Archive for RKO

Mondo Kane #8: Xanadu #2

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by dcairns


Let’s talk about the script. There’s been an EC Comics horror-retribution thing going on with perception of it. First, we are told, Welles tried to bribe Herman Mankiewicz into giving up credit. Despite H.M. very properly retaining his name on the film, critical discourse tended to favour the genius and ignore the man perceived as a hack, or at best, someone with the status of a Buster Keaton co-director, performing a technical function to support the true creative work,

Then Kael wrote her essay, Raising Kane, and quoted Mankiewicz’s secretary who said Welles didn’t write a word. The idea of shining a light on Toland, Mankiewicz and other collaborators was a perfectly noble one, but this didn’t have to be at Welles’ expense — at any rate, had Kael spoken to Welles, or Welles’ secretary, or even Houseman (a Welles enemy by this time, but one who was always willing to concede Welles’ script role), or studied the various drafts, she could have discovered for herself Welles’ sizable contribution.

Welles, in his later years, would also say that John Houseman also deserved co-writer status.


Now, things have swung around a bit — Welles is the one people are mostly interested in, and the lingering effect of all this intrigue is the stain on his character concerning his attempt to “rob” Mankiewicz of credit (really an attempt to BUY the credit, but still a bit disreputable). It’s something that rankled — when Welles asked a commercials director to annoy him, so he could have the correct emotion for a scene, the guy teased him about his weight to no effect, but the question “Why did you try to steal Herman J. Mankiewicz’s writing credit?” apparently provoked a colossal strop — he had GONE TOO FAR.

Simon Callow, in The Road to Xanadu, observes that Mankiewicz’s contract explicitly stated that for legal purposes the author of any screenplay would be Mercury Productions, with Mank as a mere employee. I expect that was fairly standard practice, because the industry has never been comfortable granting screenwriters the kind of moral rights artists normally have — if they did, an objection from some ink-stained wretch could hold up the whole titanic machinery of production.

He also observes that Welles was in the midst of a savage game of telegram tennis with a man who wanted to publish the script of the War of the Worlds broadcast, and credit Howard Koch as writer. Koch, in his own memoir, describes the writing process for the radio shows as something like (a) He would work all day and all night to adapt the chosen literary source for that week’s broadcast (b) Houseman would edit (c) an assistant would begin rehearsals (d) Welles would come in, take over, and breathe his magic into it.

But he also admits that Welles would be involved at the start of the process, too — War of the Worlds came with an instruction to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins.

Koch, receiving just seventy-five dollars a week, was happy to cede credit — for the first time in his life, he could call himself a professional writer. Mankiewicz, understandably, at his time in life, preferred a substantial credit to a substantial cheque. But considering his previous working practices, and his reputation, and his own contract which stated he was to write, produce, direct and star in a film for RKO, Welles’ rather shady action becomes at least understandable. Like many directors (John Ford: “A screenplay is dialogue, and I hate dialogue,”) Welles possibly undervalued the work of the screenwriter. Yet those who want to give Mankiewicz all of the credit for KANE have to willfully overlook or trash the other films Welles undoubtedly DID co-write or write entirely.

And check out the credit Welles finally DID give Mank (top).


And so to another shifty character, Paul Stewart as the shifty butler is introduced via an abrupt dissolve to the big K sign (Herrmann accompanies it with what sounds like an anvil strike) and then an equally quick dissolve to Stewart just as a match light his face and his cigarette. Then we’re plunged into shadow again, as if Stewart was trying to out-silhouette our intrepid boy reporter Mr Thompson.


These speedy cross-fades have been leading up a real quick mix to the screeching parrot — as if Robert Wise wanted to invent direct cutting twenty years before the nouvelle vague pretended they did, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go there. So what should be a shock cut as jarring as the one to the lighting-bolt-lit Susie Kane poster, is instead a dissolve of just a few frames, with the sudden whiteness of the parakeet, the jolt of its squawk, and the peculiar quirk of superimposition that’s robbed it of an eye, all compensating for the unwanted gentleness which the lack of a hard cut tends to produce. It also helps, in a perverse way, that the parrot appears frames ahead of its background, as if it were teleporting in from Long John Silver’s shoulder.

I guess because a bird’s eye is very dark, effectively black in a monochrome film, it came out transparent while the rest of the parakeet, being white, bleaches out the background. They should have jammed that damn snowglobe into the empty socket.


The squawker was never scripted, and no record that I know of exists explaining how it came to flutter into the film — seemingly an edit room afterthought like the statue of Thatcher. What it obscure is an atypically planimetric composition with an unconvincing rear-pro beachfront. The weird Xanadu mix of architectural styles is nice here, but I can imagine Welles rejecting the stable, flat, full stop of a shot and grasping around for some way to jazz it up. A shrieking jungle bird fit the bill nicely.


The following shot, though equally rigid, is a stunner, with the kind of smashing perspective Welles liked. Can a lateral view be vertiginous?

Welles trashes Susie’s room, the only scene obviously filmed with two cameras, to minimize re-takes. It may even have been a one-take wonder, since re-setting and repairing the bedroom would have been quite an operation. John Houseman suggests that Kane’s tantrum was based on Welles’ own furious reaction to Houseman’s dissolution of their partnership, in which case the scene may be part of Houseman’s amorphous but widely-acknowledged contribution to the script (although his script work on the radio shows was more editorial than creative). Welles for his part reported feeling genuine emotion as he smashed up the set, a rare occurrence for him. And yet, the real emotion doesn’t actually photograph, and Kane appears more the lumbering automaton than ever. This works fine, don’t get me wrong — it just may not be what was intended.


“Rosebud.” Not the snowglobe’s first appearance — it can be seen, prominently positioned, in Susie’s love nest during the Leland flashbacks. So it’s Susie’s trashy taste, but it has an emotional effect on Kane greater than all of his art collection — it reminds him, during this moment of loss, of the original loss, his mother who sent him away to be educated.

Suzie’s ceiling beams have their own menagerie — the The Birds of the Air! The fish of the sea! But no sign of an unconvincing octopus or flamingo-pterodactyl.

Kane pockets the snowglobe, absently, as he wanders off, and presumably installs it by his bedside from now until his death as a constant and painful reminder that he can’t have what he really wants. As he walks past his startled staff, he disappears from frame and is replaced by his own reflection. A walking shadow. And then he’s fragmented into an infinity of reflections, as if lost in a maze of illusions or in the shards of the snowglobe that shatters at the instant of his death.

“Sentimental fellow, aren’t you?”
“Mmm, yes and no.”


This is the only flashback sequence that opens out into a whole other scene, the dismantling of Xanadu (like a movie set being taken down after the production is over). And that will form the subject of our final installment…

“You can keep on asking questions if you want to.”

Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle
Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle

Mondo Kane #3: El Rancho #1

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


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.”)


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.


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.


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”

Mondo Kane #2: News! On! The! March!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2013 by dcairns


I am blogging my way through CITIZEN KANE, sequence by sequence, as if it was a movie serial or something.

Following the experimental opening sequence, as quirky and unique as Welles could make it, we get the newsreel, as deliberately anonymous as possible, thus providing the most jarring possible contrast with what’s gone before. So it’s the one part of the film not scored by Herrmann, instead using a swill of sources from the RKO library, including cues from Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Roy Webb and Anthony Collins; and it’s the one part not cut by Robert Wise, since Welles felt nobody could duplicate the crazy-quilt cutting of newsreels, so they got RKO’s own newsreel department to hack the footage together.

Brazen fanfare and the stentorian bellowing of William Alland, whose future career as producer of Universal B-movies is prophesied by his role here as Shrill Mockumentary Man (THE MOLE PEOPLE isn’t a mockumentary, I know, but it does open with a scientist lecturing us. Alland’s pictures often pursued a factual veneer, but he never had the courage to do what Welles did in his radio War of the Worlds).



The RKO newsreel department got a leg up in its craziness by the scenario, since the decision to divide newsreel exposition between VO and intertitles gives it a nicely choppy, arbitrary quality. When William Wyler prepared ROMAN HOLIDAY, he originally planned to open unannounced with a newsreel announcing “Princess Ann’s” visit to Rome — since Audrey Hepburn was an unknown at this point, audiences would have been taken in — Wyler wanted people to think the projectionist had put the wrong reel on by mistake. This was so successful at the special screening for the studio heads that a riot nearly broke out and Wyler reluctantly concluded that the idea was ahead of its time. Welles probably sensed that opening on News on the March would be a step to close to his recent radio controversy, so we get the avant-garde Xanadu bit first…)

The newsreel cobbles together VO, intertitles, stock shots (including a shot from DRUMS OF FU MANCHU), custom-scratched fake stock shots, celebrity impersonations (Roosevelt and Hitler), a mock-up of a Hearst press composograph (the photoshop of its day — as when they printed prison bars over an image of Fatty Arbuckle, a nasty gag later ascribed to Kane in his dealings with Boss Jim W. Geddes), much play with film speeds and jumpy splices, and mocked-up hidden camera footage. Most of these devices seem to be entirely new to motion pictures — when people bang on about the ceilings in earlier movies or Hawks’ use of overlapping dialogue in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ask them about this. The only precedent I can think of for this is in the assemblages of experimental filmmakers like Joseph Cornell, or Adrian Brunel’s gag film CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA, neither of which Welles or his team were that likely to be familiar with.

I’d like to know more about where the stock shots originally appeared. But many of the shots which look as if they might be archive, turn out on closer examination to be specially filmed footage (all those crates labeled “KANE”) — by shooting fast and light, Welles seems to have been able to generate a vast resource of material for this movie, slowing down and employing a totally different aesthetic for the “real” movie.

Just as in OTHELLO, MR ARKADIN and the original cut of THE STRANGER, Welles begins by revealing all the “surprises” of the story, thus enhancing the sense of tragic inevitability, if you like, or perversely cutting off dramatic tension at the ankles if you don’t like. In fact, knowing the ending is no barrier to involvement, as anyone who’s watched the same film twice can tell you, so the effect is really to let the audience feel the emotion unencumbered by anticipation — we won’t be wondering what happens to the characters, will we? Even though Leland and Bernstein don’t appear in the newsreel so they should be spoiler-free, when we meet them we immediately see that one is in an old folks home and the other is chairman of the board, so that kind of suspense is out the window.

Welles was very young, but his considerable experience staging the classics had clearly taught him that foreknowledge is no barrier to feeling.


“1941’s biggest, strangest funeral” takes place at the church from the beginning of RKO’s THE BODY SNATCHER, which is meant to be in Edinburgh and not in Xanadu at all. My assumption is the church set must have been constructed for some previous production, but I haven’t identified it. THE LITTLE MINISTER and MARY OF SCOTLAND, both RKO films with Scottish settings, would make sense, but the set appears in neither. Probably a movie closer to KANE in time would make more sense. LITTLE WOMEN?

Welles’ youth is carefully concealed in this newsreel — Kane appears only in middle and old age, since he was presumably not important enough to be filmed in his hot youth, and anyway movies were only beginning then. This allows us to feel that Welles only “really” appears during the Thatcher’s memoir sequence, where we see him young (wearing more makeup, Welles liked to claim, than when he’s aged to eighty). But there’s one brief dialogue scene where we see Kane the old duffer joshing stiffly with one of his own pressmen, kidding around and self-mythologising shamelessly (“We asked them quicker than that when I was a reporter,” — Kane was never a reporter.)


The newsreel is as much about Xanadu as it is about Kane — he’s even introduced as “Xanadu’s Landlord” — as if the big house was what the public mainly cared about. But the Xanadu seen in the newsreel only sometimes resembles the  matte shot opening sequence. Like Kane’s life, the version seen here is a patchwork of different pieces of footage, some recognizable as specific buildings (eg Eastern Military Academy). Since KANE serves as a sort of prediction of the rest of Welles’ career, it’s easy to see this sequence as laying the foundations for OTHELLO and THE TRIAL, which owe much of their dreamlike, fragmentary atmosphere to Welles’ habit of joining together geographically separate locations by editing. Kuleshov would do a spit-take. Milk would come out of Kuleshov’s nose. The Xanadu that we actually see Charles and Susan Alexander living in is never suggested by the newsreel — assembled not from archive footage but from spare pieces from the RKO scene dock, it is a very different kind of dream composograph. My blog will have more to say about this later.


“…a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built.” And if it had been unsuccessful? What does an unsuccessful mountain look like?

The brazen fanfare, so insulting to the ear when it’s first heard after Herrmann’s moody overture, is even more offensive crashing in as a response to “as it must to all men, DEATH came to Charles Foster Kane.” But while we’re still sputtering like Erskine Sanford in response to that outrage, Welles and Robert Wise teleport us out of the screen and into an RKO screening room with a series of giddy-making cuts, the first one being one of my three or four favourite cuts in all cinema, an 80º yank clockwise and to the right that repositions News on the March in perspective, rather like the No Trespassing sign  that began the film. There are a few, less-striking edits like this in the film — this one seems to suggest that we’ve telepathically skipped from the POV of an observer middle row centre to one front row far left of the screen. Movies can do visually what novels can do psychically — convey the point of view of one character then another, as if the author literally had the ability to drift like an invasive ghost into other people’s heads. Since KANE will show the life of a man from a variety of perspectives, this technique is oddly apt.


And now we have our first proper dialogue scene, but Welles isn’t prepared to slacken the reins yet, so he keeps his entire cast mainly in the shadows. Crowding most of his principal actors (including Cotten and himself) into the cramped auditorium, he challenges us not to recognise them, capitalising on the fact that most of them aren’t familiar to movie audiences yet. Time has sabotaged this trick (played partly from necessity, as Welles shot the scene pretending it was a “test,” thus jumping the gun on his schedule and tricking RKO into greenlighting production before they’d had a chance to second-guess themselves) — Cotten’s braying southern rasp (“Rosebud!” — he just can’t get over the effeminacy of the thing) is much more familiar to us now. Robert Wise, called in to help grade the DVD, helped muck it up too, brightening the whole film “so we can see more.” And the Blu-ray, by dint of its very definition, reveals details previously obscure, so the joke is revealed. Deal with it.

Welles’ use of overlapping dialogue strikes me as more natural, more chaotic and less orchestrated than Hawks’ — not as anarchic as Altman’s (Welles didn’t have multiple mics and a portable mixer to draw upon) — there are places where he’s happy to have sheer hubbub, others where he knows he needs certain lines to be completely clear. The Hawks and Sturges approach merely allows actors to step on each others’ lines for maximum pace of delivery, whereas Welles is aiming for the real-life effect where not every word is audible all the time, adding verisimilitude as well as energy. Welles, of course, is no realist, and so his adaptations of reality end up commingling with surreal and expressionistic devices to create that curious nightmare effect we call Wellesian.

In the first group shot, Philip Van Zandt is so dimly lit that it’s only his incessant big cat pacing that let’s us know who’s speaking.


Then he gets the God shot, borrowed by Scorsese for THE AVIATOR the light blasted by Toland from the projection booth into the smoky interior seems to crucify him. It’s a crazy vision of a screening room with no light switch, illumined by the glare of a projector with no film, bouncing off the empty screen, filtering through a fug of lung cancer. Those newsmen are all going to keel over at fifty facedown in their steak dinners.

Since almost everybody is a silhouette, the fact that Thompson, our bespectacled knight-errant, is barely visible and generally in three-quarter back view, doesn’t pop out as strange, and so it doesn’t strike us as odd when he stays that way for the whole movie. In William Alland, Welles had found an actor characterful enough to occupy a space on the screen, but bland enough not to take over too much of the audience’s consciousness. Alland felt the audience wondered if this unseen investigator was hiding something — why can’t we see his face? — is HE Rosebud? — but I never had the least curiosity about Thompson. He’s sarcastic enough to be good company (passive-aggressively needling a snooty librarian), professionally sympathetic when dealing with a drunk, and he asks the kind of ordinary questions Welles would spend a lifetime patiently fielding. That is all.


Philip Van Zandt as newsreel producer Mr Rawlston is the first of the movie’s underappreciated stars, a sly, peppy and commanding Dutchman. Other Van Zandt roles you may have seen: in wartime, a bunch of Nazi soldiers, exemplified by the role of Thirsty German Soldier in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN; the important part of Undetermined Secondary Role (scenes deleted) in TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY; Muller, one of the few non-monster characters in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; a Cartel Member in GILDA; for Welles again, Policeman/Thug in LADY FROM SHANGHAI; various roles for John Farrow who evidently liked him a lot; various Arabs, including one in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE; Mr Jones (scenes deleted) in THE BIG COMBO, presumably exploiting his experience lurking in the shadows — maybe he strayed too far into the dark and vanished from the emulsion altogether; The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu on television, apt, given Rawlston’s sampling of THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU for his newsreel; Radio Program Director in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS; The High Mucky Muck in Three Stooges short OUTER SPACE JITTERS.

Are you weeping yet? As Welles said to Leslie Megahey, “It’s no way to live a life.”

(If you want true tragedy, consider that the Australian actor impersonating Roosevelt died in January 1941, meaning he almost certainly never got the chance to see the finished movie.)

Rawlston shuns the light and vanishes from the film after just one scene, sitting in offscreen on a phone cal or two but otherwise troubling us no more. But let us doff our snap-brim fedoras at this unsung backroom bigshot — like James Bond’s M and Austin Powers’ Basil Exposition, he has served to kickstart our narrative — he has given us a Quest.

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

Next Week: El Rancho


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