The Controversy Behind 'Citizen Kane,' 'Mank,' and Pauline Kael

'Citizen Kane'
'Citizen Kane'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures
Pauline Kael wrote the book on Citizen Kane, but what if her main findings weren't valid? 

When you're writing about the process behind the scenes of a film, it's important to only state the facts and not editorialize too much. All of this takes will power and fairness, especially when you're talking about cinema. There's a real temptation to sensationalize certain details based on the way you feel about the creators, but when you do that, you can purposefully skew history and change people's legacies. 

And it's very hard to come back from that. 

Check out this video from The Royal Ocean Film Society about Citizen Kane, Pauline Kael, and the legacy of the film. Let's talk after the jump afterward.

The Controversy Behind Citizen Kane, Mank, and Pauline Kael

One of the most argued points in film theory is the idea of auteurism, or that the director is the sole author of a film. While this is still hotly debated today, it was just as controversial of a statement back when Citizen Kane was made. 

See, Orson Welles was labeled an entertainment wunderkind, and people were clamoring to see what he would work on next. Working on one of Welles' radio shows was journalist and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. He had worked for William Randolph Hearst and completed a few drafts of a screenplay based on his life. 

Welles joined that project as its director, and the rest is history. Well... sort of...

We know that Citizen Kane went on to be one of the most heralded films of all time, to sit atop the AFI top 100 films, and to be forever labeled "an Orson Welles masterpiece." But what happened to Mankiewicz? 

He wrote the script, and as legend has it, Welles forced his name off the title page to boost his own legend and ego. 

Well, the new David Fincher movie Mank aims to tell a version of the making of this movie. Still, there might be an even wilder untaped version people don't talk about enough. 

As you saw in the video above, around 30 years after its release, Pauline Kael stepped in to write a book on Citizen Kane. It was going to be the definitive companion piece to the movie and tell the untold story behind its creation. 

'Citizen Kane'
'Citizen Kane'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures

Raising Kane by Pauline Kael found a ton of success with movie buffs and casual readers alike. It was a sensational essay that asserted Welles stole credit from Mank, who had dictated the original drafts of the script to his secretary, Rita Alexander, while Welles was not present. 

Her essays went on to be included in the definitive book written on Citizen Kane

Kael wrote of Welles, "His later films—even those he has so painfully struggled to finance out of his earnings as an actor—haven’t been conceived in terms of daring modern subjects that excite us, as the very idea of Kane excited us. This particular kind of journalist’s sense of what would be a scandal as well as a great subject, and the ability to write it, belonged not to Welles but to his now almost forgotten associate Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the script, and who inadvertently destroyed the picture’s chances. There is a theme that is submerged in much of Citizen Kane but that comes to the surface now and then, and it’s the linking life story of Hearst and of Mankiewicz and of Welles—the story of how brilliantly gifted men who seem to have everything it takes to do what they want to do are defeated. It’s the story of how heroes become comedians and con artists."

If you read the entire piece in The New Yorker, Welles is the villain. There are passages about his egomania and inability to find Kane's success again. It's a total deconstruction of his ego, his desire to not let Mankiewicz overshadow him, and to be known as a genius. 

Kael paints him as a scheming narcissist who wanted to be the boy wonder so many believed he was... the auteur. 

The essay goes into the vicious battle for the credit on the film, which one of Mankiewicz's own descendants says he gave to Welles as a favor. 

Kael was praised for this essay, and it deeply colored the way the world thought of Welles at the time. Even today, the legends around him still stem from our understanding of that work. 

But as you saw in the video... what if all that was wrong? 

What if Kael's research wasn't done with any sort of fairness or good faith? 

'Citizen Kane'
'Citizen Kane'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures

The Truth Behind Citizen Kane 

You see, Mankiewicz died in 1953, so he wasn't interviewed for Kael's book. In fact, Kael didn't do a lot of her own research—but we're going to get to that.

At the time Kael's essay was published and then subsequently adapted, Peter Bogdanovich was forming a friendship with Welles. Through hundreds of hours of interviews, Bogdanovich felt he came to the actual truth behind the movie. 

One that was drastically different than Kael's truth. 

Bogdanovich published The Kane Mutiny, disputing many of Kael's assertions. Welles provided contradictions to her ideas, but obviously, some of those ideas could be seen as just hearsay. 

Still, as people dug deeper into Kane, they found people who witnessed the process between Mank and Welles and had different opinions. After a complete excavation of the RKO archives, people were able to find the first two drafts of the Citizen Kane script, which proved that Mankiewicz was the sole author of those screenplays. 

But not so fast...

There were five additional drafts to Kane that were being worked on while the movie was shooting. Witnesses said they saw Welles rewriting in real-time as scenes would happen, and that he and Mank would frequently talk to one another to rebreak new scenes. 

There are even a few instances of Welles writing his own drafts alone, while Mank was off working on other movies. 

Here's what Bogdanovich surmised in his Kane Mutiny essay when it comes to Kael's motivations: "Welles was a shrewd choice. He’s somebody people love to attack, anyway. Whether he deserves all that kicking around is another matter of opinion. It may easily be argued that he brings it on himself, and just as easily that it’s not only in Hollywood that the price of real stature in a man is the eager venom with which others try to cut him down. For over three years now I’ve been working on a book about Welles, not so much straining for new aesthetic evaluations, but, quite simply, trying to pin down what can be documented as the truth about his career to date as a film maker. Not an easy job, but, nearing the end of it, I think I can state with some authority that Ken Russell does not exaggerate when he calls Miss Kael’s article “Hedda Hopperish and Louella Parsonsish.” Strong words, but, unfortunately, Miss Kael does indeed manage to reach the level of the old gossipmongers when she claims that Mankiewicz, the credited co-author of the Kane script, 'was blackmailed into sharing credit with Welles.' Equally strong words, and the bitter fact is that in the published version of his own film Welles stands accused of being, in effect, a liar and a thief. Well, either he is or he isn’t."

'Citizen Kane'
'Citizen Kane'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures

So how did Kael get there? 

There are many reasons Kael could have written her piece with such explicit bias. Maybe she hated the idea of auteur theory, or maybe she hated that Welles was this mythical anointed one, when filmmakers she revered had fallen by the wayside. 

Maybe she thought the essay would bring her much-needed publicity. Maybe she had an agenda all to herself—we truly will never know. 

To make matters more confusing, there's not just a dispute about Kane and authorship, but also there are many questions about Kael's own article. In fact, there was a UCLA professor named Howard Suber who was writing his own essay, which he shared with Kael, about the same subject.

She promised to pay and credit him if she could use his research on the movie but never did. Most of her "interviews" in her original piece were actually ones done by Stuber. While it's hard to see if she got any of her own quotes, there is a disturbing amount of overlap. He was sent a check for $375 for his work, and nothing else. 

“If I’d only known what I know about copyright now, I would have sued her ass, but I didn’t,” Suber told TheWrap.

Stuber's own conclusion on Kane was that it was a total collaboration between Welles and Mank, that it was impossible to tell who created what, just crucial that this collaboration brought out some of the finest work from both individuals.

You can read all about Suber's research in an article done on him for Reuters, where he says it's still difficult to deal with how he was ripped off. 

Crazily, this must have been how both Welles and Mank felt when Citizen Kane came out. 

So who was the real genius behind the movie? 

The answer lies somewhere between the auteur theory and screenwriting arbitration. While there is no doubt in my mind that Mankiewicz deserved credit on the film, I don't think it's so egregious that both of them shared credit. There are certainly directorial flourishes that prove Welles' stamp, but he never would have gotten there without all the work Mankiewicz did to put those first two drafts together. 

And one detail we have not mentioned, but Mankiewicz was the one with an actual friendship with Hearst. It was his firsthand knowledge that made it into the script, and his words that upset Hearst the most. 

One of the most problematic things about the auteur label is that it discounts the people who help a director put things together. 

It will be interesting to see how Fincher's Mank movie deals with the drama behind the scenes in the movie. 

Had you ever heard about all this history? This was my first time weeding through the facts. No wonder Fincher was excited to make this movie. 

Let us know what you think in the comments!      

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2 Comments

Great article, almost too great for this popcorn site. Now I have to go watch Mank.

December 3, 2020 at 7:01AM

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Noah Leon
Filmmaker @ Moosefuel Media
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Thanks! But I am proud of our popcorn too!

December 4, 2020 at 9:08AM

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Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
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This is a good article. Thanks for putting in the work. I was aware of the Suber shenanigans Kael was involved in, but there is a lot of new information here. I was a Kael reader starting in 1978 and I've come to conclusion (the puritans of today won't like it) that Kael was a great writer and critic, but not a great person. Also, in her time, what she most likely endured from men in her field and in the whole of culture, is probably not something I would have liked. But I do hope folks read this article.

December 27, 2020 at 6:29PM

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