Saturday, November 24, 2018

RKO 281 (HBO Films, WGBH-TV, Scott Free Productions, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of movies for Thanksgiving, and one of them was profoundly interesting even though it was an O.K. movie that was essentially picking off the bones of a classic: RKO 281, a 1999 made-for-TV production about the making of RKO’s 281st production, Orson Welles’ auteur masterpiece Citizen Kane. The central intrigue of RKO 281 was the well-known fight between Welles and William Randolph Hearst, whose life provided much (though not all) of the raw material Welles and his screenwriting collaborator, Herman J. Mankiewicz, used for their film. RKO 281, directed by Benjamin Ross from a script by John Logan partially inspired by a PBS documentary by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon, provided essentially a print-the-legend version of the Hearst-Welles clash, and like so many movies claiming their origins in a true story, it’s a good movie as it stands but could have been considerably better if more of the real story had been used. The basic outline is familiar: in 1941 George Schaefer, an executive with little or now movie experience, had been put in as production chief at RKO Radio Pictures — the job was vacant because its previous occupant, Pandro S. Berman, had followed the lead of an earlier RKO head, David O. Selznick, and become a unit producer at MGM (it’s indicative of the low prestige of RKO that two major movie producers thought it would be more prestigious and lucrative to work as a subaltern at MGM than as the head of RKO). Schaefer’s idea for rehabilitating RKO’s reputation was about a decade or so ahead of its time: contract with independent producers and provide them partial financing in exchange for distribution rights to their films, so RKO would get product for its theatres without having to cover the full costs of making their films. RKO already had a distribution contract with Walt Disney (with whom they’d made a ton of money as distributor for his pioneering cartoon feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937) and Schaefer signed a similar deal with Sam Goldwyn which likewise was a money-maker for RKO for the next decade.

But Schaefer also signed independent production deals with Pare Lorentz, a documentary filmmaker who’d made the half-hour shorts The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River for the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) — though his contract was cancelled without his proposed RKO movie, Name, Age and Occupation, being made (decades later he published his script for it) — and with Orson Welles, who had become a major celebrity largely through his radio work in general and one radio show in particular, his October 30, 1938 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that dramatized Wells’ tale of a Martian invasion of Earth by covering it as if it were a real event which was interrupting normal radio broadcasts. The show started a panic among listeners who thought the event was real — though recent researchers have said just how many people believed the show was real and did things like attempt to flee the oncoming Martian invaders has been overstated big-time — and made Welles not just a boy wonder of Broadway but a national figure. Not surprisingly, Schaefer signed Welles in the belief that The War of the Worlds would be his first film (though the movie rights were held by Paramount, which had bought them for Cecil B. DeMille in the 1920’s, though they didn’t actually make the film until 1953), but Welles had other ideas. He though of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an atmospheric tale of Africa under imperialist rule and a crazy Col. Kurtz who rules over the natives as a god, and conceived of shooting the whole thing as a point-of-view experiment in which the camera would play Marlow, the traveler who comes on Kurtz’ compound and ultimately destroys him. RKO not surprisingly turned him down, and Welles cycled through a number of ideas before he and Herman Mankiewicz, who had drunk and insulted himself out of all the major studios (he famously wisecracked himself out of a job with Columbia when Harry Cohn, the studio’s head, said he judged movies on the basis of how much his butt squirmed in his seat when he watched them, and Mankiewicz snapped back, “Imagine — the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!”), settled down on a project originally called American

American dealt with the life of a super-powerful newspaper publisher and was based largely on Mankiewicz’ memories of hanging out with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies at their various redoubts, including the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon as well as another beachfront resort called Wyntoon (though Davies, Hearst’s protégée and long-time mistress, hated Wyntoon so much she called it “Spitoon”), until Hearst’s revulsion at Mankiewicz’ alcoholism got himself thrown out of the royal presence. Welles is shown in RKO 281 as an insufferable egomaniac with pretensions of genius who seems to be out to offend Hearst just for the hell of it — there’s a scene in the film in which Welles is declaiming about the beauties of bullfighting and Hearst, who’s hosting the dinner party at which this is happening, is appalled at the cruelty behind the spectacle and says it’s wrong to torture animals for sport (today the consensus view, at least outside the Hispanic world, has very much swung around to Hearst’s position!), and Mankiewicz later accuses Welles of wanting to make a movie trashing Hearst just because “he insulted you at a dinner party.” RKO 281 delivers some nice shots of the production of Citizen Kane (though none of the other actors in it are profiled or even named, except for a passing reference to “Agnes” — Agnes Moorehead, who played Charles Foster Kane’s mother) but the main business is the conflict between Welles (Liev Schreiber, who’s good but not great in the role) and Hearst (James Cromwell), as well as their respective seconds, Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Davies (Melanie Griffith, who turns in a wonderful performance even though she doesn’t stutter as the real Davies did). According to John Logan’s script for RKO 281, Hearst tried to suppress Citizen Kane because he was so appalled at the way the script depicted and trashed his life, including some of his most private secrets (one legend that’s at least hinted at in RKO 281 was that Hearst was appalled at the use of his nickname for Davies’ private parts, “Rosebud,” as the motif for Citizen Kane), and he thought it was wrong and unfair for filmmakers to dredge up his past as raw material for a movie. 

The sources I’ve read suggest that Hearst was less upset at what Kane did to his reputation — he figured he was so rich and powerful, and so well known as a public figure, he wouldn’t suffer from it — but from the way it depicted Marion Davies as the pathetic (in both senses), untalented Susan Alexander. Marion Davies was actually a quite capable actress in light comedies, only Hearst insisted on casting her in elaborate period pieces and expecting her to be a serious actress (ironically, Davies’ best film, the 1928 MGM production Show People, casts her as an actress who becomes a star in comedies and then falls when she attempts dramas), and when Hearst tried to hire Frances Marion, Mary Pickford’s favorite writer, to write for Davies, he told Frances Marion, “I’m prepared to spend at least $1 million on each of Marion’s films.” Frances fired back, “That’s just the trouble! She’s a great comedienne, and you’re smothering her in production values” — and everyone else in Hollywood thought, “Thank goodness Frances Marion had the guts to tell him that! None of the rest of us dared!” Davies didn’t make an effective transition to sound, partly because of her stutter (though it wasn’t noticeable when she was singing or speaking memorized dialogue) and partly because when sound came in she, like a lot of other major female silent stars (including Gloria Swanson and Corinne Griffith), was hitting her early 30’s, a dangerous time for women stars even now. But she was considerably more than the no-talent bitch a lot of people who’ve never seen a complete Marion Davies film start-to-finish assume from Dorothy Comingore’s riveting performance as Susan Alexander Kane. The biggest problem with RKO 281 is it portrays Orson Welles as a political naïf who takes on one of America’s major capitalists heedless of the power the man has for retribution. In fact, Welles was well aware of the power of Hearst and other media tycoons, and indeed that was one of the reasons he made a film about one: as he explained in a fascinating statement he released in January 1941 but was never published in full until Frank Brady included it in his 1980’s biography of Welles:

I wished him to be an American, since I wanted to make him an American President. Deciding against this, I could find no other position in public life beside that of a newspaper publisher in which a man of enormous wealth exercises what might be called real power in a democracy. It is possible to show how a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible to show how he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wanted to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to place my man in charge of some important channel of communication — radio or newspaper. It was essential for the plot of the story that my character [Kane] live to a great age, but be dead at the commencement of the narrative. This immediately precluded radio. There was no other solution except to make Kane a newspaper publisher — the owner of a great chain of newspapers. It was needful that Kane himself represent new ideas in his field. The history of the newspaper business obviously demanded that Kane be what is generally referred to as a yellow journalist.

In fact, I’ve noted in these pages before that both of Welles’ most famous works — the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and Citizen Kane — are about the media, and in particular how our perceptions of what’s going on in the world are shaped by the ways we are told about them and the personal agendas of media owners. (In that he was essentially making Marshall McLuhan’s media critique two decades before McLuhan did.) RKO 281 naturally emphasizes the sleazier aspects of Hearst’s response to Citizen Kane, including threatening the studios to reveal secrets of the major stars’ sex lives (there are shots of a few still photos purportedly of major male stars of the period having Gay sex with each other which look like the crudely staged underground porn shots of the period) and running anti-Semitic denunciations of the studios’ Jewish heads, and it includes the offer Louis B. Mayer made to George Schaefer to pay RKO the full production cost of Citizen Kane in return for destroying the negative and all prints. RKO 281 includes a scene of Welles making a Capra-esque plea to the RKO board to turn down this offer, saying that if they agreed to let the other studios suppress the film they were acting like Hitler and the Nazis on the march through Europe. What it doesn’t show was that Welles was a savvy enough publicist that he mounted a major P.R. campaign of his own, giving private screenings of the film to just about every sympathetic journalist he could think of who worked for a company other than Hearst’s, and he got what he was hoping for — articles hailing that there was a great movie out there and lamenting that the readers might never get a chance to see it. As playwright John O’Hara wrote in Newsweek:

It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.

With no less regret he reports that he has just seen the best actor in the history of acting.

Name of picture: Citizen Kane.

Name of actor: Orson Welles.

Reason for regret: You, my dears, may never get to see this picture. … A few obsequious and/or bulbous middle-aged ladies[1] think that the picture ought not to be shown, owing to the fact that the picture is rumored to have something to do with a certain publisher, who for the first time in his life, or maybe the last, shall be nameless. That the nameless publisher might be astute enough to realize that for the first time in his rowdy life he had been made a human being did not worry the loyal ladies. Sycophancy of that kind, like curtseying, is deliberate. The ladies merely wait for a chance to show that they can still do it, even if it means cracking a femur. This time I think they might have cracked off more than they can chew. I hope.

According to, RKO 281 was originally intended as a big-budget movie for theatrical release with Edward Norton as Welles, Marlon Brando as Hearst, Dustin Hoffman as Mankiewicz and Madonna as Davies. Then the budget got cut and the film became a “B”-list — or at least an “A-minus” list — film for HBO. Frankly, I think all four of the principals who actually appear in RKO 281 are better than the bigger “names” would have been — though Orson Welles remains a virtually impossible role to cast with anyone else. (I think the best Welles I’ve seen is Vincent D’Onofrio in his cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.) RKO 281 is actually a quite good movie, though the real-life time line is jumbled — writer Logan has Hearst undergo a financial crisis that causes him to call off his campaign against Citizen Kane, and shows Davies helping him out by selling some of the jewels he’d given her (that really happened, but in 1937, not 1941 — and, ironically, the event is depicted in Citizen Kane as occurring in 1929, in the immediate wake of the stock market crash) — and the facts of the story, particularly Welles’ fascinating P.R. campaign to get his movie released (which had the effect of turning around the RKO “suits”’ attitude towards it on the ground that the public controversy surrounding the movie might get people to want to see it and make it a hit —which, alas, it didn’t), might have made an even more interesting story than the one we get here.

[1] — The “ladies” were Hearst’s Hollywood columnist, Louella Parsons, and syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper, who pretended to be bitter rivals but were really close friends. It was Hopper who leaked to Parsons word that Citizen Kane was a movie à clef about William Randolph Hearst, and Parsons who in turn informed Hearst that the film was about him.