The Great Kane Debate

Anytime you discuss the placement of Citizen Kane at the top of the movie pantheon, it’s probably going to open a can of worms. Thus, to celebrate their 2-year anniversary, True Classics is hosting a Great Citizen Kane Debate so we can all get our opinions out on the matter.

Let me first get this out there: I am a staunch supporter of the “there can not be one greatest movie ever,” club. I feel there are just too many variables within film that make it  impossible to come up with consistent criteria on which to judge every movie ever made. That being said, I think there are plenty of films that I think are pretty much perfect. Casablanca is one example of this, a film where the acting, plot, writing, directing and editing all work together in a manner that successfully achieves whatever that movie is trying to get across artistically and in its narrative. But if one were to take all these perfect films, what’s the next step of sorting them out into some be-all, end-all list? At some point I have to believe personal preference comes in, and thus a bunch of varied opinions.

So back to Citizen Kane. This film carries a massive reputation, even if you have never seen it. I remember when I was first getting interested in how movies were made, reading behind the scenes books on Star Wars and such. Every director interviewed mentioned Kane, and I made a note in my middle-school mind that I had to see this movie. I must’ve borrowed that dvd from the library ten times before I actually watched it, and it kind of hung over my head until I did. I remember being kind of let down when I first saw it, but honestly, “the greatest movie ever made,” wasn’t going to match the reputation I had let build in my mind.

One of my favorite shots from Citizen Kane

This is why I think the term “overrated” comes into this discussion so often. A movie like this, no matter how great, is never going to satisfy every person’s idea of the greatest movie ever made. That title is just too much to live up to, so of course anyone who is told that upfront, watches the movie and disagrees is probably going to tell you that it’s overrated.

So, Citizen Kane is not the greatest  film of all time, because frankly there isn’t any such thing. I feel like it is a film that relies somewhat on it’s place in film history  to continue to keep its legacy alive because it’s not an especially entertaining movie that a lot of people are going to regularly recommend. That being said, it’s an outstanding piece of work that really changed the ideas of narrative structure in the classic Hollywood film, and Gregg Toland’s cinematography is stellar. The long takes, deep focus, and low angles stand this film out from its contemporaries, and are still cited as textbook examples of these techniques today. The acting is superb, and features the debuts of Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. While the story isn’t something that draws me into wanting to watch the film multiple times a year, it’s a fascinating tale of a publishing tycoon (based off of William Randolph Hearst) who starts out as the idealistic editor of a small paper, and grows into an insatiable, ruthless publishing mogul who alienates everyone around him.  I’m still astounded that Welles made this movie in his first foray into filmmaking. At 25- years old, he co-wrote, directed and starred in the film, a project over which he was given complete freedom by RKO. Sadly, he was never given such freedom over another project, and was never really able to achieve what many believe his full talent could’ve been.

I do think it’s a film that everyone should see at least once, especially if they’re interested in movies. For the same reasons I listed above about this film is essential. It’s a worthy masterpiece in the canon of film, but that doesn’t mean it has to be labeled the greatest. If you were studying art, you would look at Michelangelo, Picasso etc., to gain a broad perspective of art history and form and probably not squabble over who was the better artist. That’s how I feel Citizen Kane should be looked at, as a great work from a great director that was a milestone in cinema.

So, with that in mind, I will offer up another film that I think is an essential, since we’re steering clear of all that “the best ever,” talk. The year Citizen Kane came out, 1941, was a fairly strong year in film. John Huston also had a pretty stunning directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon, Howard Hawks put out Sergeant York and Ball of Fire, and Alfred Hitchcock directed Joan Fontaine to a Best Actress Oscar in Suspicion. Two of my favorite movies also came out that year, both written and directed by Preston Sturges. One was the romantic/comedic revenge film The Lady Eve, and the other was Sullivan’s Travels.

I cannot tell you how much it bums me out that so many people are not familiar with Preston Sturges, or this movie. For a writer/director that had a remarkable run of seven films in four years, all of which are very good, it’s hard to pick the best of the bunch. Sullivan’s Travels might be it (although I am very partial to The Lady Eve). It’s a top notch satire on Hollywood filmmaking that takes a more serious turn towards the end of the movie.

The story follows  John “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a successful Hollywood director of such comedy hits as Ants in Your Plants of 1939, and Hey Hey in the Hayloft. Sullivan, inspired by the success of more serious films (made by other directors) decides he wants to make a social-message film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that will truly reflect the challenges of the American people. The studio, fearing they’ll be losing a proven money-maker if they allow Sullivan to make a drama, tries to convince him that he doesn’t have the upbringing and background to make a such a film. Sullivan also realizes this, and decides he’s going to go Method and immerse himself in the lower-class lifestyle.

The journey takes Sullivan through various handyman jobs, and across the country. He’s accompanied by The Girl (Veronica Lake), a disillusioned, aspiring actress that Sullivan meets on the road. The two sleep in shelters, eat from soup kitchens, and Sullivan comes closer to feeling he has the requisite knowledge to do justice to O Brother Where Art Thou?.

John Sullivan and The Girl

Before his return to Hollywood, Sullivan decides he will give out money to those he has kept company with as a final gesture of generosity. Walking amongst the railroad tracks, Sullivan is jumped by a bum, knocked out and thrown onto a train car. The bum steals his money and shoes, but stumbles and falls on the tracks and is run over by an oncoming train. The body is identified as Sullivan’s, and news travels back to Hollywood that the director is dead.

Sullivan awakes on the train, stopped in a train yard. He is taunted and pushed by one of the railroad employees, being treated as the hobo he is dressed like. Still disoriented from the attack the night before, Sullivan retaliates by hitting the man in the head with a rock. He’s immediately arrested and brought to trial, where he is sentenced to six years in a prison work camp.

Laughter is the best medicine

Thought to be dead, Sullivan works long days on a chain gang doing hard labor. The only consolation is the warden, who is kind enough to take his prisoners to the local black church for movie night. The congregation and prisoners watch a Disney cartoon together, laughing at the antics of Mickey and Pluto. It is through this the Sullivan realizes that comedies have all the power in the world to lift the spirits of the common man. The cartoon ends and fades into a newsreel explaining the gruesome death of John L. Sullivan,  Hollywood director. Sullivan realizes how to get himself out of out of prison. Claiming to be the murderer of John L. Sullivan, the director’s picture ends up in the newspaper. The Girl, working as an actress on a Hollywood lot, recognizes him and rushes to let the studio know that Sullivan is still alive.

On the way back to Hollywood, the studio executives excitedly discuss the press surrounding O Brother, Where Art Thou?  and give their blessing to Sullivan to make the picture. Sullivan surprises them by announcing that he will continue to make comedies, stating, “There’s a lot to be said about making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Sullivan’s Travels is a wonderful film in every way. It features Sturges’ trademark witty dialogue and sly bits of comedy. It pokes fun at Hollywood as a business, as exemplified in this scene:

Joel McCrea is perfect here as the director, partly disillusioned with his job, and yet eager to create something of social significance.Veronica Lake matches him blow for blow, and is an ideal love interest and adventure partner. This film, like most of Sturges’ others, is a satire on an institution or ideal, in this case Hollywood, but ironically turns out to be a message film that argues for the legitimacy of comedies. Through this film Sturges says that comedies can have as much power as any serious social drama.

There is no fancy camera work here, no super-seriousness. The crowning sequence of this film might be the Keystone Cops-esque car chase scene near the beginning of the film. But Sturges balances comedy and tragedy so well in this film, the transition from one to the other is almost seamless. Sullivan’s Travels is a film that reminds me why I love classical Hollywood cinema so much. In the absence of CGI and fancy tricks, the script, performances and story carry the film. It weaves its magic in its intricate simplicity.

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6 Responses to The Great Kane Debate

  1. kimalysong says:

    That is pretty much what happened to me with Citizen Kane. First time I saw it I had expected “the best film ever made” or whatever that even means so I was really disappointed. However when I sat back and watched it again not thinking of Kane as the “best film ever” I found I enjoyed the film much more. So my personal verdict is like you there is no such thing as the “greatest film ever made”. However i certainly do think Kane is one of the greatest, but just one being the point.

    As for Sullivan’s Travels, love that movie and it’s probably my favorite from Sturges: an amazing director/screenwriter. Back then they really understood how important the script was to a good movie, something I think most movies sorely lack today. It seems most of the strong script writers have moved to television, but it’s still not the same for me because I don’t like long running stories. I prefer a nice short well told story that we used to get in the movies.

    And you are right 1941 was a remarkable year for film.

  2. Yes, I think I’ve definately enjoyed Citizen Kane a lot more on repeat viewings. It has a spot in my own personal library as well, so I definately admire it, and will watch it when I’m in the right mood. There are so many layers to that film so it’s nice to go back and revisit it and keep discovering things.
    Preston Sturges is so wonderful. The stuff he wrote is brilliant. There are so many jokes in there that you might miss if you’re not listening carefully enough, and his heroes are so earnest (if not a little clueless as well). It’s really hard to pick a favorite. I show people The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek a lot because I find them ridiculously funny, but I think Sullivan’s Travels has my top spot.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. This is an excellent post. I’m so glad that someone agrees with me about Kane. Great pick for an essential film. Sturges is fantastic and I hate that he is not given the credit he deserves today.

    Really great job!

    • Thank you so much! I guess we’re just going to have to go out on the Preston Sturges Appreciation crusade and get his name out there more. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing when I first saw The Lady Eve, and I just stumbled upon that on Netflix because it had Henry Fonda in it. Sturges definately doesn’t have the name recognition anymore, sadly.

  4. Kevyn Knox says:

    Great post on the debate. Kane is certainly great, but to try and name a greatest film, no what one may think it is, is just downright silly. I do place Kane at #5 on my all time favourites list though. I like your choice for another essential as well. I have always loved Sullivan’s Travels – my favourite Sturges. You mention that there is no “fancy camerawork” but that is not necessarily true. The great thing about Sturges is that he can make his camera do some great cinematic things without ever letting you know he is doing it. Others, like Kubrick or Lubistch or Welles of course have a certain flair for the grandiose, but someone like Sturges, as well as Hawks and Capra, seem to sneak that artistic flair in there right under our noses.

    Thanx again for the great post. Keep up the great work you do on your site.

    • Thanks for reading, and your kind words about the blog! I agree with your comment on camerawork. I think Sturges, Capra, Hawks etc., fit more into the traditional classic Hollywood continuity editing, more invisible, and I think that allows for their stories to come across as powerfully as they do. That’s just as much the mark of a master as anyone else.
      I think if I was forced to make a top ten list, Kane is in there somewhere for sure. It’s definately grown on me over repeat viewings.

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