Mondo Kane #4: The Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library

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CITIZEN KANE’s first flashback sequence is the one framed by the intrepid Thompson’s visit to the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library, there to peruse the unpublished memoirs of Kane’s garr-DEE-an, as Kane Snr. quaintly pronounces it. It’s interesting, to me anyhow, that KANE started life as a RASHOMON type story in which each person’s memory of the protag/antag would vary wildly according to their opinion of him — and just like in RASHOMON, one account is given by a dead man. But rather than employing a spirit medium, which might have clashed with the film’s approach and was probably counter to the standard practice of newsreel companies at the time, boy reporter Jerry Thompson goes on the internet consults the memoirs of one who knew Kane well.

Welles opens, fading in, looking up at a statue of Thatcher, apparently hewn from living butter — but this was not originally how the sequence began. The shot as filmed by Welles started on the plinth and plaque, dollying back to reveal the dragon lady in charge of the establishment and her fruity minion. In post-production, Welles mentioned to FX artist Vernon L. Walker that he’d prefer to start on the statue — just like that, as if it existed. Here we see Welles’ ability to use his naiveté about filmmaking to produce results.

(The Blu-ray people have cleaned up a hair stuck amid the paintwork that joins the miniature to the full-scale set. Not sure I approve of that. Certainly Welles would have preferred it without the hair. But is the purpose of a restoration to restore a film to as close to its original state as possible, or to a state of perfection it never had? Rather than trying to imagine the artist’s intent, I’d prefer simply preserving what he actually did, which is much easier.)

Even though what Welles was asking for was impossible, Walker applied himself to the problem — and cracked it. First he shot a stationary low angle on a miniature statue of George Coulouris as Thatcher, whittled from Lurpak by the props department. Then he created an artificial move in the optical printer, scrolling the shot so it vanished from the top of frame. He matched this to a similar move on the plinth and joined the two together with an invisible wipe. Watch the shot in motion — it’s still an astonishing piece of work, and more than makes up for the sloshy skylight at the El Rancho.

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Let’s pause to consider what a bizarre place the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library is. A library that looks like a mausoleum, guarded by a sniffy librarian and a security guard, The only decorations are a statue of a seated Thatcher, scowling in thought like a bald Rodin, and a humongous painting of Thatcher, scowling at the painter. Behind a heavy door is the reading room, apparently a cinderblock dungeon containing the library’s only book, Thatcher’s unpublished memoirs, which are kept in a vault within the vault. Why are the memoirs unpublished? Because who wants to read the memoirs of a banker? Thatcher no doubt knew this, but constructed a building to house the unwanted book, and employed staff to prevent anybody from reading or quoting from the worthless tome. Thatcher’s library is as grandiose a folly as Kane’s opera house, but at least the theater could serve its purpose and give satisfaction to others. Thatcher’s chilly domain is a monument to himself, and it’s as frigid and pointless as the man who commissioned it.

From the Coulouris family website: “Towards the end of his life he tried his hand at writing and produced some charming memoirs describing his early life in Manchester and his early stage experiences, as yet unpublished except for a vivid excerpt published in the Guardian newspaper in February 1986.”

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Laughing at Thatcher’s security precautions, Toland’s camera melts its way through the heavy door slammed in its face and approaches the table where Thompson reads the forbidden book, which with this level of ceremony around it ought to at least be the Necronomicon. And then we’re gliding along the first line of the first entry to feature young Kane (Sonny Bupp), in a shot familiar to fans of TAXI DRIVER. For callow amusement, you can try reading it out in Travis Bickle’s voice, (“I first encountered Mr. Kane in 1871…”) or else try a Travis Bickle diary entry in George Coulouris’s voice. “All the animals come out at night… whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

Here’s where no home video rendition of the movie has yet matched what I’ve seen on the screen in 35mm, though it’s been a while and maybe I’m misremembering. But I have a very strong memory of the dissolve to snow being slow and wonderful in a way that it just isn’t on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. First you see the snowflakes only as they drift across the dark lettering of Thatcher’s prose. Then they grow in strength and you can see them, white on white, as they flutter down the page. Then the page is gone and we’re in wintry Colorado, the land of Mr. Kane’s snowglobe (his own memorial library, of sorts). Bernard Herrmann’s elegiac score actually tells you when you should first see the snow. The Blu-ray actually gets this transition wrong more badly than any previous version, fading from diary to snow altogether, then back again, and then back AGAIN, a meaningless fluttering effect that is clearly NOT what was ever intended by Welles, Robert Wise, or anybody else. Dennis Hopper might have done it like that, but not anyone in 1941. It strikes me as an abomination in an otherwise fine disc.

Sonny Bupp (I just like saying the name) sleds about, thoughtfully concealing the MacGuffin with his little torso, then throws a snowball to attract our attention to his home, Mrs Kane’s Boarding House. This leads us to the very fancy long take inside the house, which is actually TWO shots, the view out the window being a rear-projected plate filmed earlier. And this scene features my favourite “mistake” in the film, the wobbling of Thatcher’s hat, known to impudence as a stovepipe. You see, as Toland dollies back, a team of perspiring props men had to slide Mrs Kane’s writing desk into position under the lens, and a chair for her to sit on, thus carrying on the pretense that the camera is a ghostly eye capable of gliding over or even through domestic furniture. The gag works, but the hat resting on the desk gives a little tell-tale wobble. It’s perfectly harmless, not a blight on the movie or anything, but it has a home-made charm to it that’s particularly appealing in this age of CGI and digital technology and Mel Gibson.

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Agnes Moorehead, in her single scene, is wonderful of course. Fiona says, “I like how she seems in a trance. She’s already made her mind up, so she’s just kind of sleepwalking through it.” The little bits of emotion seeping through Mrs Kane’s businesslike mask add texture to the performance and sow the seeds for the film’s pay-off, which always makes my sister-in-law cry. So much for KANE being a cold film. “It’s BECAUSE it seems cold up until the ending,” says Jane.

The young sprog Bupp is a good match for Welles, whose huge head had a kind of baby structure to it anyway, like Harry Earles. That year, he also played in ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY/THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, and the previous year by some strange quirk he played “Billy Welles” in THREE FACES WEST, featuring John Wayne.

Coulouris, the only cast member beside Welles to feature prominently in the newsreel, now gets to stretch his limbs a little — as young Thatcher he has just one scene playing his own biological age, and perfectly conveys the quality of being an old man trapped in a young man’s body. Then we quickly see him middle-aged and then ancient, transformed into Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. And indeed, Coulouris is the only KANE cast member to have aged in line with his Maurice Seiderman makeup. Welles, of course, didn’t become a bald Albert Dekker lookalike with a Frankenstein monster walk. He never even made it into real old age. Nor did Dorothy Comingore, though her fate echoed that of Susan Alexander. But Coulouris in later life always seems exactly like Thatcher in midlife, to sometimes uncanny effect. How can he still be alive, we wonder as we watch him in THE RITZ or THE FINAL PROGRAMME.

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“I’m not as frightening as all that, am I?” asks Coulouris. “Yes, you are,” says Fiona, perhaps remembering THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY, the movie which answers the question “What would it be like if Coulouris rather than Welles got to play the titan of industry part, and then had a head transplant, and the film was really bad?”

An exquisite cut — the action of raising the window provides several fine opportunities for a match cut, but Wise wisely chooses the last movement, just as the frame clears shot, affording an unobstructed view of the boarding house front room, which can then become an exterior again as the camera pulls back, The end of this shot is, however, one of the least elegant in the film, an awkward jump in on Bupp and Moorehead which attempts to paste over a visual jolt by cutting in mid-sentence to let the audio glue things together.

Pathos — the abandoned sled, bleak pangs of music from Herrmann, the train horn dopplering away into loneliness, thickening layers of snow concealing the MacGuffin.

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Mr. Thatcher always liked to spend Christmas standing on a camera box.

Lovely verbal match from Bupp’s sarcastic “Merry Christmas!” to an older, crustier Thatcher’s “- and a Happy New Year!” as he dictates a letter and the film goes into its epistolary mode, begun with letters and developed with news headlines.

George Coulouris has his own site (run By Coulouris the Younger). My friend RWC: “I think it would be FUN to run a WEBSITE! Grrr!” (Fiona, impressed at this line reading: “He actually growls!” I had remembered it as an Oliver Norville Hardy “MmmM!” as in the immortal “Hard boiled eggs and nuts — MmmM!” but no, it’s MUCH BIGGER than that.)

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This newspaper montage — much more fun than the usual spinning front page optical — features the first instance in the film of broad comedy mugging, a little-appreciated aspect of The Greatest Movie Ever Made (see also Erskine Sanford). Is it, along with Herrmann’s mwah-mwah-mwah yackety sax comedy stings, a flaw in the artistry? Is it problematic like John Ford’s rambunctious tomfoolery sequences? I don’t think so, but I’m actually in agreement with Pauline Kael on *ONE POINT ALONE* — “Great films are rarely perfect films.”

Dig the variations in the montage — Coulouris lowering his paper to reveal his face, or his location, a newsboy calling the headline instead of George, as he splutters on lomticks of toast — and finally the reveal of the young Orson, leading into the Big Scene.

Welles liked to claim he wore more makeup as the young Kane than he did as the old one — fish scales glued to his face, skin taped back, wig, ever-present false nose (“My own nose is a… nothing.”) — at any rate, Welles has grown into his face as well as anyone could, and curtailed his tendency to ham since his 1937 Warners screen test (where he’s doing the Barrymore role from TWENTIETH CENTURY — maybe that would have worked under heavy makeup, but those words in the mouth of a weird kid are just… repellant) ~

Welles is giving himself the big star treatment in this scene, keeping Coulouris’ back to the camera and positioning Cotten and Sloane as mere lickspittles (their big moments will come) — Kane gets the close-up, the epigram stolen from Hearst, and the crusading hero role against Thatcher, the straw man capitalist. I love this scene, even if it has another slightly odd mid-line edit at the end. It could almost have worked by cutting on the pause before “sixty years” — the moment chosen doesn’t seem quite big enough to motivate a cut. Still, KANE’s flamboyant style is so striking partly because it does sometimes bypass motivation — Bertolucci claims he got his “unmotivated” camera movements from KANE, though I think perhaps rather than “unmotivated” they might be called romantically, or mystically, or sometimes just narratively motivated — the camera is sniffing out areas that might be of relevance to some ongoing plot…

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Thatcher’s final meeting with Kane begins with a sad and creaky parody of his entrance behind a newspaper in the previous scene, as Bernstein lowers the legal agreement whereby Kane is to relinquish control of his media empire, to reveal Thatcher in full preying mantis mode. Kane enters from behind Bernstein’s huge, deep-focus head and parades into long-shot as if to measure himself against the skyscrapers at the window. And Thatcher proceeds to play straight man one more time, setting up Kane’s epigrams.

“Everything you hate.” — and here we get the key to almost everything. Kane’s every political opinion and every move as a publisher has been simply striking back at the institution that took him away from his mother.

And back to the library, for a less abstract and dramatic reverse angle, dominated by an oversized glowering portrait of Thatcher, and we belatedly realize that Jennings the guard is very camp. What with the butch librarian, the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library begins to seem like some kind of LGBT employment scheme. Would the late Wally have approved? Is this some kind of comment on his character? Thatcher seems fairly sexless, but then he’s never allowed to interact with Kane’s dancing-girls or get a minute alone with Jedediah, so no real opportunity for Coulouris to display a steely twinkle in either eye presents itself. Perhaps, in his childhood, if we only knew it, he once possessed a sled with a painting of a cucumber on it, but the movie doesn’t say.

“Thanks for the use of the hall!”

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28 Responses to “Mondo Kane #4: The Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Fantastic commentary, as always.

    Thatcher seems like a character right out of Dickens. How much CD did the young OW read, me wonder.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Imdb: Joe Manz plays Jennings. Only other film appearance: chauffeur in ICE FOLLIES OF 1939.

    I’m going to look out for him in that one, too.

    Joe Manz (1910-1959): Joe Breen had his eyes closed when you were on screen!

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Harry Shannon (203 credits): I finally paid some attention to him, having just seen WRITTEN ON THE WIND, in which he plays Rock Hudson’s all-American dad, the huntin’ and fishin’ Hoak Wayne). He’s the antitype to the frail capitalist Robert Keith (the oil tycoon), father of the “sick” Kyle and Marylee Hadley.

    He and Coulouris and Moorhead step all over each other’s lines–just like in a Howard Hawks movie!

    Herrmann’s music is never more raptrurous in the transition from the Library to the boarding house, with a glorious massed-string rhapsody accompanying the boy lying face down on Rosebud. Then it’s quickly, brutally “interrupted” . . .

    Genius.

  4. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    David B: Welles later said he wanted the characters in Arkadin to be like Dickens, so I think you’re onto something.
    David C: You probably know speaking of Twentieth Century that a more mature Welles actually played the role in a 1956 TV version.

  5. “Thatcher’s unpublished memoirs, which are kept in a vault within the vault. Why are the memoirs unpublished? Because who wants to read the memoirs of a banker? Thatcher no doubt knew this, but constructed a building to house the unwanted book, and employed staff to prevent anybody from reading or quoting from the worthless tome. ”
    …or unpublishable, perhaps. Perhaps what Thatcher’s memoirs contain is What Must Not Be Revealed. Whoever reads them knows the truth but cannot tell it and the elaborate defence is like the tomb of a vampire- to keep it hidden- and the coffin of a vampire- to keep it safe…

  6. When dealing with characters like Thatcher, Welles is an arch-caricaturist, which of course makes him a Dickens of the cinema, as much as Chaplin.

    It would be VERY interesting to see that TV version of Twentieth Century. I find his TV Lear disappointing/embarrassing to some degree, but at least it’s preserved and available.

    Worst line-flub in live TV history: Welles has to say, apropos Cordelia and his nasty daughters’ hatred of him, “They have no reason, you have some.” He begins, “They have some reason…” and then you can see the “Oh shit,” flicker across his heavily made-up countenance, as he realizes he has no choice but to finish the line, even though this way round it makes no sense and is the absolute opposite of the truth. Welles’ worst enemy would pity him at this moment.

    Roger: so is Thatcher gay, with a reinforced iron closet, or a vampire, or a gay vampire? That has the beginnings of a great theory.

  7. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    David: Next time we do a trade, remind me to send you that Welles 20th Century . He’s not exactly John Barrymore nor is Betty Grable Carole Lombard

  8. CITIZEN KANE QUIZ TIME!

    We know that the sled Kane loves is “Rosebud” What’s the name of the sled Thatcher gives him?

  9. Don’t know if Thatcher is gay, but the guardians of his library are both gay

  10. I could never read the name of the non-Rosebud sled. I could just read enough to know it wasn’t Rosebud II.

  11. When Criterion produced its first laserdisc in CAV format I was able to stop it frame by frame and read the name on the sled.

    It was “Crusader” — which is most interesting in light of who Kane became and what he thought of himself.

  12. Randy Cook Says:

    THE Crusader, in the interest of pedantry. And that CAV Criterion disc! I spent almost as many hours looking at KANE one frame at a time as I did studying their KING KONG

  13. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    Mr Ehrenstein and Mr Cook: The Criterion “Easter Egg” note on this says there’s also an image of a medieval knight on the sled.
    Appropriate for the young knight to later have his own castle,
    Xanadu, no?

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    Right! Knight’s helmet, face on…

  15. It certainly ties in with my interpretation that all of Kane’s political posturing was just an act of defiance at his former guardian, powered by pure, unexamined emotion. Even that duffer Freud might have been able to figure out Kane.

  16. But the most unexamined emotion is that of his mother’s love. Thatcher takes him away from her. When he meets Susan he’s on his way to visit a warehouse storing all her personal effects (sled included) Later in the scene where Susan finally leaves him she screams “I’m Charles Foster Kane! All you have to do is love me!”
    In short the simplest, most seemingly naïve and horrendously manipulated of those closest to him understands him best.

  17. One last note on the Thatcher library. When the book is opened we see script on a white page that immediately turns to the “les neiges d’antan” as a sleigh-bell music cue (Thanks Bernie!) completes the picture. IOW the Thatcher Library is inside Kane’s snow-globe.

  18. I half-heartedly posited the notion in Part 1 that the entire MOVIE is inside the snow-globe. But why stop there? Perhaps Welles’ entire career inhabits the tiny sphere — hence all that snow and shattering glass and reflective surfaces…

    Leland also diagnoses Kane accurately — someone who wanted love but had none to give. If KANE is a labyrinth without a centre, it’s not a flaw in the film but a sign of the character’s tragic flaw, his inner emptiness.

  19. Perhaps all of our lives take place inside that tiny snow globe.

  20. It is often said that we do not see Thompson’s face head-on until his final pessimistic assessment of Rosebud, his failed quest, right before the sled is incinerated, but there is a clear shot of his face when he closes Thatcher’s memoir.

  21. Also, the second half of Thatcher’s memoir is the most significant alteration /addition between final screenplay and the finished movie. In the movie Welles adds a) the amazing triple transition from CO to NY, b) the muckraking headlines scene, and c) the scene where a defeated Kane sells his media empire to Thatcher. So b) and c) provide a new frame around the intervening scene, when Kane reveals his two secrets to Thatcher– which is in the screenplay.

  22. I never felt Thompson was being concealed as such, just kept out of the limelight. Alland himself thought his concealment would cause audiences to wonder if Thompson WAS Rosebud, but it always felt to me that the framing emphasized his INsignificance, rather than bestowing mystery upon him.

    Welles’ champions point out that the screenplay contains relatively few directorial hints. The dialogue transitions would certainly count, and knowing they are Welles’ is most satisfying.

  23. The way that we follow Thompson around and often align with his POV is similar to the camera eye /narrator that Welles wanted to use with Heart of Darkness.

  24. That’s true, possibly an echo. Though Welles would have narrated that stuff, so the camera would be him (he would also have played Kurtz, no doubt in heavy makeup). Thompson is precisely the kind of small man Welles could never play.

  25. Bumping an old, old discussion here, but I’ve been going through this excellent revisit to “Citizen Kane” and was struck by Fiona’s comment on Agnes Moorehead’s looking as though she’s in a trance or sleep-walking. It gets right to the heart of an aspect of “Kane” that’s disquieted me since the very first time I saw the film at 17 or 18: just what *does* Mrs. Kane feel toward her son?

    She’s obviously protective, but protective isn’t quite the same as affectionate or loving. My first impression of Mrs. Kane was in fact that she was quite chilly toward her son. Mr. Kane is trying much harder to be ingratiating, though it turns on a dime into anger–twenty years on from my first viewing Mr. Kane’s behavior shouts “drunkard” to me. But Mrs. Kane hasn’t much warmed up to me after twenty years. Maybe Fiona has the best reading: she’s made up her mind to do this traumatic thing to get her son away from an abusive father and it’s taking all her self-control just to keep from breaking down, and it translates into what looks like coldness.

    But I’ll tell you what…all the times I’ve seen “Kane”, and I must have seen it at least a dozen, I’ve never rid myself of the suspicion that once young Charles was away, Mrs. Kane never tried to get him back.

  26. There’s an iciness there — she evidently thought he was better off being raised by a bank. I get the impression also that she died quite young — when did Kane put her things in storage?

    But I think she does love him and has steeled herself to appear stern to get through this. It’s just that she underrates the value of her mother love and thinks CFK is better off without his parents.

  27. Kane’s comment about her mother’s things in storage *is* a suggestive one. She “died a long time ago” in 1916; that doesn’t necessarily mean she died young, but then if she’d still been alive by the time Kane became an adult and in charge of his own fortune, wouldn’t he have arranged something better for his mother’s estate than a storage unit “out West because there wasn’t any other place”? That sounds more like something Thatcher would have done when Charles was still too young to know what was going on or have any say in the matter.

    I wonder if Kane ever actually went through his mother’s things, as he told Susan he’d been planning to do. I’m guessing he never got back round to it.

    One more silly thought about the scene with Kane’s parents: Thompson is reading about this in Thatcher’s unpublished memoirs yet at least part of the story seems to be common knowledge because we see a Congressmen joke about how Kane clobbered Thatcher with a sled. So how did the story get out? I imagine that it was a favorite anecdote of Kane’s at parties.

  28. Yes, the story MUST have come from Kane.

    Kane meeting his lover while on his way to reconnect with his mother could be a Freudian thing, or at any rate an indication that he’s never grown up. Rather than dealing with his mother’s death, he takes a mistress.

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