Who knows how it will fare in thirty years?
— Orson Welles, 1983, on Citizen Kane.
Joe was depositing a $300 check at the bank the other day and the 20-something teller asked “anything else?” When he said no, she said “awesome.” What, thought he, is awesome about a $300 deposit? If it were three million dollars it might be “awesome.”
Naturally Joe said nothing as she went about her task. He knew it was just another example of young people expanding the language and applying useless words such as awesome, terrific, fantastic, incredible to everyday, mundane transactions.
Joe stood there wondering — what really was awesome, that is, inspiring awe?
Motion pictures, I suppose were AWESOME a hundred and twenty years ago. People must have stood and watched “in awe.” Imagine someone, then, trying to tell another person about moving pictures.
Then Joe supposed that when sound was added that was a bit awesome. Not as awesome as sound itself had been two generations before, when recordings of music and voice could be brought to every small town and wilderness in the world.
But what’s really awesome, he thought, was that some of those motion pictures, silent and sound, are still watched today, decades later. And still have an impact. They are called CLASSIC MOVIES.
On TCM they even go further, by citing some classic movies as “Essential.” And we, your classic movie guys, Joe Morella and Frank Segers, couldn’t agree more. There are wonderful films, silent and sound, which are essential viewing. Not just for movie buffs, but for anyone who would have a knowledge of history.
Over the next few weeks we will spotlight some of the TOP TEN CLASSIC FILMS.
We’ll start with one of our top favorites, Citizen Kane.
We took the opening quote of today’s blog from the newly-published My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (Henry Holt and Company, Metropolitan Books). This wonderful book presents the contents of a series of luncheon chats covering all manner of topics and recorded (with Welles’ permission) by director-actor-writer Jaglom. Since the exchanges continued until five days before Welles’ death, on Oct. 10, 1985, they are in effect the director’s final public words.
Kane, the unforgettable debut feature inspired at least in part by the life press magnate William Randolph Hearst, was made at RKO in 1941 when Welles was only 25. His qualms expressed four decades later about his movie’s staying power were and are completely groundless. We cannot think of another movie that so well stands the test of time, that is, more than qualifies as a genuine classic.
The marvelous cast was then new to movie audiences — Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Ruth Warrick, William Alland, Paul Stewart, Erskine Sanford — most members of Welles’ stage troupe, the Mercury Theatre players.
We won’t get into the controversy that raged some decades back about who really wrote the script, Welles or Herman J. Mankiewicz. We accept the Academy Awards’ implicit decision in 1942 when the best screenplay Oscar was shared by both men. Citizen Kane did NOT win the best picture award (director John Ford’s family drama, How Green Was My Valley, did), a point of embarrassment ever since for the Academy.
Besides its excellent cast, Citizen Kane benefitted immensely from tremendous supporting advantages, including groundbreaking black-and-white cinematography by Gregg Toland and a superb, dynamic musical score by Bernard Herrmann.
What the late critic Pauline Kael — who set off the firestorm about Welles versus Mankiewicz; she favored the latter — wrote in 1971 still stands: “Citizen Kane” is perhaps the one American talking pictures that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may even seem fresher.
Novelist (and sometime movie reviewer) John O’Hara famously wrote about Citizen Kane that it is not only the best picture that ever has been made, it is the best picture that ever will be made.
In his luncheon chats with Jaglom, Welles surprised his companion with a statement that basically “Kane” is a comedy…in the classic sense of the world. Not a fall-in-the-aisles laughing comedy, but because the tragic trappings are parodied…It’s moving but so can comedies be moving.
For his part, Jaglom in a forward to his book with Welles wonders if because the film — and (Welles) in it — are so affecting and so near perfect that… was there nothing for him to do with the rest of his life after making it, is that his secret and does he know it? Is “Citizen Kane” his rosebud?