Archive for Barbara Leaming

Mondo Kane 9: Rosebud

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2013 by dcairns

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The final part of our journey through The Second Greatest Movie Ever Made (pah!).

Paul Stewart’s brief flashback is the only one that dovetails into a substantial new scene, picking up his factotum character Raymond with Thompson on the grand staircase at Xanadu and following them into a sequence detailing the inventory of Kane’s vast collection of objet d’art and general junk. (“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head.”)

“Part of a Scotch castle over there but we haven’t bothered to unwrap it yet.” It’s exciting to think that Xanadu might contain all the sets for all Welles’ future productions. This one would obviously be MACBETH, whose “Scotch castles” always did look somewhat incomplete. The reference to Spanish ceilings could mean MR ARKADIN or DON QUIXOTE…

“I wonder… you put all this stuff together […] What would it spell?” Here, Thompson is hinting towards Borges’ parable, not yet written — “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” Interestingly, Borges disparaged KANE as “a labyrinth without a centre” — yet it seems to have inspired this memorable mini-narrative, with its echo of Kafka’s The Parable of the Law, visualized by Welles in THE TRIAL. (Borges’ claim that KANE owed its cleverness to Sturges THE POWER AND THE GLORY is fatuous, whether Welles had seen the earlier film or,as he claimed, not. The brilliance of KANE stems from the application of its audio-visual, formal qualities to that structural idea. William K. Howard’s direction of TPATG does not approach these qualities. Borges is reviewing KANE as if it were a novel.)

Alan Ladd gets a line! I never really notice him here, and I find him a little bland for my taste. But the perky, bespectacled girl reporter character (Louise Currie, who died September 8th this year) should’ve had her own movie series. Thompson as romantic interest? Perhaps not.

When William Alland, who plays Thompson, took over Universal’s sci-fi monster department in the fifties, he ought to have hired Welles. Those movies should look like TOUCH OF EVIL, not the flatly lit and composed, static things they are. I wondered at this, and thought maybe Alland wouldn’t have wanted to hire his own boss because how would he exercise authority over Welles? But then I learned that Alland named names for the blacklist, so he and the pinko Welles would mutually have wanted to keep away from each other, I guess. And thus we were deprived of Orson’s version of THE MOLE PEOPLE.

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Welles is using camera flashes — often in the form of inserted white frames — to teleport about his big set. The formal ploy of tying the flashes to the edits is a genuinely experimental technique unheard of in ’40s cinema, yet it doesn’t get mentioned much in discussion of the film’s innovations, possibly because, like the abstract snowglobe opening, it didn’t immediately lead to anything. Whereas low angles, noir lighting, overlapping dialogue, atmospheric echoes, etc, were picked up and run with.

The trek through Kane’s collection allows for lovely echoes of previous moments in the movie, as the jigsaws, statues and the trophy from Inquirer employees get to reappear. This narrative replay, a sort of slight return of the opening newsreel, is picked up again by Welles’ closing credits…

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Thompson’s speech, intended as the only moment when he gets to be a real character instead of an audience surrogate (“The embodiment of your desire to see everything,” as Walbrook puts it in LA RONDE) becomes instead a bit of editorializing by Welles and Mankiewicz, both keen to “take the mickey out of” their MacGuffin, Rosebud. By having Thompson claim that Rosebud’s identity wouldn’t have explained Kane, they’re trying to diffuse accusations of what Welles called “dollar-book Freud.” So we can see the sled as the answer to the emptiness in Kane (not in itself, but in the childhood and mother-love he was deprived of) or we can simply see it as a missing piece of a puzzle, still scrambled and incomplete.

“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” ~ Thompson. “What does it matter what you say about people?” ~ Tanya.

In the excellent doc The RKO Story, Ed Asner wanders through the studio scene dock, which incredibly still houses props from the 1940s. Maybe that’s why this last scene always feels like the employees packing up at the end of a studio shoot. A great way to end a movie, with the actors leaving the partially deconstructed set. But there’s more —

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Slow, funeral glide over the array of boxes — see also TOO MUCH JOHNSON, which has a chase through a maze of stacked crates, likewise taken from a high angle. Amazing the visual continuity in that early work with Welles’ later masterpieces. The end of this movement takes us to the heap of “junk,” most of it recognizable as the stuff from Mrs Kane’s boarding house which her son had put in storage. Interesting arrangement of a china doll embraced by a plush toy chimpanzee in the crate at centre here. Next to it is a picture of the adult Kane, presumably kept by his mother, along with all his toys. There’s an image of Agnes Moorehead with Sonny Bupp (young Kane) too.

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“Throw that junk!” orders the unobservant Paul Stewart, uttering the last line of the script. Rosebud seems to be going up in smoke along with several violin cases of unknown provenance.

I think none of us really put a lot of store in what Welles told Barbara Leaming, that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s affectionate term for his mistress Marion Davies’ genitals. As well as being a way of further “taking the mickey” out of the plot gimmick of KANE, this may have been Welles’ rebellion against the movie which had come to define him and must have seemed something of a millstone around his neck. Kind of like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. But where did Welles get the Georgia O’Keefe-style flower-vagina connection from? I didn’t think that one needed explanation, but then just as I was finishing this piece I found an answer anyway ~

I was reading Robert L. Carringer’s essay The Scripts of Citizen Kane and I think I have the answer. Carringer’s source is the biography William Randolph Hearst, American.

“Finally, the strongest of all of Kane’s attachments to mother and youth may also have been inspired by Hearst. One of Hearst’s childhood friends was a neighbor, Katherine Soule´, called “Pussy” by her playmates. She and Hearst often played together in the Hearst walled garden as Phebe Hearst tended her flowers. Miss Soule´ recalled to Mrs. Older: Willie Hearst was conscious of all beauty. When his mother bought new French dishes he pointed out the rose buds to Pussy. One day his head appeared at the top of the fence and excitedly he called, “Pussy, come and see the ‘La France’!” Pussy had never heard of a La France, and so she hastily climbed the ladder to see this new exciting object. “Why,” she exclaimed, “It’s just a rose!”

EXACTLY. It’s just a rose, Orson.

Magnificent Bernard Herrmann music and effects shot as Rosebud comes out the chimney as a death-like black cloud. And Welles repeats a few of his opening shots to pull us out beyond the No Trespassing sign. Welles loved signs.

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The end credits are lovely — MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS improves on them, though. But by bringing his cast on for curtain calls like this, Welles gives the film’s last line to George Coulouris, and who can begrudge him? Note also that it’s a different line reading from the one earlier in the movie.

“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

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“It’ll probably turn out to be some very simple thing.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2011 by dcairns

In Barbara Leaming’s bee-ography of Orson Welles, there are a lot of tall tales from The Great Man, often accepted at face value by Leaming. Many of them have since been questioned, and it’s hard to know which may be true. In particular, recent commentators have tended to throw cold water on Marion Davies’ vagina.

If you recall, Welles claimed that “Rosebud” was William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his mistress’s privates, and that she had mentioned this in a drunken conversation with Herman Mankiewicz, a friend and occasional visitor to Hearst’s Xanadu, San Simeon. Mankiewicz had used this secret information in the screenplay he wrote with Welles. I think this yarn hasn’t really taken root partly because we all know Orson was a big fat liar (and we love him for it), and perhaps because we’re reluctant to accept that CITIZEN KANE revolves around a smutty joke. Of course, Welles felt the “dollarbook Freud” of Rosebud, seemingly to explain Kane’s emptiness with an easy childhood symbol, was too pat anyway, and said “we did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.” So we shouldn’t see the sled as the centre of the labyrinth, the key to understanding. And so maybe it doesn’t matter so much if it IS a dirty joke.

Sidenote — did Leaming originate the story, or does it come, as Jon Tuska claims, from Gore Vidal? Vidal’s film scholarship and veracity have sometimes been questioned (cf his accounts of BEN HUR), but I don’t know that he’s ever been proved to have fibbed. Tuska says Vidal got the story from Charlie Lederer, nephew of Marion Davies (that’s not a conversation I can picture having with my aunt) and also second husband of Virginia Welles.

Thoughts arising from the CITIZEN KANE Blu-Ray: “That sure doesn’t look like a rose!”

And indeed, while it’s not an absolute likeness of a vagina, it has a certain Georgia O’Keefe quality. And it doesn’t look anything like a rose. Randy suggests a viewing of KANE with the theory in mind: if this was done as a prank directed at Hearst, how fiendishly cruel! The billionaire press baron is told by underlings that a Hollywood film has dared to tell a thinly-veiled version of his life story. He arranges a screening. The very first sequence, and a giant pair of lips mouths the word “Rosebud!” What the hell?

The newsreel ends, and suddenly everybody’s talking about it: the last word on his lips. And the whole damned movie is going to be about the quest to find out the meaning of this? The tycoon must be in a state of shock. And he has to wait two hours to find out the answer, and even when the sled shot lets him off the hook, the image he sees as the wood starts to char…

No wonder Hearst mobilized his minions to suppress the film. No wonder he tried to get RKO to treat the film like the sled and incinerate it. I discuss this with arch-Wellesian Randall William Cook:

“But we don’t know for sure, do we, that Hearst ever saw it,” I say.

“Well THAT would just be the greatest practical joke in history that never came off. The bucket of water that just sat on top of the door, forever.”

And he adds:

“Remember, just because David Thomson believes it, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”