“Kane’s life emerges mainly in flashbacks that highlight Welles’s suavely domineering performance—as well as his foreshadowing of doom resulting from his own vast ambitions. The story of a big man humbled, of preternatural energy come to grief through hubris and humiliation, is told by means of an ecstasy of light and shadow, of clashing textures and graphic forms, such as hadn’t been seen since the silent era.” (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)
Although only in his mid-twenties, Welles had already established a formidable reputation as an actor and director through his work in theatre and radio when he accepted a contract with RKO that offered him unprecedented artistic freedom for a first-time director. The studio hoped that he would bring new ideas and a fresh artistic vision, that he would revitalise the cinema as he had radio drama with The War of the Worlds. At the end of 1939, after two false-starts, Welles, working with the scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (whose recent credits had included The Wizard of Oz), found his subject: his film was to be the story of a public figure, told through the multiple perspectives of people who had known him, a fictional figure who was to be based primarily on the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The choice of Hearst was in part personal revenge on the part of Mankiewicz, who had been a personal friend of Hearst and especially his mistress Marion Davies, until his chronic drunkenness resulted in his being barred from San Simeon, Hearst’s 250,000 acre ranch an hour from Los Angeles and the clear inspiration for Kane’s Xanadu. If the idea of Hearst as a subject was Mankiewicz’s, it was Welles’s genius that gave the story its universalism. Nor indeed is Kane portrayed in a wholly negative light: he is, of course, a monster, but his energy and ambition are compelling, and the ambivalence of this portrayal comes in large part (as Welles later acknowledged) from the fact that “one of the authors hated Kane and one of them loved him”.
From March to May 1940 “Mank” was sequestered in Victorville, far out in the California desert, working on the script with John Houseman, Welles’s long-term close collaborator. The remote location, it was hoped, would help keep Mankiewicz sober, and Houseman was instructed to keep him away from booze as well as acting as script editor and co-author (he was responsible for the newsreel sequence, for example). Welles was mostly occupied in Hollywood but was kept up to date and provided constant input, however his detailed engagement with the script largely came after the completion of the first draft on 16 April. This first script, with the title American (a label that Hearst was very fond of attaching to his enterprises), was a much closer and more literal reworking of episodes from Hearst’s life than the finished film, and Welles immediately set to work cutting redundant dialogue, focusing ideas, restructuring material, and removing many of the most obvious (and libellous) references to Hearst, before returning the script to Mankiewicz who produced a second draft.
This second draft represents the script as revised by Mankiewicz and Houseman on the basis of Welles’s editorial comments. It had been substantially reworked – about half of the pages carry dates after 16 April – and in particular includes important new scenes that develop Kane’s relationship with Susan, his second wife. In this draft, for example, the scene is introduced in which Kane completes a savage review of Susan’s operatic debut which his old friend Leland had begun before falling asleep drunk at his typewriter. Welles’s recollections of the origin of this scene reveal the creative tension between him and his scriptwriter, especially when it came to the character of Kane himself:
“I always wanted Kane to have that sort of almost self-destructive elegance of attitude which, even when it was self-regarding and vain, was peculiarly chic. Mank fought me terribly about that scene: ‘Why should he finish the notice? He wouldn’t. He just wouldn’t print it.’ Which would have been true of Hearst.” (Cowell, p.494)
On the completion of this script on 9 May Mankiewicz went off the RKO payroll. He continued to work on the script, but from now on revision was primarily to be Welles’s responsibility. It was, presumably, this "working copy" which Welles read aloud to George Schaefer, President of RKO; Schaefer was enthusiastic but was concerned that the current title linked the story too obviously to Hearst and suggested that instead of American the film should be called Citizen Kane. This was also the script that Welles had to hand when he assembled the team that would bring the film to the screen. Welles continued to work on the script and the third draft, which was completed in mid-June, saw the replacement of some 75 pages of dialogue with arresting montage sequences as well as the introduction of further new scenes. Although there are some cuts and revisions added in pencil in this copy, many of the changes are likely to have been made in the form of editorial memoranda to Mankiewicz. Revision continued until the shooting script was finalised on 16 July – less than a week before the start of regular shooting – by which time the script had reached its seventh iteration.
This script, then, is not only Welles’s own copy of a text that was current at a critical moment in the development of Citizen Kane, but is a fascinating insight into the collaborative development of this glittering story of megalomania, obsession, and loss. It is also an exceptional rarity: there are copies of all seven drafts (along with related material) in both the RKO archive (on deposit at UCLA) and the Mercury Archives (at the Lilly Library of the University of Indiana), but Welles kept few mementoes of his films and only one other of Welles’s Kane scripts is recorded (his copy of the sixth draft with extensive revisions, sold Sotheby’s, New York, 11 December 2007, lot 112, $80,000).
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