Many movie critics, film organizations, film historians, and movie buffs worldwide name Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made. I must concur. It offers nothing short of a search for the meaning of life. Beginning with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles’ character, modeled after William Randolph Hearst), journalists search for the meaning of his last word: “rosebud.” We learn about Kane’s life through the journalists’ investigation (as they speak with those closes to him) and through constant flashback. As we learn about his life, we see that the search for the meaning of his life (“rosebud”) is not just something journalists are attempting after his death.
Kane tries to find meaning in his life through almost as many means as Solomon of the Old Testament. He tries business, money, fame, women, philanthropy, politics, among many other attempts. Kane’s conclusion in all these pursuits is much the same as King Solomon’s assertion that “all is vanity.” Kane says of himself: “If I hadn’t been rich, I might have been a really great man.” His life is diminished to a very sad “if.”
Rosebud is the epitome of Kane’s “if.” It represents a lost childhood, a life planned for him that he had no say in, and many failed attempts to gain any sense of control over his own destiny. He indeed takes control over his own destiny, but it does not create any sort of healing or renewal as he was looking for. He becomes perhaps the richest and most powerful man in the country, but instead of using that for good as is clearly his initial intention, he becomes corrupted by his perceived need for power, abusive toward those he claims to love, and completely lost in his own search for meaning.
Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander (played by Dorothy Comingore) tells a reporter about his extreme narcissism. She explains that he loved himself, and he loved himself extravagantly, but he never received love from anybody else. His entire search for meaning in life (and therefore the meaning of “rosebud”) is a search for love. He knew that love is what he needed above all else, but he tragically refused any appropriate ways to receive love, always choosing control and fear over love. The tragedy of Charles Foster Kane ultimately has nothing to do with his place in society, his riches, or his many positions of influence. He wouldn’t have have been a great man if he hadn’t been rich as he claims. He would’ve been a great man if he had allowed his need for love to have a higher priority over his perceived need for control.
Stumble alert: Citizen Kane includes no objectionable material.
Watch Citizen Kane: The film airs on TCM Monday, Sept. 5 at 11:30 EST.
Note: Citizen Kane can be extremely challenging for a first-time viewer, utilizing every kind of filmmaking available at the time (often many within a single shot) as well as many things never attempted in film before, appearing confusing when the story is actually quite straight-forward. If you have tried watching the movie and just felt like you didn’t get it (as I did the first time I tried watching it eighteen years ago), Roger Ebert’s 2004 article “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane” is a very helpful tool.