Orson Welles: The meaning of Rosebud in ‘Citizen Kane’
"What does 'Rosebud' mean in 'Citizen Kane'?" It is perhaps the question most often fielded by Wellesnet. The most detailed answer given by Orson Welles was contained in a press statement released by RKO Radio Pictures prior the film's release in May 1941. The complete press release, uncovered by biographer Frank Brady, has been more extensively reported here in the past, but it bears repeating.
By ORSON WELLES
January 15, 1941
I wished to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character. For this, I desired a man of many sides and many aspects. It was my idea to show that six or more people could have as many widely divergent opinions concerning the nature of a single personality. Clearly such a notion could not be worked out if it would apply to an ordinary American citizen.
I immediately decided that my character (Charles Foster Kane) should be a public man — an extremely public man — an extremely important one ...
There have been many motion pictures and novels rigorously obeying the formula of the “success story,” I wished to do something quite different. I wished to make a picture which might be called a “failure story.” I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose; I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but what he does with his money — not when he gets old — but throughout his entire career. A man, who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power ...
The most basic of all ideas was that of a search for the true significance of the man’s apparently meaningless dying words. Kane was raised without a family. He was snatched from his mother’s arms in early childhood. His parents were a bank. From the point of view of the psychologist, my character had never made what is known as “transference” from his mother. Hence his failure with his wives. In making this clear during the course of the picture, it was my attempt to lead the thoughts of my audience closer and closer to the solution of the enigma of his dying words. These were “Rosebud.” The device of the picture calls for a newspaperman (who didn’t know Kane) to interview people who knew him very well. None had ever heard of “Rosebud.” Actually, as it turns out, “Rosebud” is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.
In his waking hours, Kane had certainly forgotten the sled and the name which was painted on it. Casebooks of psychiatrists are full of these stories. It was important for me in the picture to tell the audience as effectively as possible what this really meant. Clearly it would be undramatic and disappointing if an arbitrary character in the story popped up with the information. The best solution was the sled itself. Now, how could this sled still exist since it was built in 1880?
It was necessary that my character be a collector the kind of man who never throws anything away. I wished to use as a symbol — at the conclusion of the picture — a great expanse of objects — thousands and thousands of things — one of which is “Rosebud.” This field of inanimate theatrical properties I wished to represent the very dust heap of a man’s life. I wished the camera to show beautiful things, ugly things and useless things, too — indeed everything, which could stand for a public career and a private life. I wished objects of art, objects of sentiment, and just plain objects. There was no way for me to do this except to make my character, as I have said, a collector, and to give him a great house in which to keep his collections. The house itself occurred to me as a literal translation in terms of drama of the expression “ivory tower.” The protagonist of my “failure story” must retreat from a democracy which his money fails to buy and his power fails to control.
There are two retreats possible: death and the womb. The house was the womb. Here too was all the grandeur, all the despotism, which my man had found lacking in the outside world. Such was his estate — such was the obvious repository for a collection large enough to include, without straining the credulity of the audience — a little toy from the dead past of a great man.
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