Wednesday, November 07, 2012

"Citizen" Hearst (4/29/10)

They were born 52 years and one week apart. The difference between their beginnings and achievements couldn't have been greater, and even though they never met, they've gone down in history inextricably linked. Today we note the birthdays of William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles.

Hearst was born on April 29, 1863, into a
wealthy family and a world of privilege, attending New England prep schools and Harvard. Following graduation, he took control of the San Francisco Examiner, and parlayed that into ownership of the New York Journal, which became one of the highest-circulating papers in the U.S. (thanks to a little invention known as "yellow journalism"). He was soon the head of an empire that included newspapers, magazines, radio, and movies.

Welles (born May 6, 1915) didn't have it quite so easy. His parents were fairly well-off, but they separated when Orson was four. His mother died when he was nine, and his father passed when he was 15. As a teen, he was enrolled at the
Todd School for Boys near Chicago, where he was exposed to the arts.

Both men did their utmost to influence people. Hearst's media holdings were so vast that he was able to spread his ideas at will. In 1897, he sent illustrator
Frederic Remington and reporter Richard Harding Davis to investigate Cuba's role in the Spanish American War. Remington cabled Hearst, "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war." The publisher replied, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Welles, on the other hand, worked with more subtlety: he was always a showman (he had a lifelong love of magic), and charmed and conned his way into positions. As a teenager, he traveled to Dublin and demanded an audition at the prestigious Gate Theatre, claiming to be a Broadway star. He got both the audition and the job. He returned to New York in 1933 and ended up playing opposite top star Katharine Cornell in three plays -- all before the age of 20.

Welles was blessed with a
resonant and expressive voice, and got frequent radio work, which supplemented his directing at the government-supported Federal Theatre Project. There he presented an all-black cast in the famous "'Voodoo' Macbeth," the controversial "Cradle Will Rock," and a "Julius Caesar" set in fascist Italy.

Welles' success (most notably with his 1938 "
War of the Worlds") soon had Hollywood calling, and RKO Pictures offered the 24-year-old Welles an unprecedented contract which gave him final approval of every aspect of the film, from casting to final cut. After two false starts, the studio gave approval to his film, "Citizen Kane," a biography of a fictional media mogul whose life closely (but not exclusively) resembled that of Hearst.

When word got out about the picture, Hearst became furious, doing all he could to
suppress it. He threatened to expose all the secrets and scandals that had been quashed by the media and the studios; he offered to buy the negative and all prints from RKO; he banned advertising for any of the studio's movies in his papers; and he had his Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons smear both Welles and the film. But Welles’ contract was too iron-clad and word-of-mouth on the quality of the movie was too strong, and on May 1, 1941, it opened in New York to rave reviews.

Hearst got his revenge. As much as critics loved "Kane," audiences hated its groundbreaking cinematic techniques, and it was soon shelved. Welles
lost control of his second film, and for the next 45 years struggled to get financing for the films he wanted to direct, though he never stopped working as an actor.

Welles had his own revenge. Hearst's influence waned after World War II, and by his
death in 1951, it was all but gone, while "Kane" is still considered one of the greatest movies ever made.

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