The premiere of Citizen Kane

One of the greatest films of all time made its debut on May 1st, 1941.

Unveiling a  masterpiece: the opening night of Citizen Kane, New York City, 1941. Orson Welles created a sensation in 1938 with a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that reported a Martian invasion of New Jersey. The programme broke into the previous broadcast, was uninterrupted by commercials and was so realistic that some listeners panicked. The extent of the panic was exaggerated, but Hollywood had already been beckoning and the fuss sharpened its appetites.

Welles, still in his twenties, went to Los Angeles and in 1939 signed a remarkable contract with RKO Pictures that allowed him to choose his own story and gave him almost total control of making it. He hired his own film crew and cast and he had the right to make the final cut. The result was Citizen Kane.

The film is about a megalomaniac newspaper mogul called Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles. The story is told after Kane’s death, in documentary style, through the recollections of those who knew him. The script was by the experienced screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and it was he and Welles who developed the story together, with Welles making suggestions and some changes in the script. They would share an Academy Award for the screenplay after the film opened at the Palace Theatre in New York City to an ecstatic critical reception. 

The film was so obviously based on the tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who had built up the country’s largest newspaper chain, that Hearst tried to buy the film so that he could destroy the negative. He failed, but forbade any mention of it in his newspapers.

Welles was eventually involved in more than 40 films altogether, some of which were stunningly brilliant, before his death of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1985, aged 70, but nothing again quite matched Citizen Kane. It is still regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. As Welles himself said: ‘I began at the top, but have been making my way down ever since.’