Sunday, July 22, 2007

Kane’s Rosebud – It’s not as simple as you think

"All he really wanted out of life was love. That's Charlie's story -- how he lost it.''

-- Jed Leland
By Lars Trodson

More than 65 years after the release of “Citizen Kane” it’s time to reevaluate just how significant that sled — the famous “Rosebud” — actually is.

After all, Charles Foster Kane threw “Rosebud” out. First, he put it in storage, and then didn't think it was significant enough to save it: the sled was incinerated.

But there was something more essential to the meaning to his life: the glass ball, the snowglobe, that tumbles out of Charlie's hand and shatters when he dies.

What does this mean? Charlie Kane hadn’t lost his innocence, or his childhood, which is what the sled is supposed to mean.

The snow globe, which was first seen in the apartment of Susan Alexander,  drops out of Kane's hand. This is the last momento he held. It means he has lost himself because he had thrown away the only chance he had at having someone love him for reasons other than being wealthy. The symbol of that lost love was the snowglobe — which we first see sitting on the dresser in the little room that Susan Alexander is renting when she first meets Charles Foster Kane.

Orson Welles is one of those rare public artists whose reputation keeps increasing. He looms larger with each passing year. Because of that, it seems appropriate to examine perhaps the most prominent element in a film most people regard as the greatest ever made.

There are countless reasons why “Kane” holds up. But one of the most important reasons we turn to the movie over and over again is that this is a film of multiple mysteries, both large and small, and the audience is teased into trying to figure them out. Movies that are too obvious — M. Night Shayamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense” comes to mind — don’t require multiple viewings because we get so much of it on the first viewing. But films with a deep sense of the unknown, such as “Kane,” invite multiple viewings.

Given that, why would we ever expect the real answer in the film would be as obvious as the sled? In a film this complicated and sophisticated, why would it not be something more sly and obscure? 
Welles himself called the revelation about the sled a cheap trick. And if he called it that, why should we believe that the sled is the thing to focus on? Maybe, like a consummate trickster, that sled was misdirecting our attention all along.

The film is essentially the unveiling of a puzzle. We try to figure out just who Charlie Kane is, and what he means to us, and how we think of him. That we still debate these questions is one of the miracles of this strangely enigmatic film. Just who Charlie Kane is remains a mystery even though almost every single conversation in the film is about Charlie Kane — even when Kane himself speaks it is more or less about himself. That we never get tired of the probing or the self-examinations is tribute to the liveliness of the script (credited to Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz).

The entire scenario unfolds so seamlessly, so fluidly, so languidly or joltingly
, that the riddle of the story doesn’t tax us. The film is an examination of Charlie Kane’s life, but it’s not psychoanalytic, and that allows the audience a wide opportunity to form its own interpretations.

Welles and his production team at some point decided not to emphasize just how the glass ball came into Charlie’s possession — all we remember is that he is holding it on his deathbed. As he is dying, he holds the ball with his lifeless arms outstretched at his side — he is not (thank goodness) looking at the ball as he says the word “Rosebud” — which would have been too much. And then Charlie Kane, the famous Charles Foster Kane, dies and the ball slides out of his fingers and explodes as it hits the floor.

Then we are off on the journey. “Rosebud,” says the news editor after the
y have watched the “News on the March” newsreel that opens the movie. “Dead or alive. It could turn out to be a very simple thing.”

No — not for us, or for the history of the movies.

The reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) heads out to unravel the mystery of Rosebud. Thompson treks to Atlantic City, the boardroom of the Kane empire, the hospital and eventually to that “coliseum,” Xanadu, that Charlie built for himself and Susan Alexander. We never get a very clear picture of Thompson’s
face — he’s always in the shadows. That was a way for cinematographer Gregg Toland to express the fact that Thompson didn’t really care about Kane. The life of Kane was just a job to Thompson. No one has a satisfactory answer for the “Rosebud” question, of course — and as we know it is never revealed for the participants within the film.

Welles himself said the idea of “Rosebud” was a deception, a “mickey,” but he was simply deflecting the real idea behind Kane’s pain. Pain that Welles undoubtedly felt, and pain the rest of us feel: most of us do not want to be revered, or feared, or respected, all we really want to be is loved, and to love.

And we want to be loved for who we know ourselves to be, not how others interpret us. The adult Kane was loved in the cheapest way: by his staff, and by Bernstein (Everett Sloan) and Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton), and he was only a status symbol, one would guess, to his first wife, Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick). The rest of the people around him either used him, or took him for all he was worth.

But it was Susan Alexander, on the first night they met, that truly liked him, and loved him, for who he was, and not for the person that the rest of the world thought of as Charles Foster Kane.

Susan and Charlie meet because he is standing (improbably) on the side of the road on some lower Manhattan street, waiting for… waiting for what? A trolley? But a carriage splashes into the mud, we hear the sound because of the extraordinarily crisp soundtrack, and as Susan emerges from the local drugstore with her aching tooth, she laughs at the sight of the man in the expensive suit drenched in wet dirt.

They are both vulnerable in this scene. She’s in pain, and he looks ridiculous. The script makes imminently clear that the one thing Kane does not appreciate is the idea of looking ridiculous.

Charlie accepts Susan’s seductive invitation to clean his suit — “I can give you some hot water… if that’s what want… hot water…”

It is during the following playful interlude in Susan’s apartment that Charlie is at his most likable. He shows her shadow puppets to alleviate her pain. He asks her: “How old did you say you were?”

“I didn’t say,” she replies.

“I know you didn’t. If you had I would have remembered.”

She tells him she’s almost 22 and he says, nicely, “That’s a ripe old age.”

He rhetorically asks her what he was going to do before he ruined his “best Sunday suit," and he goes on to say he was about to go on a kind of “sentimental journey.” He was headed to the Western Manhattan Warehouse to see the contents of his old house in Colorado. Charlie and Susan talk briefly about the importance of the love a mother can give to a child. (Charlie’s mother is played by the great Agnes Moorhead, in a stunning performance.)

This is another point in the script where Welles and Mankiewicz throw us off track. Because he’s going to the warehouse on a search for a memory, and because of the way the film plays out, we believe he’s on his way to recapture his youth — to find the sled— which will remind him of happier times. But he is looking for any evidence that he was once loved, a feeling he has yet to recapture.

It during this scene where we first see the snowglobe. 

It’s sitting unobtrusively on Susan’s dresser. We see the globe twice in this scene.

This matters because it is in this scene, in Susan’s boardinghouse room, that Charlie Kane realizes that he is liked for his own self, his own person, by this unassuming, lovely young woman. “I bet I’ve heard your name a million times,” Susan says, adding that she’s “pretty ignorant” and that Charlie probably already knew that. I would guess that her unworldliness was an immense attraction to this worldly man, as was her desire for her to be a singer. This was the first woman in his life that Charlie could actually help.

And that’s also what caught Charlie’s attention.

I have always thought Charlie had the soul of an artist, an ambition that was aborted by the autocratic Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), who probably beat that sensibility out of him. So it makes sense when Charlie says he wants to run a newspaper — it is the only outlet in his portfolio of companies that allows him to be creative, even if it destroys his fortune. His artisic sensibility is also why he has an obsessive appetite for collecting art: If can’t make it, Charlie thinks, I’ll be close to it. I’ll collect it.

In that regard, Susan was much closer to his inner sensibility than Emily Norton ever was. Emily was the scion of a political family, and Charlie's ambition fit her family's genetic ambitions. But Susan, when she first met Charlie, believed that he appreciated her dream to be a singer was because he loved her. It was only later, in the trappings of Xanadu, that she realized he wanted to mold her into the kind of fame he had never been able to achieve himself as an artist.

This makes it all the more poignant — and bitter — when Susan says to him late in the story, during the picnic in Florida, that he never gave her anything she really wanted. She knows that Charlie had a chance to escape with her, at the beginning, but he didn’t take it. He could have just continued to love her. But he was not courageous enough, inwardly, to embrace the simple boy that he truly was, the boy who could do magic tricks and wiggle his ears, and who was at his heart a sentimental old fool. He was too wrapped up in the person that the world had told him to be. That is when he destroys her room when she leaves Xanadu.

Here is where we need to take a look inside the globe: it is a tableau reminiscent of Kane’s childhood in Colorado, a snowy, desolate landscape. It’s evocative of scene where we see him use the sled. And in the scene where Charlie destroys Susan’s room in Xanadu after she leaves him, the one thing he doesn’t smash is this snowglobe. When he holds it amidst the wreckage he has caused, Charlie whispers the word “Rosebud.” Here the connection is made. We are being led to believe that he is remembering his more innocent childhood and the love of his mother. We are led to believe the snowglobe is reminding him of Rosebud, and his childhood, but really he is thinking of the night he met Susan. He is thinking of that when she walks through the dark doorways of Xanadu and out of his life.

And so he kept the snowglobe to remind him of the night Susan fell in love with him. The most important symbol in Charlie Kane’s life couldn’t have been the sled — because that life in Colorado was wrenched away from him. You cannot argue the fact that his mother gave him away, sent him away, gave him up. Who would not harbor some resentment about that? The most important symbol is the snowglobe, which represented the only time he was loved for who he truly felt himself to be.

Late in the movie, when Thompson feels a moment of humanity while he interviews Susan for the last time, he says “can’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Kane.”

And Susan says, “Don’t you think I do?” She knew what they had, and what they had lost. And what Charlie had lost.

Welles was a nostalgic filmmaker. He was always acutely aware of the passing of time, and the toll that the passage of time takes on people. So if we wholly identify that loss with the sled, with “Rosebud," then we are missing the point.

The fact that Charlie held onto the snowglobe recognizes that we all surround ourselves with mementos from the past — books, pictures, pieces of art — and that all of us are sometimes desperate not to lose the things that remind us of people we love, or who loved us. No matter how rich, no matter how influential or powerful, we are all helpless from keeping those people that we love from slipping away into the past.

The lesson that Charlie Kane teaches us, one that is always buried beneath the dazzling filmmaking of his life's story, beneath the heavy myth of the story itself, is that we need to accept true love from whomever it may come. 

That fact he couldn't tell us that directly doesn't, in the end, make it any less true.

Lars Trodson is the author of the book of essays on Orson Welles, "About Orson" (, and two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" ( and "Tide Turning." (