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On the Tube: HBO's 'RKO281' uncovers the mysteries of Hollywood's greatest movie

Friday, November 19, 1999

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

The legends of Hollywood can fill the set of "Titanic," but none of them can touch the tale behind "Citizen Kane."

Perennially named the best American movie ever, the 1941 Orson Welles masterpiece seems harmless enough by today's political standards. Yet, 60 years ago, its production threatened the cozy and closed world of the film industry.

The threat, which included the strongest attempt at movie censorship ever made, came from William Randolph Hearst, who found the similarities between himself and Charles Foster Kane too uncomfortable for his sensitive soul.

Television Review:
'RKO 281'

When: It airs on HBO tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Pressured by Hearst, Hollywood's moguls, led by Louis B. Mayer, offered to buy the unreleased "Kane" from its studio, RKO, then destroy it. As the owner of a newspaper chain in most major markets, Hearst's influence over film publicity was powerful enough; he held in reserve years' worth of covered-up scandals, including photos, involving the silver screen's biggest names.

It's a story with plenty of drama, containing all the right ingredients from sex to betrayal. At its center were two outlandish figures, the aging newspaper baron and the brash, talented star still in his mid-20s.

"RKO 281" (the studio's production number for "Kane") is Hollywood's long-overdue attempt to re-create this one-of-a-kind episode in the history of filmmaking. It's a lively and fun production, thanks to its fine cast and the painstaking attention used in re-staging scenes from "Kane."

With plenty of historical material to work with, writer John Logan pared his script down to a classic battle of the wills without sacrificing the little bits of stuff that make this story so fascinating.

Watch the clever imitation of the "News On The March" newsreel in "Kane" and the scenes of on-the-job training for the neophyte filmmaker. (Yes, it's true that Welles watched "Stagecoach" over and over to learn story-telling technique.)

There are two camps in the "Kane" story -- the Kael forces and the Bogdanovich supporters.

Film critic Pauline Kael's "Raising Kane" articles in the New Yorker magazine in 1970 credited writer Herman Mankiewicz as the creative force behind the film, with the egomaniacal Welles trying to hog the show.

In response, director Peter Bogdanovich did his best to restore Welles as the true creator of the film, with Mankiewicz supplying the raw material from his original and unfilmable script.

"RKO 281" comes down on the side of Welles, but gives Mankiewicz his due as well. As the "boy genius," Liev Schreiber has an impossible task, really, to play someone so young and yet so old. While he does approximate Welles' brooding intensity, he misses his mischief and good spirits.

Few actors can brood as well as John Malkovich, who plays Mankiewicz with an alcoholic ennui that's a bit too blasť.

Meanwhile, back at San Simeon, Hearst's mammoth California castle, the portraits are more vivid. Playing the droopy-eyed magnate is James Cromwell. Melanie Griffith is Marion Davies, Hearst's longtime mistress, who really does have a heart of gold.

Hearst, 77 in 1940, was not a kindly old man. A bigot and hypocrite, he had built his empire ruthlessly and ruled it the same way. Especially in his dealings with the Jewish Mayer, played by David Suchet, Cromwell is icily anti-Semitic and cruel.

The romance between Hearst and Davies, 37 years younger, is one of the great mysteries of the heart. She was a talented comedy actress whose career was managed disastrously by Hearst so that she never achieved major star status. Griffith is unbeatable at these floozy roles.

We also learn the secret behind Rosebud, young Charles Kane's sled. It seems Hearst nicknamed a certain Davies body part Rosebud and the word got back to Welles.

Thanks to his spies, Hearst soon learned of the similarity and it spurred him to fight "Citizen Kane."

The unsung hero of "RKO 281" is studio head George Schaefer (Roy Scheider), who protects the flamboyant and free-spending Welles from the board of directors and Hearst's threat.

But, as the film explains, what saved "Citizen Kane" was not an uncharacteristic burst of idealism at RKO, but Hearst's decline into bankruptcy. While his newspapers blacked out RKO publicity and advertising, his national power had been replaced by Henry Luce's Time and Life magazines, which gave "Kane" major attention.

The film finally opened in May 1941 in New York, but the delays caused by Hearst's threats hurt it nationwide, and it was a box-office dud.

Orson Welles never really recovered, either. RKO fired Schaefer, ruined Welles' second movie, "The Magnificent Ambersons," and dumped the director and his Mercury Theater players.

In the end, Rosebud's fate was not Hearst's, but Orson Welles'.

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