Andrew Sarris reveals the mystery behind “ROSEBUD” in Orson Welles’s CITIZEN KANE: It was really Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Bicycle!
32 years ago, in 1978 when I was the the chairman of The Cinema Guild at a New England College, we received a grant from the Johnson-Mellon foundation for $10,000 to bring important artistic speakers to our campus for a day of interaction with students.
Early in our talks with the University "committee" for the event, my thoughts were focused like a laser beam on one person: ORSON WELLES!
A year earlier, Welles' latest picture, F FOR FAKE had astonished me when I went to see it the weekend it opened in Manhattan at the D.W. Griffith Theater.
Unfortunately, the heads of the Cinema Dept. never were able to prevail on the "money" men in bringing Orson Welles to campus as a speaker. Instead, the sponsors of the lecture series seemed intent for some unknown reason on getting Otto Preminger.
Well, thankfully, that was a choice we could at the least, live with. If they wanted to bring Richard Fleischer or Robert Wise on campus, I'm sure I would have, to quote Waldo Lydecker, "Run amuck."
However, we did get our say in which critic would be accompanying Mr. Preminger on campus. We certainly didn't want someone like Pauline Kael! Instead, we asked for, and thankfully we got, Andrew Sarris.
So in February of 1978, I met Mr. Sarris for the first time. I still remember talking to him while Otto Preminger was trying to get Sarris's attention. I was asking Sarris about why Touch of Evil and Vertigo were not mentioned on his ten best films list of 1958. Sarris was very contrite about the lapse, and admitted it was a critical failure on his part, due mostly to his inexperience at the time.
The day Preminger and Sarris came to speak, I ended up speaking much more to Mr. Preminger than to Mr. Sarris. Luckily, my good friend, James Hurley was far more interested in talking with Sarris, and he also wrote a wonderful piece on Andrew Sarris for our program book.
So here is an excerpt from the introduction James Hurley wrote about the critical writings of Andrew Sarris:
It's too bad Andrew Sarris is such an important movie critic, because it tends to obscure the fact that he is such a good critic. Sarris's revolutionary auteur theory has created such controversy that its American founder is too often seen as a mere polemicist, a potent critical force rather than a brilliant critical intelligence. But though the slavishly faithful auteurists he has spawned pay him frequent and impassioned homage, Sarris is much more closely related to the great American tradition of iconoclastic film criticism: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, Robert Warshow, men who have, as critic and film-maker Paul Schrader has said, "come out of the wilderness... spouting some sort of doctrine which they have half-cocked in their own heads."
This is not to say that Sarris's great influence should be downplayed; indeed, it cannot be over-stressed. The best of the younger critics working today have been formed greatly in his mold: Molly Haskell, Richard Corliss, Joseph McBride, Stuart Byron, Roger Greenspun and John Belton, to name but a few. Peter Bogdanovich, critic before film-maker, cites Sarris as one of his "main influences." The auteur theory has not only become the predominant critical and academic outlook, it has acted, for better or worse, as breeding ground for such recent trends in film scholarship as structuralism, semiology, genre criticism and Cahierist Marxism. It has also unfortunately created a school of jabbering parrots, "Sarrisites", who have, in Sams's own words, "embraced the auteur theory as a shortcut to film scholarship." Sarris, however, cannot be blamed for the sins of his bastard offspring.
---James Hurley, 1978
This is a rather long introduction to Andrew Sarris's very cogent and, I think, quite amazing rebuttal to Pauline Kael's badly researched article in The New Yorker, "Raising Kane." Kael's article, was naturally, well written, but many of the facts seem to have somehow eluded her.
So it was very nice to see how well Andrew Sarris's rebuttal to Kael's article holds up. I was also astonished to find out that Sarris revealed, for the first time I am aware of, that Herman J. Mankiewicz based "Rosebud" on his childhood bicycle!
CITIZEN KAEL VS. CITIZEN KANE
By ANDREW SARRIS
The Village Voice - April 29, 1971
“Citizen Kane, American Baroque" is the pretentious title of a solemn, pedantic, humorless revaluation of “Citizen Kane" written on the occasion of its revival in 1956. The piece first appeared in the ninth issue of Film Culture (1956) and did not cause too much stir one way or another. The reviewer (or rather re-reviewer) was a 28-year old New York freelancer (more free than lance) with a severely limited education in film history. He had just started reviewing movies in the mid-'50s, first under the name of Andrew George Sarris and then merely Andrew Sarris, and by 1956 he had decided that the three greatest films of all times were "Odd Man Out," "Citizen Kane," and "Sullivan's Travels." Then from 1961 through 1969, he held that the three greatest films of all time were "Lola Montez," "Ugetsu," and "The Rules of the Game," and now in 1970 he has replaced "Lola Montez" at the top with "Madame de" He still likes "Citizen Kane," "Odd Man Out," and "Sullivan's Travels," but not as much these days as "The Magnificent Ambersons," "The Third Man" and 'The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "The Palm Beach Story," not to mention "Sunrise," "Liebelei," "La Ronde," "Day of Wrath," "Ordet," "Flowers of St. Francis," "French CanCan." "The Golden Coach," "Psycho," "Vertigo," "The Searchers," "Diary of a Country Priest," "Au Hasard Balthazar," "Brink of Life," "Oharu," "Seven Chances," "Sherlock, Jr.," "Steamboat Bill Jr.," and "Shop Around the Corner."
Also the Russians deserved a look-in at least for auld lang syne, since there were more personal styles in heaven and earth than were dreamt of even in Orson Welles' eclectic philosophy. No matter. "Citizen Kane" seemed infinitely less original and revolutionary in 1971 than it had in 1941 or even 1956, and not only because time had passed, but also because the past had become more timely. If "Kane" once seemed like a tree in a clearing, it now seemed like a tree in a very large forest, and not even the topmost tree at that.
Nonetheless, despite the current reservations of it’s author, "Citizen Kane, The American Baroque" has been well received by academicians in recent years and repeatedly anthologized, most recently in a fascinating compendium entitled "Focus On Citizen Kane" (edited by Ronald Gottesman) with contributions by Gottesman, Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, J. A. Pruenda, William Johnson, John O’ Hara, Bosley Crowther, Otis Ferguson, Cedric Belfrage, Tangye Lean, Orson Welles, Bernard Herrmann, Gregg Toland, Roy A. Fowler, Peter Cowie, Arthur Knight, Jorge Luis Borges, Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut and Michael Stephanick. Some of these pieces constitute the kind of "incense-burning" against which Pauline Kael's wise-guy criticism seems to be directed in her wild-swinging, mayhem-causing "Raising Kane," but most of the pieces raise formal and philosophical questions far beyond the dimensions of gossip culled from old newspapers.
Borges (in 1945) interprets "Kane," perhaps predictably, as that "center less labyrinth" mentioned in Chesterton's "The Head of Caesar." But Borges is curiously dubious about the place of "Kane" in film history: "I dare predict, however, that 'Citizen Kane' will endure in the same way certain films of Griffith or of Pudovkln 'endure': no one denies their historic value but no one sees them again. It suffers from grossness, pedantry, and dullness. It is not intelligent, it is genial in the soberest rest and most Germanic sense of the word."
Truffaut makes a curious reference to The New Yorker (no person's name is given) description of Welles as "a genius without talent." One might just as aptly describe The New Yorker as talent without genius, and Miss Kael's approach to "Kane" and Welles as more intelligent than insightful. She spends infinitely more time on preliminary (and subsequently discarded) drafts of the script than on the final form of the movie as it materialized on the screen. Her bias is thus, as always, inescapably literary rather than visual. And it follows that she would be impatient with the visual, aural and emotional coup represented by "Rosebud." "The mystery in 'Kane' is largely fake," Miss Kael contends, "and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they're not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst's American Weekly used to whip up—the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled."
The operative words in the preceding passage are "though fun," a familiarly quaint Kaelian reconciliation of what she can enjoy viscerally with what she can’t endorse cerebrally. As it happens Miss Kael is not alone in being ashamed of "Rosebud." Orson Welles has long since repudiated "Rosebud," or at least since a 1963 interview with Miss Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times (London) excerpted by Peter Cowie in his "The Study of a Colossus:" "It's a gimmick, really,' said Welles, "and rather dollar book Freud.”
I disagree with both Miss Kael and Mr. Welles on "Rosebud." With Miss Kael for the anti-genre prejudice her repudiation of "Rosebud" confirms, and with Mr. Welles for—who knows—his canny instinct for self-preservation in repudiating "Rosebud" before it came out of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s ghostly past to haunt him.
When I interviewed Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1970 for Show Magazine, I had no idea that he would reveal to me the origin of "Rosebud" as a bike that Herman J. Mankiewicz once lost as a child in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Nor did I have any idea that there then was and always had been a bitter feud between the Herman J. and Joseph L. sides of the Mankiewicz family. All I knew was that I had forged a crucial link with the scenarist of a strangely compelling movie called "Ladies' Man" and "Citizen Kane." But my feeling of discovery was based first of all on my abiding attachment to "Rosebud" as not only the key to but also the beating heart of "Citizen Kane" as a movie. It is "Rosebud" that structures "Kane" as a private-eye investigation of a citizen in the public eye, and thus brings us much closer to "The Maltese Falcon" and 'The Big Sleep" and the burning R's on the pillowcases of "Rebecca."
The problem with defending "Rosebud" as a narrative device is that its very vividness makes it a running gag in our satirically oriented culture. How can we possibly take "Rosebud" seriously, Miss Kael complains, after Snoopy has called Lucy's sled "Rosebud?" The same way, I suppose, we can take "Potemkin" seriously after Woody Allen has sent a baby carriage rolling down the steps of a Latin-American palace in "Bananas." Both Snoopy and Allen are paying homage to bits of film language transformed by the magical contexts of their medium into poetic metaphors. But whereas Eisenstein's baby carriage moves from prop to agitprop as it becomes an archetypal conveyance of revolutionary fervor, "Rosebud" reverberates with psychological overtones as it passes through the snows of childhood (les neiges d'antan) into the fire, ashes and smoke of death. Indeed, the burning of "Rosebud" in Xanadu's furnace represents the only instance in which the character of Kane can be seen subjectively by the audience. It is as if his mind and memory were being cremated before our eyes, and we were too helpless to intervene and too incompetent to judge. It is an act of symbolic summation and transfiguration worth of Truffaut's passionately paradoxical tribute to the film itself: "It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius."
The redeeming value of "Rosebud" is its suggestion that men of a certain size and scope and stature is not fully accountable even to history. This implied absence of accountability tends to slow the flow of moralistic molasses dumped over Kane on the most dubious pretexts. Through the years I have seen "Kane" about thirty times, but until very recently I never bothered to wonder what Kane's side of the story might have been if there had been somewhat more of his story on the screen. What, for example, is Jed Leland so outraged about in his rambling reminiscences of a rich friend with feet of clay? That Kane's two marriages failed? Leland's apparently sexless existence hardly makes him more "human" on that score than Kane. Besides, Kane's two wives never remotely suggest the stuff of which Rosebuds are made. Ruth Warwick's Emily is rigid, prissy, conservative and from her quietly hysterical aversion to the idea of Bernstein in her son's nursery, at least incipiently anti-Semitic. Dorothy Comingore’s Susan is harsh, raucous, vulgar and almost maniacally mediocre. Ray Collins's embattled Tammany tiger seems every inch the thief and scoundrel Kane claimed him to be, and Leland himself seems to have no greater ambition in life than to be a drunken dilettante full of moral superiority. If Miss Kael had analyzed the Kane-Leland relationship more fully on its own terms, she might have traced a parallel between Kane and Leland on one track and Hearst and Mankiewicz on the other. There is probably a great deal of Mankiewicz in Leland, and especially in that moment of alcoholic self-righteousness when Leland attacks Kane for not knowing how to get drunk. In vino veritas and all that. Hearst might even stand for all the Hollywood moguls in Mankiewicz's moralistic rhetoric. But the Leland-Kane relationship doesn't play so one-sidedly in the delicately pitched intimacy provided by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. Cotten is an actor who can swim under the surface of a characterization with less splash than Welles, and so when Cotten-Leland talks about drinking with Welles-Kane, he could be talking also about acting. Welles can't really lose himself in a part the way Cotten can, perhaps because Welles has so much more to lose. Even so, Welles and Cotten climb piggy-back on each other's lines with such zestful expertness that there is less conflict than complicity in their big renunciation scene. Leland becomes Kane's alter ego in the peculiarly Wellesian pattern that later couples Othello and ago, Arkadin and Van Stratten, Falstaff and Hal, and Quinlan and Vargas, not to mention Welles and Cotten in repeat inter-performances in "Journey into Fear" and Carol Reed's "The Third Man."
Indeed, when you add up everything Welles did after "Kane," and compare it with everything Mankiewicz did before and after "Kane," the sour humor and intransigent ambiguity of "Citizen Kane" would seem to arise more from the personality of Welles than from that of Mankiewicz. What Mankiewicz has provided is an apparently big subject with faint hints of scandal from one side and large helpings of social consciousness from the other. And "Rosebud," a symbol that turned out to be more personal than social.
Back in 1941, Bosley Crowther qualified his enthusiastic review of "Kane" with a complaint about "Rosebud" and the unsolved mystery of Kane: "And the final, poignant identification of "Rosebud" sheds little more than a vague, sentimental light upon his character. At the end, Kubla Kane is still an enigma—a very confusing one." Two days after his initial review, Crowther developed his reservations in a Sunday follow-up: "And when the significance of "Rosebud" is made apparent in the final sequence of the film, it provides little more than a dramatic and poignant shock. It does not clarify, except by sentimental suggestion, the reason for Kane's complexity. And so we are bound to conclude that this picture is not truly. great, for its theme is basically vague and its significance depends upon circumstances. Unquestionably, Mr. Welles is the most dynamic newcomer in films and his talents are infinite. But the showman will have to acquire a good bit more discipline before he is thoroughly dependable."
Crowther's rejection of "Rosebud" as an explanation of Kane is consistent with his later pans of "Wild Strawberries" and "L'Avventura" for their apparent self-indulgence and obfuscation. Crowther's most influential period in film criticism was the '40s when his social approach to films coincided with the world-saving concerns of his readers.
"Rosebud" is much closer to the arched fishing pole and line of the protagonist's father in "Wild Strawberries" than the outstretched soldier's hand crumpling up near a butterfly in "All Quiet on the Western Front." Few American films up to "Citizen Kane" had been grown up enough to suggest that we never really grow up, and a boy torn away from his mother at an early age, like Kane, like Welles, least of all. The grandeur of "Rosebud" as a memory is that it is meaningless and trivial to anyone but Kane. Its horror is its confirmation that we are isolated from each other by so much more than our politics and morals, by nothing less, in fact, than our very selves. The only way critics and audiences of the period could stomach the profound pessimism of "Citizen Kane" was to misconstrue it as a detailed denunication of a certain kind of American plutocrat. In this respect, the scenario is curiously sluggish and undeveloped next to a political hallucination like the Capra-Riskin "Meet John Doe" which opened shortly before "Citizen Kane" and had about a million times more polemical Americana. Miss Kael never mentions "Meet John Doe" or "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "The Grapes of Wrath" or "The Great Dictator."
Why Hearst should have been a more daring target in 1940 than Hitler I have no idea, and, even today, the California lettuce growers seem to have lost few of their fangs for ”The Grapes of Wrath." By any standard, the few minutes of political talk sprinkled in "Citizen Kane" would seem fairly superficial in a high school civics textbook. But the mystical process by which the Mercury Players parade across a haunted screen never seems to lose its power to fascinate us.