Citizen Kane has widely been praised as the greatest film ever made, particularly for its innovative narrative structure, its cinematography, editing, and Orson Welles' tour de force performance. Pauline Kael called it "the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened", and Francois Truffaut called it the film that "probably has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers". It was the rare film that came out of the American Studio system where the filmmaker had complete creative control, and now occupies the number one spot on many internationally-recognized lists of the Greatest Films Of All Time.
There has always been a great deal of controversy about who is responsible for the initial idea and screenplay of Citizen Kane. Herman J. Mankiewicz was a playwright, and the first regular theater critic for the New Yorker. He had a notorious alcohol problem and was addicted to gambling. Mankiewicz met William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, in 1940 and apparently had wanted to make a film about Hearst before he even met Welles. Pauline Kael famously supported Mankiewicz's claim of planting the original creative seeds of Citizen Kane, writing that Mankiewicz proposed an idea to Welles about making a "'prismatic' movie about the life of a man seen from several different points of view" (49). Kael claims that the idea of Hearst as the inspiration for the protagonist was what excited Welles.
Meanwhile, Welles claimed to have come up with the idea to make a film about Hearst, which is also supported by sources close to the director. Welles had helped to create the March of Time obituary on munitions tycoon Sir Basil Zaharoff (which would inspire the newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane): "Zaharoff's secretaries burning his papers in the giant fireplace of his castle. Later, witnesses are called to remember Zaharoff's life. Later still, the dying, castle-dwelling Zaharoff, played by Welles, is given his own voice and his own valedictory camera. He announces a wish to be wheeled into the sun 'by that rosebush'" (Andrews). Regardless of the source of the idea, a film about Hearst was right up Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles's respective alleys. Like Welles, Hearst "had been at the center of controversy for his entire public life. But in the 1930s, it became commonplace to question or even attack the older ideal of America and the system of values that Hearst represented" (Carringer 17).
Mankiewicz's first draft of the screenplay, simply called American, was more than 250 pages long, and told the story of "a publishing tycoon and public figure told in retrospect after his death by the persons who had known him best" (Carringer 18). This script apparently had a lot of specific incidents taken straight from William Randolph Hearst's life, which Mankiewicz was certainly privy to because of his background as a journalist and his own visits to San Simeon, Hearst's famous castle. For example, he would have known that Marion Davies (Hearst's mistress who is believed to be the inspiration for Susan Alexander) loved jigsaw puzzles and was a heavy drinker. For reasons of copyright infringement, American would have been a major legal problem for RKO if they had chosen to put it into production. Welles soon took over the scripting process himself, working off of Mankiewicz's drafts. However, as the project neared the point of production, the budget came in much higher than Schaefer was willing to spend. At this moment, the film could have fallen apart completely, but Welles spearheaded revisions on the production plan and the screenplay to reduce the film's scope. Mankiewicz came back on to continue cutting down the script.
The film, which was called RKO 281 at this point, finally went into production on June 29, 1940. It was filmed on what is now the Paramount Lot in Hollywood with some location filming around California. Orson Welles forbade studio executives from visiting the set. Production was completed four months later on October 23, 1940. The film eventually cost $686,033. However, after the film was complete, the problems began anew. Louella Parsons, the Hollywood correspondent for Hearst's publications, saw a preview screening and walked out, furious. She called George Schaefer and threatened to sue RKO if the film was ever released. Soon afterwards, Hearst's papers banned any mention of RKO, especially Citizen Kane. Hearst papers threatened to publish an editorial exposing Hollywood's frequent hiring of immigrants and refugees for jobs that could be filled easily by American workers unless the film was shelved. All the studio heads in Hollywood pleaded with Schaefer not to release the film, even offering to reimburse his costs and then some, but their requests fell on deaf ears. One trade exposed Hollywood's anxiety around the picture; "the industry could ill afford to be made the object of counterattack by the Hearst newspapers" (Kael 7).
However, Schaefer released Citizen Kane as planned. Critics loved the film although RKO lost money on the theatrical run due to Hearst's boycott. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards but only won one for Best Screenplay, which Welles had to share with Mankiewicz. Apparently the Oscar crowd booed every time Citizen Kane was mentioned during the ceremony.
By the 1950s, though, Citizen Kane re-emerged thanks to repeat airings on television and the support of famous film critics like Andrew Sarris and Andre Bazin. Pauline Kael writes, "Like most films of the sound era that are called masterpieces, Citizen Kane has reached its audience gradually over the years rather than at the time of release". Cinematographers have continued to cite Welles and Toland's visual handling of the material as an inspiration, a film that invigorated the craft. Robert Carringer notes that since the 1960s, Citizen Kane is "far and away the film most often studied in college and university film classes". Geoff Andrew praises the film's timeless universality, saying, "it's about a tycoon but it's about America. It's about how we think about ourselves and how people will think about us after we die."