Andrew Sarris v. Pauline Kael: King Kane!


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April 15, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 15

Films in Focus
By Andrew Sarris

Pauline Kael’s two-part article on “Citizen Kane” (“Raising Kane” — the New Yorker, February 20 and 27, 197[1]) reportedly began as a brief introduction to the published screenplay, but, like Topsy, it just growed and grower into a 50,000-word digression from “Kane” itself into the life and times and loves and hates and love-hates of Pauline Kael.

My disagreement with her position begins with her very first sentence:

“‘Citizen Kane’ is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.” I can think of hundreds of “American talking pictures” that seem as fresh now as the day they opened. Even fresher. “Citizen Kane” is certainly worthy of revival and reconsideration, but it hardly stands alone even among the directorial efforts of Orson Welles. To believe that “Citizen Kane” is a great American film in a morass of mediocre Hollywood movies is to misunderstand the transparent movieness of “Kane” itself from its Xanadu castle out of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to its menagerie out of “King Kong” to its mirrored reflections out of old German doppleganger spectacles. Not that Miss Kael makes any extravagant claims about the supposed greatness of the film on which she has devoted so much newsprint. “It is a shallow work,” she decides, “a shallow masterpiece.”

One wonders what Miss Kael considers a deep masterpiece. “U-Boat 29” perhaps? Actually, the closest she comes to comparing “Kane” with the higher depths of cinema is in a parenthetical aside of dubious relevance: “Like most of the films of the sound era that are called masterpieces, ‘Citizen Kane’ has reached its audience gradually over the years rather than at the time of release. Yet, unlike the others, it is conceived and acted as entertainment in a popular style (unlike, say, ‘Rules of the Game’ or ‘Rashomon’ or ‘Man of Aran,’ which one does not think of in crowd-pleasing terms).”

“Man of Aran,” with its excessive sea-pounding on the soundtrack making it as falsely exotic in its own time as “Ramparts of Clay” is in ours, was certainly never conceived in crowd-pleasing terms. But “Rules of the Game” and “Rashomon” are something else again even in French and Japanese respectively. If anything, both films are more rousingly entertaining and more satisfyingly lucid than “Kane.” Their emotions are stronger, their gestures broader, their climaxes more violent, their narratives more vigorous, their visual styles less ostentatious, and, no small consideration, their women infinitely warmer and more sensual. Besides, the comparison is even factually questionable. “Rules of the Game” has never been too popular anywhere, but “Kane” and “Rashomon” were instant sensations when they reached the right audiences. It is no derogation to say that they were immediately impressive whereas “Rules of the Game” takes longer to appreciate because of the apparent artlessness of its ironies. Not that Miss Kael bothers to commit her own personal prestige to the greatness of any film. Note, for example, the cautiously impersonal construction of “films of the sound era that are called masterpieces.” Perhaps this tone of cold-fish objectivity is the price of a normally warm-blooded film critic must pay to climb Onward and Upward with the Arts at the New Yorker.

The plot thickens considerably when Miss Kael drifts away from a half-hearted analysis of “Kane” to the most lively gossip imaginable about the alleged birth-pangs and labor-pains of the script. Bit by bit, “Raising Kane” becomes an excuse to lower the boom on Orson Welles so as to resurrect the reputation of the late Herman J. Maniewicz. By interviewing only the sworn enemies of Orson Welles, Miss Kael has made herself fair game for Mr. Welles and his more fervent admirers. At the very least, we may expect a reprise of the recriminations exchanged between Peter Bogdanovich and Charles Higham on the occasion of the publication of Mr. Higham’s “The Films of Orson Welles.”

How much of the final script of “Citizen Kane” was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and how much by Orson Welles? I don’t know, and I don’t think Miss Kael, Mr. Bogdanovich, and Mr. Higham do either. Undoubtedly, there will be affidavits aplenty from all sides, but literary collaboration, like marriage, is a largely unwitnessed interpenetration of psyches. Miss Kael demonstrates conclusively that Mankiewicz could have written the entire script unaided, but she cannot possibly know where and when and how and from whom and from what derived all his ideas. As it happens, RKO was successfully sued in 1950 for plagiarism on the officially credited Mankiewicz-Welles script of “Kane” by Ferdinand Lundborg, author of “Imperial Hearst.” Miss Kael tries to pooh-pooh Lundborg’s lawsuit because of the shadow it casts on her own one-sided lawyer’s brief for Mankiewicz. RKO might just as well have been sued, Miss Kael contends, by John Dos Passos for the passages on Hearst in “USA.” Precisely. Who among us can claim complete originality in anything? “Raising Kane” itself bears the by-line of Pauline Kael and of Pauline Kael alone. Yet thousands of words are directly quoted from other writers, and thousands more are paraphrased without credit. Miss Kael deserves her byline because she has shaped her material, much of it unoriginal, into an article with a polemical thrust all her own. Her selection and arrangement of material constitutes a very significant portion of her personal style.

Similarly, Orson Welles is not significantly diminished as the auteur of “Citizen Kane” by Miss Kael’s breathless revelations about Herman J. Mankiewicz any more than he is diminished as the auteur of “the Magnificent Ambersons” by the fact that all the best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington. It is only by virtually ignoring what “Citizen Kane” became as a film that Miss Kael can construct her bizarre theory of film history, namely that “Citizen Kane” along with all the best moments in movies of the ’30s must be credited to a consortium of New Yorker writers gathered together by Harold Ross at Chasen’s, the West Coast auxiliary of the Algonquin. Indeed, Miss Kael writes of Harold Ross in “Raising Kane” with much the same awed tone employed by General Lew Wallace in writing of Christ in “Ben Hur.” Writing of a Ross visit to Hearst’s San Simeon, Miss Kael lacks only a divinely capitalized “H” (“He” for “he”) to achieve a completely Biblical tone: “Harold Ross must have wondered what drew his old friends there, for he came, too, escorted by Robert Benchley.”

What is most startling about “Raising Kane” is how little it adds to old stories that have been circulating in film magazines with fewer readers than the New Yorker. For example, “Persistence of Vision,” edited by Joseph McBride and publish by the Wisconsin Film Society Press in 1968, contains not only McBride’s “Kane” analysis which Miss Kael snickers at in “Raising Kane” without bothering to identify the author, but also an extended quote from John Houseman to Penelope Houston out of the Sight and Sound of Autumn 1962: “…we had done some work together on ‘Heart of Darkness,’ which was to have been his first picture at RKO, and on something called ‘The Smiler with the Knife.’ After I’d gone back East, Orson continued trying to find a subject. We had a mutual and very brilliant friend, Herman Mankiewicz, a celebrated Hollywood figure, who had recently broken his leg under tragicomic circumstances that I haven’t time to go into. Having goaded each studio in turn into dismissing him, he had sunk to working on some of our radio shows. Orson arrived one night in New York, and over dinner told me that Mankiewicz had come up with an idea for a movie: a multi-faceted story about William Randolph Hearst in which Hearst would play the title-part and direct. He asked me whether I would work with Mankiewicz as editor and collaborator on the script. I agreed and returned to Hollywood. After several conferences, at which Mankiewicz continued to develop his ideas, we moved him — nurse, plaster cast and all — up to a place in the mountains called Victorville, about a hundred miles from Los Angeles. There we installed ourselves on a guest ranch. Mankiewicz wrote, I mostly edited and the nurse was bored. Orson drove out once for dinner. At the end of three months we returned to Los Angeles with the 220-page script of ‘Kane,’ later called ‘Citizen Kane.’

“This is a delicate subject: I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote ‘Kane’ and everything else that he has directed — except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of ‘Kane’ was especially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom which he had been carrying around with him for years which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned ‘Kane’ into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make ‘Citizen Kane’ one of the world’s great movies — those were pure Orson Welles.”

The Houseman-Houston interview reads like a digest of “Raising Kane,” and Joseph McBride was obviously aware of this interview when he analyzed “Kane” as “a tragedy in fugal form; thus…also the denial of tragedy.” Aside from cackling at still another film scholar for the benefit of the philistines, Miss Kael creates the impression that McBride and his ilk never had the foggiest notion that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay. McBride’s greatest sin is apparently his willingness to consider “Citizen Kane” as a work of art rather than in Miss Kael’s terms as “kitsch redeemed,” a culturally defensive attitude for readers and editors who would be shocked to have any movie taken too seriously. Indeed, by the time Miss Kael is through taking “Kane” apart, it seems considerably more flawed than “The Owl and the Pussycat.” More important, “Kane” is viewed by Miss Kael almost exclusively as a product of the newspaper yarns that preceded it, and not at all as an influence on the inner space excursions of Fellini and Kubrick that followed it. McBride explicitly compares “Kane” to “8 1/2” and is not that comparison more apt than Miss Kael’s likening of “Kane” to “The Front Page,” for Pete’s sake. And what is the black slab in “2001,” but the burnt sled “Rosebud” of “Kane,” the black slab representing the memento of an old civilization , and “Rosebud” the memory of an old man.

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