To ensure that Citizen Kane's influence from Hearst's life was a secret, Welles limited access to dailies and managed the film's publicity.:111 Publicity materials in the December 1940 issue of Stage stated the film's inspiration was Faust, but made no mention of Hearst.:111
The film was scheduled to premiere at RKO's flagship theater Radio City Music Hall on February 14, but in early January 1941 Welles was not finished with post-production work and told RKO that it still needed its musical score.:205 Writers for national magazines had early deadlines and so a rough cut was previewed for a select few on January 3, 1941:111 for such magazines as Life, Look and Redbook. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (and Parsons' arch rival) showed up to the screening uninvited. Most of the critics at the preview said that they liked the film and gave it good advanced reviews. Hopper wrote negatively about it, calling the film a “viscous and irresponsible attack on a great man” and criticizing its corny writing and old fashioned photography.:205 Friday magazine ran an article drawing point-by-point comparisons between Kane and Hearst and documented how Welles had led on Parsons, Hollywood correspondent for Hearst papers.:111 Up until this Welles had been friendly with Parsons. The magazine quoted Welles as saying that he couldn’t understand why she was so nice to him and that she should “wait until the woman finds out that the picture’s about her boss.” Welles immediately denied making the statement and the editor of Friday admitted that it may be false. Welles apologized to Parsons and assured her that he had never made that remark.:205
Shortly after Friday's article Hearst sent Parsons an angry letter complaining that he had learned about Citizen Kane from Hopper and not her. The incident made a fool of Parsons and compelled her to start attacking Welles and the film. Parsons demanded a private screening of the film and personally threatened Schaffer on Hearst’s behalf, first with a lawsuit and then with a vague threat of consequences for everyone in Hollywood. On January 10 Parsons and two lawyers working for Hearst were given a private screening of the film.:206 James G. Stewart was present at the screening and said that she walked out of the film.:11 Soon after, Parsons called Schaefer and threatened RKO with a lawsuit if they released Kane.:111 She also contacted the management of Radio City Music Hall and demanded that they not screen it.:206 The next day, the front page headline in Daily Variety read, "HEARST BANS RKO FROM PAPERS." Hearst began this ban by suppressing promotion of RKO's Kitty Foyle,:94 but in two weeks the ban was lifted for everything except Kane.:111
When Schaefer did not submit to Parsons she called other studio heads and made more threats on behalf of Hearst to expose the private lives of people throughout the entire film industry.:206 Welles was threatened with an exposé about his romance with the married actress Delores del Rio, who wanted the affair kept secret until her divorce was finalized.:207 In a statement to journalists Welles denied that the film was about Hearst. Hearst began preparing an injunction against film for libel and invasion of privacy, but Welles’s lawyer told him that he doubted Hearst would proceed due to the negative publicity and requited testimony that an injunction would bring.:209
The Hollywood Reporter ran a front-page story on January 13 that Hearst papers were about to run a series of editorials attacking Hollywood's practice of hiring refugees and immigrants for jobs that could be done by Americans. The goal was to put pressure on the other studios to force RKO to shelve Kane.:111 Many of those immigrants had fled Europe from after the rise of fascism began and feared losing the safe haven of the United States.:209 Soon afterwards, Schaefer was approached by Nicholas Schenck, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's parent company, with an offer on the behalf of Louis B. Mayer and other Hollywood executives made an offer to RKO Pictures of $805,000 to destroy all prints of the film and burn the negative.:111–112 Once RKO's legal team reassured Schaefer, the studio announced on January 21 that Kane would be released as scheduled, and with one of the largest promotional campaigns in the studio's history. Schaefer brought Welles to New York City for a private screening of the film with the New York corporate heads of the studios and their lawyers.:112 There was no objection to its release provided that certain changes, including the removal or softening of specific references that might offend Hearst, were made.:112–113 Welles agreed and cut the running time from 122 minutes to 119 minutes. The cuts satisfied the corporate lawyers.:113
Hearing about Citizen Kane enraged Hearst so much that he banned any advertising, reviewing, or mentioning of it in his papers, and had his journalists libel Welles. Welles used Hearst's opposition as a pretext for previewing the film in several opinion-making screenings in Los Angeles, lobbying for its artistic worth against the hostile campaign that Hearst was waging. A special press screening took place in early March. Henry Luce was in attendance and reportedly wanted to buy the film from RKO for $1 million to distribute it himself. The reviews for this screening were positive. A Hollywood Review headline read, "Mr. Genius Comes Through; 'Kane' Astonishing Picture". The Motion Picture Herald reported about the screening and Welles's intention to sue RKO. Time magazine wrote that "The objection of Mr. Hearst, who founded a publishing empire on sensationalism, is ironic. For to most of the several hundred people who have seen the film at private screenings, Citizen Kane is the most sensational product of the U.S. movie industry." A second press screening occurred in April.:94
When Schaefer rejected Hearst's offer to suppress the film, Hearst banned every newspaper and station in his media conglomerate from reviewing – or even mentioning – the film. He also had many movie theaters ban it, and many did not show it through fear of being socially exposed by his massive newspaper empire. The Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane lays the blame for the film's relative failure squarely at the feet of Hearst. The film did decent business at the box office; it went on to be the sixth highest grossing film in its year of release, a modest success its backers found acceptable. Nevertheless, the film's commercial performance fell short of its creators' expectations. Hearst's biographer David Nasaw points out that Hearst's actions were not the only reason Kane failed, however: the innovations Welles made with narrative, as well as the dark message at the heart of the film (that the pursuit of success is ultimately futile) meant that a popular audience could not appreciate its merits.:572–573
Hearst's attacks against Welles went beyond attempting to suppress the film. Welles said that while he was on his post-filming lecture tour a police detective approached him at a restaurant and advised him not to go back to his hotel. A 14-year-old girl had reportedly been hidden in the closet of his room, and two photographers were waiting for him to walk in. Knowing he would be jailed after the resulting publicity, Welles did not return to the hotel but waited until the train left town the following morning. "But that wasn't Hearst," Welles said, "that was a hatchet man from the local Hearst paper who thought he would advance himself by doing it.":85–86
In March 1941 Welles directed a Broadway version of Richard Wright's Native Son (and, for luck, used a "Rosebud" sled as a prop). Native Son received positive reviews, but Hearst-owned papers used the opportunity to attack Welles as a communist.:213 The Hearst papers vociferously attacked Welles after his April 1941 radio play, "His Honor, the Mayor", produced for The Free Company radio series on CBS.:113
Welles described his chance encounter with Hearst in an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel on the night Citizen Kane opened in San Francisco. Hearst and Welles's father were acquaintances, so Welles introduced himself and asked Hearst if he would like to come to the opening. Hearst did not respond. "As he was getting off at his floor, I said, 'Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.' No reply", recalled Welles. "And Kane would have you know. That was his style — just as he finished Jed Leland's bad review of Susan as an opera singer.":49–50
In 1945 Hearst journalist Robert Shaw wrote that the film got "a full tide of insensate fury" from Hearst papers, "then it ebbed suddenly. With one brain cell working, the chief realized that such hysterical barking by the trained seals would attract too much attention to the picture. But to this day the name of Orson Welles is on the official son-of-a-bitch list of every Hearst newspaper.":102
Despite Hearst's attempts to destroy the film, since 1941 references to his life and career have usually included a reference to Citizen Kane, such as the headline 'Son of Citizen Kane Dies' for the obituary of Hearst's son. In 2012 the Hearst estate agreed to screen the film at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, breaking Hearst's ban on the film.
Radio City Music Hall's management refused to screen Citizen Kane for its premiere. A possible factor was Parsons's threat that The American Weekly would run a defamatory story on the grandfather of major RKO stockholder Nelson Rockefeller.:115 Other exhibitors feared being sued for libel by Hearst and refused to show the film.:216 In March Welles threatened the RKO board of governors with a lawsuit if they did not release the film. Schaefer stood by Welles and opposed the board of governors.:210 When RKO still delayed the film's release Welles offered to buy the film for $1 million and the studio finally agreed to release the film on May 1.:215
Schaefer managed to book a few theaters willing to show the film. Hearst papers refused to accept advertising in its papers.:115 RKO's publicity advertisements for the film erroneously promoted it as a love story.:217
Kane opened at the RKO Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York on May 1, 1941, in Chicago on May 6, and in Los Angeles on May 8.:115 Welles said that at the Chicago premiere that he attended the theater was almost empty.:216 It did well in cities and larger towns but fared poorly in more remote areas. RKO still had problems getting exhibitors to show the film. For example, one chain controlling more than 500 theaters got Welles's film as part of a package but refused to play it, reportedly out of fear of Hearst.:117 Hearst's disruption of the film's release damaged its box office performance and, as a result, it lost $160,000 during its initial run.:164 The film earned $23,878 during its first week in New York. By the ninth week it only made $7,279. Overall it lost money in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., but made a profit in Seattle.:216
Citizen Kane received good reviews from several critics. New York Daily News critic Kate Cameron called it "one of the most interesting and technically superior films that has ever come out of a Hollywood studio". New York World-Telegram critic William Boehnel said that the film was "staggering and belongs at once among the greatest screen achievements". Time magazine wrote that "it has found important new techniques in picture-making and story-telling.":211 Life magazine's review said that "few movies have ever come from Hollywood with such powerful narrative, such original technique, such exciting photography.":211 John C. Mosher of The New Yorker called the film's style "like fresh air" and raved "Something new has come to the movie world at last.":68 Anthony Bower of The Nation called it "brilliant" and praised the cinematography and performances by Welles, Comingore and Cotten. John O'Hara's Newsweek review called it the best picture he'd ever seen and said Welles was "the best actor in the history of acting.":211 Welles called O'Hara's review "the greatest review that anybody ever had.":100
The day following the premiere of Citizen Kane, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that "... it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood."
Count on Mr. Welles: he doesn't do things by halves. ... Upon the screen he discovered an area large enough for his expansive whims to have free play. And the consequence is that he has made a picture of tremendous and overpowering scope, not in physical extent so much as in its rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts. Mr. Welles has put upon the screen a motion picture that really moves.
In the UK C. A. Lejeune of The Observer called it "The most exciting film that has come out of Hollywood in twenty-five years" and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times said the film's style was made "with the ease and boldness and resource of one who controls and is not controlled by his medium.":63 Edward Tangye Lean of Horizon praised the film’s technical style, calling it "perhaps a decade ahead of its contemporaries."[ad]
A few reviews were mixed. Otis Ferguson of The New Republic said it was "the boldest free-hand stroke in major screen production since Griffith and Bitzer were running wild to unshackle the camera", but also criticized its style, calling it a "retrogression in film technique" and stating that "it holds no great place" in film history. In a rare film review, filmmaker Erich von Stroheim criticized the film's story and non-linear structure, but praised the technical style and performances, and wrote "Whatever the truth may be about it, "Citizen Kane" is a great picture and will go down in screen history. More power to Welles!"
Some prominent critics wrote negative reviews. In his 1941 review for Sur, Jorge Luis Borges famously called the film "a labyrinth with no center" and predicted that its legacy would be a film "whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again." The Argus Weekend Magazine critic Erle Cox called the film "amazing" but thought that Welles's break with Hollywood traditions was "overdone." Tatler's James Agate called it "the well-intentioned, muddled, amateurish thing one expects from high-brows" and "a quite good film which tries to run the psychological essay in harness with your detective thriller, and doesn't quite succeed." Other people who disliked the film were W. H. Auden:98 and James Agee.:99
At the 14th Academy Awards Citizen Kane was nominated for:
- Outstanding Motion Picture – RKO Radio Pictures (Orson Welles, Producer)
- Best Director – Orson Welles
- Best Actor – Orson Welles
- Best Writing (Original Screenplay) – Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
- Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration (Black-and-White) – Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, A. Roland Fields, Darrell Silvera
- Best Film Editing – Robert Wise
- Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) – Gregg Toland
- Best Music (Score of a Dramatic Picture) – Bernard Herrmann
- Best Sound Recording – John O. Aalberg
It was widely believed the film would win most of its nominations, but it was only awarded the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) Oscar.:117 Wise recalled each time Citizen Kane 's name was called out as a nominee, the crowd booed. According to Variety, bloc voting against Welles by screen extras denied him Best Picture and Actor awards. British film critic Barry Norman attributed this to Hearst's wrath. During the ceremony Welles was in Brazil shooting It's All True and did not attend.:95
The film was more successful at film critics awards. The National Board of Review named it Best Picture of the Year and gave Best Acting awards to Welles and George Coulouris. The Film Daily and The New York Times named it one of the Ten Best Films of the year, and it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture.