Archive for Dorothy Comingore

Mondo Kane #7: El Rancho #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by dcairns

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A clever thing — by introducing Susan Alexander early on, allowing her to dismiss boy reporter Thompson from the royal presence, and then looping back to her an hour later, Welles, Mankiewicz (and the uncredited Houseman) achieve at least two things at once.

(1) The repetition makes us feel like we’re nearing the end, which is a useful clue to plant when dealing with a structure as unconventional as KANE’s. Since film is a time-based medium, and time is the one thing none of us seem to have enough of, it’s useful to let the audience know where they stand. I’m surprised a counter ticking down the seconds remaining hasn’t been inserted in the corner of Hollywood movies, but maybe that’s because you don’t need it — the McKee school of structural conventionality allows a savvy audience to plot their position in a movie’s timeline with unerring accuracy.

(2) The early intro to Susan gives us a warning as to the damage Kane, and time, have inflicted on her. Next seen, she’s the naive girl on the street corner, a far cry from the sozzled night-club entertainer glimpsed at the film’s start. Cotten’s flashback covers a good part of her decline and fall, even though he wasn’t there for most of it — now we’re ready for her to take up her own story, and the movie gains dynamism by plunging directly into something we just saw at the tail-end of the Leland narrative.

In his excellent book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore points out that the narrators of KANE get progressively more cynical and critical as the film goes on, with Susie as the one who really nails Kane’s character weaknesses, followed only by Paul Stewart who is completely indifferent and contemptuous. In fact, the dynamic is more complicated than that — it’s really complicated. The film wins us over to Kane by presenting him first through the eyes of his greatest enemy. If Thatcher hates him, we feel, he must be pretty OK. A darker side emerges in Bernstein’s affectionate tribute, since Bernstein is not blind to his boss’s faults — he’s just philosophical about them. Leland, the dramatic critic, weighs in very articulately on Kane’s betrayal of “the sacred cause of reform,” but it’s left to Susie to expose Kane as not just a bad friend but a bad man.

Naremore’s very sharp on how the film uses Susie, as Kane described her, as “a cross-section of the American people.” The movie doesn’t show the social damage a figure like Hearst can do, except in metaphoric form through his treatment of the second Mrs Kane.

KANE, Naremore says, is structured around dualities: a man with two wives, two friends, two sleds. And Susan Alexander’s interview brackets the centre of the film, split in two, each sequence opening with the same camera movement, only in this second interview the crane shot up the El Rancho takes place in dawn half-light (it’s EXACTLY the tone of sky you see in the background during the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL) and with a melancholy, tender repeating arpeggio from Herrmann replacing the thunder and drunken jazz of the first version (and a smooth dissolve replacing the botched attempt at a seamless passage through the skylight).

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Susie, in mellower mood than last time, conducts us into flashback with wry, rueful amusement and one of those loooong dissolves, and we meet Matiste the music teacher, one broadly comic element of the film which nobody seems to mind. I think he works well because (asides from Fortunio Bonanova’s big-but-credible performance) his comedy is tied in to the film’s most painful scenes, making for the kind of uncomfortable and conflicted response you get with Uncle Joe Grandi in TOUCH OF EVIL. Welles’ tendency to hit more than one tone at almost the same time, and hit them both hard, may be one of the traits that kept him from mainstream Hollywood success and a certain kind of critical acceptance. Here, there’s no question of it not working because you don’t have to find the comedy funny or view Susie’s plight or Kane’s monstrousness with irony, it’s simply an option made available to you.

This sequence folds back time a short distance to overlap with Leland’s narrative, but now presents her career not as the grotesque public spectacle Leland reacted against, but as a personal torment inflicted by Kane — Susie, in present tense, is well aware that Kane only married her as a damage-limitation exercise when news of their affair got out, and Leland has already told us that the whole opera bit was an exercise in Orwellian copy-editing on a massive scale — ‘He was going to remove the quotation marks around “singer.”‘

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But still, with the scary rehearsal light and the pain of that thin, strained voice, and the desolation of that lonely curtain-up shot with Susie centre-frame (the weakest, most exposed part of the screen to occupy), we have a perspiring Bonanova coaching Susie from the prompter’s box and getting some pretty good laughs. Amid Welles the actor, director, musician and magician, we shouldn’t forget Welles the cartoonist. Naremore points out that Susie’s kneeling pose at the climax of Salammbo is echoed in her confrontations with her husband later.

Fiona suggests that the paper sculpture a bored Leland makes from his programme is a continuation of the film’s octopus imagery.

The play of sympathies in the film gets still more complicated when Susie — in her own account — transforms to a shrieking shrew. Hard not to feel sorry for Kane, in a scene where he’s just lost his oldest friend and been told he’s sold out his most sacred principles, and all the while he’s got this blonde harridan yelling in his ear. One fears for his pipe-stem.

Is Kane a little deaf in old age? There are a couple of “Hmm?” moments which might be simply distraction (which certainly plays a part) but might also be signs of hearing loss. Maybe that’s how he’s been able to enjoy his wife’s singing all these years. It must certainly be a blessing to him now. But the film is also good on how one person not quite hearing another can make any argument get worse…

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Dorothy Comingore’s voice gets so shrill she loses whole words — one line literally comes out as “I never wanty tdo inna first place!” Presumably the missing bits are audible to dogs, and possibly to the Kane family parakeet, the Xanadu monkeys, or those damned animated flamingos.

And FLIP — with the line “I don’t propose to have myself made ridiculous,” Kane loses all audience empathy and becomes a very raw embodiment of the human-inhuman, self-centeredness incarnate. The other great line that does this is in the other best movie ever made, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, VERTIGO, when Jimmy Stewart tries to get Kim Novak to change her hair: “It can’t matter to you!”

Insanely beautiful, terrifying end to scene as Kane’s shadow eclipses Susie, with just a star-point of light reflecting in her eye, beaming from the blackness.

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Newspaper montage! But not the usual kind — the blinking bulb and multi-tracked vocals create a threatening effect that’s more abstract than anything we’ve seen or heard since the Xanadu opening, especially when the filament fades with the dying warble of an extinguished kettle.

The suicide attempt — a cry for help, really — and one of the few trick effect deep focus shots where the trick can be spotted, just because there’s a hazy area between the sleeping pill bottle and the distant door, something that no lens could achieve.

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Susie with no makeup on (apart from the sweat beads, probably a mix of water and baby oil), an unusual thing to see in a ’40s film. Kane allows her to quit her stage career, I guess a genuine act of kindness on his part and a unique example of Kane being forced to do something, and doing it. His normal temperament would be to double-down in the face of opposition and drive Susie on to destruction. But she’s made it clear what the result would be, and he prefers to keep his wife and sacrifice the opera, just as he preferred to sacrifice his previous marriage in a vain attempt to keep his political career. He can tell himself it’s on his own terms.

But with Susie’s career removed, all that’s left is the horror of leisure — her jigsaws are a cruel comment on her lack of any cultural aspirations, but obviously also a bleak summary of the emptiness of her coddled existence and a miniature version of hubbie’s insane art collection — endless, pointless, automatic, isolating.

The rest of the movie, more or less, takes place in Xanadu.

Kane’s picnic — the exact counterpart of this is Bannister’s grotesque, overblown picnic in LADY FROM SHANGHAI — “It was no more a picnic than… he was a man.” The Floridian beachfront is a combination of Californian location and matte painting. Then we’re back to the studio (KANE is a 90% studio construction) with rear-projection for the everglades campsite. I think I’ve said everything there is to be said about the pterodactyl-flamingos.

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The fight in the tent. I am rather sure that slap is real. Comingore flinches a second before it happens. Micheal MacLiammoir writes in Put Money in thy Purse, his often-hysterical account of the shooting of Welles’ OTHELLO, that Welles slapped Suzanne Cloutier for real, after telling her he wouldn’t, in order to avoid her flinching before the blow is struck. I tend to disapprove — movies are full of slaps, most of them fake, but perfectly convincing. The suspicion is hard to shake that directors who require real violence to photograph want it for non-photographic reasons.

“I’m not sorry.” And that weird SCREAMING in the background. No explanation give — maybe the pterodactyls are eating the party guests and the “It Can’t Be Lobe” singer? But it captures the psychological mood of the moment alright.

Susie’s room at Xanadu is like a doll’s house. The low ceiling beams, almost brushing Welles’ bald cap, make the girly, petite dimensions as oppressive in their way as the grand hall’s echoing monumentalism. Again Welles slams a door in our face, but this time immediately cuts to inside the room, facing the other way — with a starry cartoon BLAM! effect in the wood paneling behind Kane, visually complimenting the still-echoing sound of the closing door.

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Charlie NEARLY talks Mrs Kane into staying, but his selfishness betrays him, and she knows him too well to let it pass — this break-up is something that’s being done TO him, is happening to HIM alone.

Susie walks out, triumphant, and is still upbeat when we fade back to El Rancho. Our attitude to her may have changed, from pitying her as a washed-up drunk, to respecting her as the character who best understood Charles Foster Kane, and who is happier in her alcoholic near-obscurity than she was during the years of unwanted fame. As Sinatra said, I’m for whatever gets you through the night.

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“Well what do you know — it’s morning already.”

The Magic World of Orson Welles
Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Casebooks in Criticism)

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Mondo Kane #6: The Huntington Memorial Hospital on 180th St.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by dcairns

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And so to Joseph Cotten, who nearly walked off the film because his old age makeup cracked every time he raised his eyebrows. My suspicion is that Cotten’s thick, slightly wavy hair was putting to great a strain on his Maurice Seiderman bald cap. So in the finished film he wears a sun cap to conceal the join.

Establisher — Thompson looks up at the tall hospital, dwarfed by an even taller bridge. OK, so this is rear-projection, I think — the background was shot previously as a tilt up, and William Alland as Thompson must be on a little elevator being lowered out of view while the camera stays statically filming the rear-pro screen. At least that’s how I guess it was done. It looks unreal yet perfectly real.

Cotten is shot against a strange, abstract, soft-focus background — I think this was shot during the week of tests, so they couldn’t build any really detailed sets. This one looks almost like a backdrop, or a slide. Arguably the shallow depth , unique for the film, has something to do with old Jed Leland’s senility (though he’s really quite lucid — but everybody says the slow dissolves here are due to his rusty memory so let’s go with this).

Cotten’s old age performance is good — he’s trying to suggest weakness without doing exaggerated slow movements — there are bits where his hand drops back into his lap as if it’s quite a weight, which are very fine work indeed. This is another star-making shot, with Welles simply holding on his pal, pushing in very gently now and then, and letting Herrmann underscore with a beautifully elegiac theme. Cotten is utterly magnetic.

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Gainsborougfh girl Ruth Warwick.

The dissolve, aided by fading down the background on Cotten, so we seem to teleport with him into the past — and then we’re in that wonderful snappy compressed marriage seen at the breakfast table, which Welles admitted to pinching from Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner — but applying such narrative devices to a film was still an innovation.

Of course, Leland is apparently describing scenes he didn’t personally witness, and would be unlikely to have been told of in detail — a common movie device. I imagined Welles and Mankiewicz must have considered having Thompson interview the first Mrs. Kane, then decided to kill her off. Emily is so damn shallow here (though perfectly right to protest against her husband’s ignoring her) that we don’t really want to spend a whole chapter of the film in her company, but the breakfast montage HAD to stay in.

But according to Bill Krohn’s Orson Welles at Work (a book I prize), the first draft (by Mankiewicz and John Houseman) had Emily alive but refusing to speak to Thompson. Welles inserted the breakfast montage into draft 6, after killing Emily off. His conscious strategy was to largely ignore the logic of who knew what and organize the flashbacks so they make a kind of narrative sense that’s sometimes chronological, sometimes emotional. Thus, Thatcher is disposed of via his own memoir, which supplies the bookends to Kane’s career, Bernstein supplies the bright and lively early days, perhaps because those are what he chooses to recall, and Leland provides the bitter aftertaste, also setting up Susie Kane so that her narrative will make sense.

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But then Leland’s next memory is about Kane and Susan Alexander, and again he’s not present. He claims Kane told him about it (later, Susie Kane will remember some of Leland’s memories).

Welles cut a bordello scene from the script at the censor’s insistence, and performs some fancy footwork to establish Kane’s extra-marital affair without giving offense. Still, Susan’s invitation to Kane, a well-dressed (if muddy) stranger she has just met, to come back to her room plays a little disreputable, Kane slamming the door in the camera’s face once they’re inside seems VERY suggestive (and very different from the door slam at the Thatcher Memorial Library) but Susie makes him open it again for the landlady’s sake. Still, next time we visit this location, Susie and Charlie will have become lovers and the landlady’s objections are never heard. Possibly Kane has bought the building in the interim.

VERY nice dissolve from the street door to the bedroom door, occupying the same screen space.

Kane/Welles wiggles both ears at the same time, but the joke is his face is so wide and massive we can’t SEE both ears at the same time — he has to turn from side to side. Welles’ ears are on the back of his head.

Giggling at the shadow-puppets — wonderfully naturalistic! The real benefit of the overlapping dialogue, which isn’t just a trick — but also the mis-hearings and repetitions and crack-ups create a real sense of spontaneity and intimacy and make the laughter somewhat infectious, which it rarely is in movies. Like Welles, Comingore is at her very best here, better I think than the later screeching scenes.

“You’re not a professional magician, are you?”

As far as the audience’s sympathies are concerned, I find Kane at his sweetest in the scene where he befriends Susie, and though both Mr and Mrs Kane come across pretty badly in the breakfast montage, Emily’s hint of anti-Semitism tells against her. And Kane seems genuinely touched to meet someone who doesn’t know who he is and still likes him. The reference to his planned expedition to the warehouse prepares the ground for Rosebud’s screen debut — Susie interrupts Kane on his way to the end of the movie —  but also allows Welles to film more conventionally than usual — a two-shot and two close-ups (Fiona noted the very bright light Toland imparts to Dorothy COmingore’s eyes here) — and to simplify his performance. “My mother died…a long time ago,” sounds like Welles. And it’s tempting to imagine the little autobiographical touches here explaining why he’s so good in this scene. He may have been the greatest anti-Stanislavskian of the century, but can any actor say a line like that, if it happens to be the truth, and not feel something? Am I getting sentimental? And Herrmann’s underscoring… I actually blinked pretty hard during this scene. Don’t let anyone say KANE is a cold film — it’s just that the moments of emotion mainly involve a not particularly admirable character.

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“Let’s go to the parlor,” — Fiona is in hysterics at the suggestiveness with which Welles imbues this line.

Electioneering montage, with brief cameo by Joseph Cotten, the guy who’s supposedly our eyewitness. Great special effects at Kane’s rally — not particularly real, but real enough and beautiful enough. The high angle looking past Boss Jim W. Geddes (Ray Collins, so avuncular in AMBERSONS) is pretty Caligariesque in its spatial distortion — the theatre seems to be pitching forward in on itself — but the lopsided poster on the wall behind Geddes somehow balances its expressionistic slanting.

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I think the maid at Kane’s “love nest” kind of misses a beat — she smiles intimately at his arrival, which incriminates him in his wife’s eyes as it proves he’s a regular at this establishment, but she doesn’t betray enough surprise at noticing that CFK has brought another woman to the nest. The maid is cute, though — Louise Franklin was a nightclub dancer and chorus girl, and one could get into trouble imagining how Welles came to cast her.

Confronted by Geddes with the threat of exposure, Kane evinces the kind of self-defeating pride Welles may have sneakingly admired — certainly he said that Macbeth’s decision to fight on, even when he realizes the prophecy which seemed to protect him actually foredooms him, was the single moment of greatness the character shows. Here, Kane has the choice of saving his wife, son and mistress from shame and possibly salvaging his marriage, but he chooses to battle on — apparently under the delusion that he can win, though, which makes him less noble or romantic than the Scottish king, And his words confirm Leland’s belief that Kane was in politics for love “Apparently we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.” The paralysed moment when Kane realises he’s really trapped seems to be the beginning of the tycoon’s stiff-legged robot walk. In middle-aged, he’s already part-monument, but throughout his marriage to Susie he’s seen as this lumbering Frankensteinian somnambulist, a bit like the Colossus of New York.

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Defeat at the polls, and the excellent gag with the two choices of headline.

And finally the narrative crashes into something Jed Leland was an actual participant in. With Gregg Toland filming from a hole dug in the studio floor, he drunkenly harangues his old pal for letting the cause down (but apparently Leland knew about the affair from the start?). Of course it’s strongly hinted that Kane’s political affiliations, such as they are, were chosen solely to piss off his foster father, the bank, and its human surrogate, Walter Parks Thatcher. I’ve tended to feel that writers who focus on the politics and history of KANE are missing the point, the fun and the cinema — I never could get on with the Laura Mulvey BFI Classics book for that reason, and there’s a moment in Leslie Megahey’s BBC documentary on KANE where Pauline Kael says something about the film’s real pleasure being the way it calls up the 1940s, which makes me want to punch the screen. Admittedly, Kael seems kind of vague and doddery.

Mind you, the alternative is perhaps to reduce the movie to a bag of tricks, which I could be in danger of doing here. But it seems to me that shrinking it to a political message reduces it more. I guess the parallel is TOUCH OF EVIL, where the “monster” embodies negative political attitudes but still compels the audience’s sympathies, against our better judgement.

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Anyway, Leland moves to the Chicago paper in time to cover Susan Alexander Kane’s debit in Salammbo. Famous crane shot up through a wipe into a model shot depicting hanging flats of renaissance Venice, reminders of Othello or The Merchant of Venice, two future Welles movie projects, and ending on the unimpressed stagehands. Salammbo itself is set in ancient Carthage, subject of a Wellesian epigram in THE STRANGER.

Susie’s performance is lousy enough to drive Jed back to drink, so then there’s another grand gesture from Kane, finishing his old friend’s bad review, “to prove he was an honest man.” My favourite moment is the awful tragi-comedy of Mr. Bernstein reading the bad notice but faltering at the title of the opera: “I’m afraid I still can’t pronounce that name, Mr Kane.”

And slow fade/dissolve back to Mr Leland, the one Kane acquaintance so far who really has insight to offer into C.F.K.’s mind (Bernstein nails Thatcher, though). The others only tell stories, and their stories are illuminating, but Leland can actually interpret the stories for us.

Leland, like Kane and Macbeth, is indomitable in the face of certain defeat: “You know that young doctor I was telling you about… well, he’s got an idea he wants to keep me alive.”

Orson Welles at Work

Citizen Kane (BFI Film Classics)

Mondo Kane #3: El Rancho #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2013 by dcairns

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As newsreel producer Philip Van Zandt concludes his mission directive to boy reporter Jerry Thompson, we boldly SMASH CUT to a poster of Susan Alexander Kane lit by thunderbolt. Editor Robert Wise ruptures the movie’s zombie-slow forward shuffle at several points, the most famous being the screeching parrot with the see-through eye. This is the first, unless we count the eruptions of News on the March.

As Toland cranes up the wall of the El Rancho night club, we ask: “How many hidden transitions has Vernon L. Walker hidden in this shot?” And the answer comes back, “As many as he wants.” Since his revelations to the BBC about adding optical pans wipes and zooms into the film at Welles’ behest, we can no longer take on faith the actuality of any of Welles’ long takes. Andre Bazin spins in his grave until he starts to drill his way through the earth, tunneling under the surface until he hits a six-foot hill and emerges into daylight, a spinning mummy. Welles from the very start was disproving the reality of the long take.

So when we pass the edge of the movie poster and when we pass the edge of the rooftop, those COULD be optical wipes from one shot to another, blurred over with superimposed rainfall, but they aren’t — the shot seems achievable for real, once you understand it. The whole exterior is a large miniature. The impossible move through the neon sign is accomplished with a breakaway prop, setting the stage for more magic later — whenever the camera isn’t looking, Welles gleefully slides set walls, furniture, props and actors about to rearrange the off-camera world, all part of pretending that the camera is not a chunky piece of studio equipment but merely a floating eye, able to roam anywhere.  (Welles: “Isn’t it basically ridiculous that film is in the camera?” Toland: “Yes. Eventually it will be a kind of electric eye. We won’t be carrying the film around, just the lens.”)

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And then the electric eye attempts to pass through the El Rancho skylight and Walker’s optical solution is probably the worst effect in the film, setting aside that parrot’s missing eyeball. He seems to be trying everything he can think of to tie together the overhead view through the rain-soaked glass with the not-sufficiently-similar crane shot down onto Susan Alexander’s table inside. Rather than the plethora of techniques used — an initial dissolve to get us closer to the glass, half-heartedly disguised by a lightning flash — an optical focus-pull to blur the image — an interpolated ECU of rain-on-pane slung in for God knows what desperate reason (in fairness, probably because the rain on the miniature skylight probably made the shot look like a miniature) — when really one good idea (like whiting the screen out completely for a few frames with lightning zap) would probably have done it. Walker remained embarrassed by the transition, and the praise heaped upon it, throughout his life. We’ll have many more opportunities to examine his more impressive work elsewhere as we sidle through KANE.

At some point before the skylight transition, Herrmann’s score has undergone a more successful segue, from the low sonorities of the Kane theme to a warbly, distant sax and clarinet torch song which toots aimlessly in the background, eventually shading in a xylophonic hallucination, occasionally interrupted by echoing thundersheet booms, giving the El Rancho an appropriately haunted, disconsolate atmosphere. (Soon, we are told, Nat “King” Cole will join the ensemble on piano.) The cactus-and-butte themed mural suggests a cheap movie, something many of KANE’s scenes evoke without ever making the film seem LIKE a cheap movie.

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Gus Schilling, a Welles favourite, plays the headwaiter. He has a face just made for standing over table lamps. Welles cast him as the porter in MACBETH, gave him his best role as Goldie in LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and his last role in TOUCH OF EVIL. Typed as a “nervous comedian,” here he’s discomfited by the fact that Susan Alexander Kane is sloshed as a newt and inclined to surliness. Note — when Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander asks for another highball, her delivery is too slurred to make out the headwaiter’s name. When Thompson addresses him later, he inserts a meaningful pause to get the guy to identify himself. “Josh,” volunteers Schilling’s character, but Thompson is too quick to reply, breaking in before he’s finished the syllable and calling him “John.” That overlapping dialogue will trip you every time.

Note also that Susan Alexander really blows her top at Thompson when he calls her Miss Alexander — she’s billed as Susan Alexander Kane, and apparently regards herself as The Widow, so wouldn’t “Mrs. Kane” have been more tactful, divorce or not? Call these little fumbles the first clues that Thompson isn’t going to succeed in his investigation…

Incidentally, it’s a damn good thing SK holds off telling her side of the story until late in the picture — imagine those revelations coming at the start. We’d have the second wife before we’d met the first wife, we’d have Kane’s opera house building before we saw him get famous, and we’d probably have to show how Kane and Susan Alexander first met, a story Welles wisely gives to Jedediah Leland, who introduces it with just the right dry amusement — Susie will maintain her drunken bitterness by focusing only on the relationship’s sour conclusion.

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Amazing frame-within-the-frame fractured composition during Thompson’s phone call to his boss. Two spotlit areas sliced up by shadow, with Thompson himself a mere black hat, accorded equal prominence with a potted plant. I’d happily believe that the telephone he’s honking into is a cardboard cutout, but I fear it’s squandering a whole extra dimension by being real.

“She never heard of Rosebud.” And — fade, The film’s first slow, more or less conventional transition allows us to feel that the plot has truly begun. Maybe something as recognizable as a First Act has been completed.

Next: The Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library.

Buy Robert L. Carringer’s excellent The Making of “Citizen Kane”