'Citizen Kane' Synopsis and Plot Summary

The Story Behind Orson Welles' 1941 Masterpiece

Orson Welles in his 1941 film 'Citizen Kane'
LOS ANGELES - 1941: Actor, producer, writer and director Orson Welles poses as Charles Foster Kane in a scene from the RKO film 'Citizen Kane' in 1941 in Los Angeles, California.

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Orson Welles' 1941 film Citizen Kane, which Welles directed, produced, and co-wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz, premiered at the RKO Palace Theatre in New York on May 1, 1941. The film deals with the rise and fall of a newspaper magnate, Charles Foster Kane (portrayed by Welles), and is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst (who refused to advertise the film in his newspapers). It was voted the greatest film ever made by the American Film Institute in 1998 and 2007.

Key Takeaways: 'Citizen Kane'

  • Citizen Kane is told mainly in flashback, as a reporter seeks the meaning of the last word said by dying media tycoon Charles Foster Kane.
  • The reporter interviews Kane's associates, including his former best friend and his estranged wife, who share their views of Kane's life.
  • Kane is depicted as a complicated man whose ambition and wealth are derailed by his arrogance.

The Story of Citizen Kane

In a towering mansion on a huge estate in Florida, elderly newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) dies after emitting a final word, "rosebud," while dropping a snow globe. Among several reporters seeking to write stories on Kane's life and death, reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is assigned to unearth the meaning of Kane's final word. As Thompson investigates, vignettes from Kane's life are depicted in flashbacks.

Thompson begins by investigating Kane's various close relationships, though first he is rebuffed by Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), who was estranged from her husband.

Thompson then reads the journal of the deceased Walter Parks Thatcher, a prominent banker who took custody of Kane when he was 8 years old. Gold had been discovered on the property owned by Kane's mother (Agnes Moorehead), and Thatcher was assigned to be the child's caretaker because it was believed that he could properly manage the fortune and ensure that young Kane would receive a top-notch education. Kane is sledding in the snow when he is told of this arrangement, and he reacts angrily to being separated from his mother.

After being "thrown out" of a number of colleges, Kane, in his mid-20s and in charge of his now-considerable finances, decides to focus his energies on a small newspaper, the New York Inquirer, which became part of his holdings after Kane remarked in a letter to Thatcher, "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper". Thompson learns that Kane and Thatcher's relationship considerably soured when Kane published articles attacking Thatcher and his business interests.

Thompson goes on to interview Kane's business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), who is effusive in his praise of Kane's management of the Inquirer. Shortly after taking the paper over, Kane himself writes the Inquirer's "Declaration of Principles," which states that the newspaper will be an outlet free of special interests and will champion the public good. The Inquirer soon becomes the highest-circulated paper in New York and leads to Kane establishing a nationwide syndicate. Bernstein is clear in his admiration of his former boss, even as Kane's newspapers focus on sensational yellow journalism that vastly increases circulation and pushes the United States into conflict with Spain in the Spanish-American War. Thompson also details Kane's romance and marriage to Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), a niece of the president of the United States, which lands the wealthy Kane in a position of even greater power and prestige. 

The next subject that Thompson interviews is Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), the former top reporter for the Inquirer and Kane's one-time close friend. Leland reveals that Kane's success began to fail as he grew apart from Emily and started an affair with a singer, Susan (Dorothy Comingore). While Kane is running for governor of New York, his political rival exposes the affair and Kane's marriage and political career both end (a newsreel earlier in the film revealed that Emily and her young son with Kane were killed in a car accident two years later).

After marrying Susan, Kane pushes her to become an opera singer—though her voice is woefully inadequate—and even builds Chicago's Municipal Opera House for her to perform in. Leland and Kane's already-fraying friendship ends when Kane discovers that Leland is writing a negative review of Susan's performance. Although Kane fires Leland, he finishes the negative review himself and publishes it in his newspapers. Afterwards, Kane sends Leland a $25,000 severance check. Leland returns the check by mail in pieces along with a copy of the Inquirer's "Declaration of Principles" to demonstrate how far Kane has strayed from those ideals.

After Thompson meets with Leland, Susan finally agrees to speak with him about Kane. From Susan and a later interview with Kane's butler, Raymond (Paul Stewart), Thompson learns that Kane's final years were unhappy ones, with the couple living in solitude in Kane's estate, Xanadu. When Susan divorced him, Kane was left miserable and alone after also losing much of his fortune because of the Great Depression.

After concluding his interviews, Thompson admits failure in determining the meaning of "Rosebud," telling other reporters, "Maybe Rosebud was something [Kane] couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything... I don't think any word can explain a man's life."

In the film's final moments, items from Kane's vast collection of archives are being organized or destroyed. One of the items that is discarded in a furnace is the old wooden sled that the young Kane was playing with when his mother introduced him to Thatcher. The sled is inscribed by the brand name "Rosebud."