While the external plot of Citizen Kane is a quest for answers throughout Charles Foster Kane’s life, the newsreel journalist Jerry Thompson who makes this journey eventually discovers that the purpose of Kane’s life, and that of his last words (the single lead on Thompson’s quest), were something quite different from what the rest of the world thought.
The movie starts with Kane’s death, but the flashbacks that are narrated by each of Thompson’s interviewees start with Kane’s childhood. Thompson is visiting the archives of Kane’s guardian past the age of 8, Walter Parks Thatcher, and has been temporarily allowed to read certain documents pertaining to Kane’s childhood.
The flashback that succeeds this could be considered one of the most vital scenes in Citizen Kane because it represents the last part of Kane’s life where he is truly happy, and instigates his own private quest for this happiness throughout his later life.
The establishing shot is an extreme wide shot of Charles Kane as a child playing in the snow. He sleds down a hill and makes snow balls which he throws at the sign above a nearby house. The purpose of this shot is to establish the character of Kane as very small and innocent in this situation. The fact that throughout the entire shot, Kane is at such a distance that his face is never seen clearly shows that while the entire scene discusses him, it is as if he himself isn’t important, since he has no say in the decision.
As the camera recovers a view of Kane after his second snowball, the angle has changed. Before long, this is shown to be the view through a window through which Mary Kane, Charles Kane’s mother, is watching him. At this point, Charles is shown over Mrs. Kane’s shoulder: an over-the-shoulder shot. While this shot is used in a normal way to show dialogue in the scene, the fact that it is shot over the shoulder of Mary demonstrates her authority over Charles.
The camera continues to zoom out to incorporate the two other characters in the scene: Kane’s father, and Thatcher, his future guardian. The sequence in which they are revealed by this movement indicated their importance to this scene. Mary is clearly the most powerful character in the scene, though she does follow Thatcher’s lead as he guides her through the signing of all her papers. Kane’s father is virtually powerless in this scene, as his ideas and advice are ignored by the other two.
The father attempts to declare his own authority over what happens to Charles later in the scene by standing above Mary and Thatcher while they are sitting at the desk signing papers. The low angle that this results in allows him to declare himself the man of the house, but he is continually ignored, as he appears to lose control of his nerves. This idea of women having a superior role to men may be contradicted by the way Kane later forces Susan Alexander (his second wife) to sing opera against her will, but is, on the other hand, supported by both Susan and Emily Monroe Norton (Kane’s first wife, who leaves him after Kane’s opponent in the New York gubernatorial race, Jim W. Gettys, tells her about Kane’s affair with Alexander) leaving him.
Another purpose of the steady zoom is to represent the steady transition of Mary’s emotions. Her conversation with Charles is optimistic and happy, not betraying any piece of her upcoming sadness of her loss of Charles. However, as soon as the shot zooms out to include Thatcher, her tone immediately turns more serious and obviously less optimistic.
Once Mary finishes signing Thatcher’s papers, she returns to the window. However, this time, rather than putting on an appearance of innocence so as to keep Charles in the dark, she purposefully speaks in a somber voice. However, throughout her line, she struggles to keep her composure, and ends up doing quite well. The director Orson Welles’ intent with portraying Mary this way is to show where Kane gets his distant, yet purposeful personality that both won him fame and worsened his image in the public eye.
As Mary finishes calling for Charles, the camera pans over the side wall of the house in an extraordinary J-cut that Welles continually uses throughout the movie to amaze the viewer. The wall allows the characters to skip ahead in time and walk out of the house fully clad in winter coats. The purpose of cuts like these is to keep the audience’s attention for long spans of time, rather than breaking off and losing this attention at various points in time. However, this does not suggest have longer shots. Welles varies his shots often and distinctly, often with other, subtler reasons.
This section of the scene begins as a wide shot, which includes all the characters in equal light. However, this light is quickly lost as Mary and Thatcher rush towards Charles. The shot, though it includes Charles’ father, has its focus on three individuals rather than four, making it a three-shot, a type of medium shot. Putting him in the back like this allowed the rest of the characters’ ignorance of him to be sustained. Doing this magnifies the prophetic aspect of Charles’ father saying that Charles will someday be the richest man in America because it puts him in more of a position as narrator than as an actual character in the movie.
While the focus of the scene remains a dialogue between Mary, Charles and Thatcher about Charles going away with Thatcher (with constant interjections from Charles’ father, which are, for the most part, ignored), the shot type doesn’t change, so as to allow a focus on what all the characters are saying. Putting together a three shot like this, though, has one side-effect. Being a child, Charles is much shorter than either Mary or Thatcher. Having a shot where the entire conversation is to and about him, but where only his head is visible simply emphasizes this, specifically the conclusion that he is utterly powerless in this decision that will entirely change his life.
Once Charles tries to hurt Thatcher with his sled, though, his father tells Thatcher that all Charles needs is a good beating. This immediately attracts an opposing response from Mary, which is accompanied by a close-up shot of her face. The close-up allows the viewer to infer that Mary has finally fully justified her decision to send Charles away by accusing her husband of planning to beat him in the case that he stayed. She no longer has any doubt that she won’t regret allowing Thatcher to take Charles because it’s now fully in his best interest.
Even more important than this close-up, though, is the one that succeeds it. The camera tilts down to reveal Charles’ face. It is full of childish anger at his father’s statement about him needing a beating, and at his parents’ choice to send him off with a man he doesn’t know, as well as sadness at having to leave his parents. This is the perfect transition into Kane’s quest for happiness that defines the rest of his life because the uniqueness of the shot compared to much of the rest of the movie, which doesn’t rely much on close-ups. Of course, the next shot is the most logical and creative one that Welles could use: the symbol that Kane uses to signify the happiness that he seeks for the rest of the movie, Rosebud the sled. The shot seems a bit random to a first-time viewer, and seems to be unrelated. However, from Welles’ point of view, it would have served as an incentive for the viewer to continue watching, as they continue to ponder the same question as Thompson: what or who is Rosebud (and how does the sled tie in to anything)?
Citizen Kane is a mythical manifestation of what is known to the world as the American Dream. While it is defined by a constant struggle and search for power, which is initially equated with wealth, it has also come to mean a much more difficult struggle for happiness. Unfortunately, this quest, especially when compared to the former, is one that is most often failed. The strategies that Kane ends up using to reach his power high include trickery, threats, and using people against their will for his own benefit.
Key to this trickery involved in achieving the American Dream is disloyalty, symbolized in Citizen Kane by the Declaration of Principles that Kane and his best friend Jedediah Leland write in Kane’s newspaper, the New York Inquirer. After Kane fires Leland for beginning to write a negative review of his wife, Susan Alexander’s opera singing in the Chicago Inquirer, Leland returns the severance check of $25,000 that Kane gives him (torn into little pieces), along with a copy of the Declaration of Principles. When Kane initially writes this, he states that “people are going to get the truth in the Inquirer, quickly and simply, and no special interest will interfere with that truth.” By the time Leland sends this back to Kane, Kane has lost sight of this fact in the rear-view mirror. He is willing to modify the truth (he definitely has the power to) to be loved in the eyes of the people. If this means that he prevents the press from bad-mouthing his wife’s singing and acting, which both bring respect both to her and to Kane, then he will violate his declaration.
The American Dream may be to gain power and love from people (fame), but the American Truth is that power corrupts any who gain it in large quantities, as it did to our very own Citizen Kane, a man who thought of himself as a man for the people, but as he lay on his deathbed, knew that not only did he end up losing much of his people’s love, but also that no matter how much he pleased others in the way he did, he never felt any happier than when he was a child playing in the snow.