epitomizes the “American Dream.” He demonstrates our right to “the pursuit of happiness”; however, he also ensures his audience is aware that we are not guaranteed that happiness. Through his film, Welles establishes that the “American Dream” is an illusion, and happiness can be found and lost through your own actions depending on the things you hold dear in your life—personal relationships or material possessions.

Work Cited

Cook, David. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Jackie Hawes

Table of Contents