Gather Ye Rosebuds: 'Citizen Kane' Screened At Hearst Castle

Gather Ye Rosebuds: 'Citizen Kane' Screened At Hearst Castle

4:47pm Mar 16, 2015
Orson Welles takes the lead role in his film Citizen Kane, the 1941 film that took clear aim at publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst hated the movie and did everything he could to stop it from being released.
Orson Welles takes the lead role in his film Citizen Kane, the 1941 film that took clear aim at publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst hated the movie and did everything he could to stop it from being released.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Citizen Kane has been called the best film ever made. It was also at the center of an epic battle of egos.

The main character was modeled after media titan William Randolph Hearst, who in real life tried ruthlessly to keep the movie from being released.

Almost 75 years later, the family has called a truce, of sorts: This weekend, Citizen Kane was screened for the first time inside the millionaire's legendary home, the Hearst Castle.

Back in 1941, the "boy wonder" Orson Welles was about to release his first feature film. RKO Pictures had given the 26-year-old director the cinematic keys to the castle: complete creative control to make whatever movie he wanted. The movie was Citizen Kane, the story of power-hungry and tragic Charles Foster Kane and his castle on the hill, Xanadu.

Everyone knew that Charles Foster Kane was a stand-in for William Randolph Hearst, and Xanadu for Hearst's Castle in San Simeon, on the California coast. It was a place that defined the word decadent: 165 rooms, a quarter-million acres.

Hearst had entire 15th-century ceilings imported from Europe. He packed the mansion with art and turned part of the property into the world's largest private zoo. Wild zebras still roam the grounds.

Hearst was America's first media mogul, dominating newspapers, magazines, newsreels and movies. While he started his career on the left, by the 1930s Hearst had hired Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as paid columnists, and he tried to destroy the New Deal. He became a villain to a new generation of lefties, including Orson Welles.

When word got out that Welles had taken aim at Hearst, Hearst fired right back, first threatening an advertising blackout. Then, in an era long before TMZ, Hearst threatened worse than a blackout: bad publicity for the movie stars of RKO Pictures.

"They said look, if you show this film, we are going to tell the life stories of lots of RKO people," says David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. "And we're going to take the same liberties when we tell those stories as Welles has taken with Hearst."

Yet after all of that, the studio still took the plunge and released Citizen Kane. It was a hit with critics, but bombed at the box office. The movie was most definitely not shown inside Hearst's lush, private theater.

A few years ago, however, Citizen Kane was played at the Hearst visitor center, down the hill from the castle.

Then this year, Hearst's great-grandson Stephen, a vice president for the Hearst Corp., gave the thumbs-up to a screening in the mansion, for the San Luis Obispo Film Festival — raising eyebrows and questions among people who knew about the famous feud.

"One of them hit me straight on," Stephen Hearst recalls, "and said, 'Do you think your great-grandfather would be rolling in his grave?' And I let him know that, based on my current responsibilities, I also have control of the mausoleum, and if necessary, I can check."

Hearst's descendants still get to use the castle, with its Roman pool and tennis courts. They also have the name — still at No. 6 on the Forbes list of America's most wealthy families.

But the estate is now, of all things, a state park, and about 750,000 non-Hearsts come to ogle it every year. Not surprisingly, the mansion takes a lot of resources to maintain; the party's $1,000-a-pop tickets will help.

While he agrees the movie is a classic, Hearst biographer David Nasaw says that Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst shouldn't stay linked in the public imagination.

"One of the reasons why Citizen Kane is dreadful biography and dreadful history is that it presents Hearst as a failure, as a bitter, nasty old man," Nasaw says. "Hearst had a great life. I mean he made lots and lots of enemies. But along the way, he had a grand time!"

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Citizen Kane" has been called the best film ever made. It was also at the center of an epic battle of egos. The main character was modeled after the media titan William Randolph Hearst, who in real life tried ruthlessly to keep the movie from being released. Almost 75 years later, there's been a truce of sorts. This weekend, "Citizen Kane" was screened for the first time inside the millionaire's legendary home, the Hearst Castle. Melissa Jaeger-Miller has the story.

MELISSA JAEGER-MILLER, BYLINE: It was 1941, and the boy wonder Orson Welles was about to release his first feature film. RKO studios had given the 26-year-old director the keys to the castle cinematically; complete creative control to make whatever movie he wanted. And the movie "Citizen Kane," the story of power hungry and tragic Charles Foster Kane, and his castle on the hill, Xanadu.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Newsreel Man) Like the pharaohs, Xanadu's landlord leaves many storms to mark his grave. Since the pyramids, Xanadu is the costliest monument a man has built to himself.

JAEGER-MILLER: Everyone knew that Charles Foster Kane was a stand in for William Randolph Hearst. And Xanadu, Hearst's castle in San Simeon on the California Coast, it was a place that defined the word decadent - 165 rooms, 1/4 million acres, entire 15th century ceilings imported from Europe, packed with art and once home to the world's largest private zoo. Wild zebras still roam the grounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) News on the march.

JAEGER-MILLER: Newspapers, magazines, newsreels and movies, Hearst was the first media mogul. And while he started his career on the left, by the 1930s, Hearst had Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as paid columnists and was trying to destroy the New Deal. He became a villain to the new generation of lefties including Orson Welles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Character)...Girls delightful in Cuba STOP. Could send you prose poems about scenery, but don't feel right spending your money STOP. There is no war in Cuba signed Wheeler. Any answer?

GEORGE ORSON WELLES: (As Kane) Yes. Dear Wheeler, you provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Character) That's fine Mr. Kane.

JAEGER-MILLER: When word got out that Welles had taken aim at Hearst, Hearst fired right back. First an advertising blackout. And in that era, long before TMZ, they threatened worse than a blackout. Bad publicity for RKO studios movie stars. David Nasaw is the author of "The Chief: The Life Of William Randolph Hearst."

DAVID NASAW: They said look, if you show this film, we are going to tell the life stories of lots of RKO people. And we're going to take the same liberties when we tell those stories as Welles is taking with Hearst.

JAEGER-MILLER: Yet, after all that, the student took the plunge. "Citizen Kane" was released and was a hit with critics but pretty much bombed at box office. But back to San Simeon at a party Friday night for the San Luis Obispo Film Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to this once in a lifetime event at the spectacular Hearst Castle.

JAEGER-MILLER: "Citizen Kane" was shown down at the bottom of the hill at the visitors' center a few years ago. But to play the movie inside Hearst's lush private theater - never. His great grandson was the one to give the thumbs up. Stephen Hearst is the vice president for the Hearst Corporation, and agreeing to a screening came with a lot of questions from people who knew about the famous feud.

STEPHEN HEARST: I mean, one of them hit me straight out and said, do you think your great-grandfather would be rolling in his grave? And I let him know that based on my current responsibilities, I also have control of the mausoleum and if necessary, I can check.

JAEGER-MILLER: Hearst's descendants still get to use the castle - the Roman pool, the tennis courts. And the name still No. 6 on the Forbes list of America's most wealthy families. But the estate is now, of all things, a state park. And about 750,000 non-Hearsts come to ogle the place every year. No surprise, it takes a lot of resources to maintain. The party's $1,000-a-pop ticket sales are going in part towards that. And while he agrees the movie is a classic, Hearst biographer David Nasaw says the Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst shouldn't stay linked in the public imagination.

NASAW: One of the reasons why "Citizen Kane" is dreadful biography and dreadful history is that it presents Hearst as a failure, as a bitter, nasty old man. Hearst had a great life. I mean, he made lots and lots of enemies, but along the way, he had a grand time.

JAEGER-MILLER: And his castle, still not a bad spot for a party. For NPR News, I'm Melissa Yeager-Miller. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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