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Image Credit: 

Gary Oldman in Mank (2020)

In the Dark

The Film's the Thing

Mank 
Directed by David Fincher ◆ Written by Jack Fincher ◆ Produced by Netflix International Pictures ◆ Distributed by Netflix

Citizen Kane (1941) Directed by Orson Welles ◆ Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles ◆ Produced by Mercury Productions ◆ Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Netflix is currently streaming Mank, a film dramatizing the tribulations screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz suffered while writing a script for Orson Welles between 1934 and 1941. Originally titled American, the screenplay finally became Citizen Kane, a title that appropriately invokes the original villain of Genesis and pleased its director, the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles.

Mank is rewarding for anyone interested in American film. Its accuracy, however, is somewhat questionable. Fincher has subscribed to New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 argument that Mankiewicz was solely responsible for the screenplay. This is a position that has been subject to much criticism over the years. Filmmaker and critic Peter Bogdanovich, for instance, has argued that Kael’s position is at once tendentious and uninformed. Bogdanovich asserts that Kael ignored what Welles contributed to the script. While this comes up in Mank, it is dismissed out of hand as if it were unworthy of consideration.

There’s something odd and even petty about this. The film’s on-screen credits clearly say the script was written by Mankiewicz and Welles, with Welles’ name appearing below Mankiewicz’s name. What was going on here?

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But it’s more than this. Kael’s claim flies in the face of what we know of how films are made. Films generally have a script that in most cases undergoes numerous changes during filming, as ideas and situations change from day to day and even from hour to hour. After all, revision is essential to any work of art before it’s released to the public. Why wouldn’t this be true of film?

Some say Welles had been advised to take the lesser position to avoid legal complications that might follow the film’s release. But there’s something else to consider. Even if Mankiewicz did write the script on his own, it would have undergone extensive revisions and supplements as it was being made. That is the nature of filmmaking. What works on the page may not work on the screen.

Say a script calls for a sunny outdoor scene, but on the day it’s to be shot, the temperature has dropped to 30 degrees and a blizzard has set in. What is one to do? Change the story, of course, so that the scene can be shot indoors.

Scripts are perforce subject to unforeseen events and last-minute inspirations. During a shoot, a director may realize he has the opportunity to sharpen a line of dialogue or rearrange some furniture so that it better reinforces his theme. As such changes accumulate at the behest of the director and scenarists, authorial proprietorship must bow to expedience.

Film is a collaborative medium; many voices contribute to the final result. To take a simple example from Citizen Kane, consider the scene in which the 10-year-old Kane is traveling by train to Philadelphia with his guardian. Instead of placing the camera so that it follows the actors on to the train, Welles decided instead to focus on the boy’s sled as it is slowly buried under snow at his mother’s farmhouse. The resulting scene is simple, yet enormously suggestive. As we hear the receding train whistle in the distance, the snow slowly covers the rosebud painted on it.

Without a spoken word of explanation, we intuit that we are witnessing the burial of the boy’s happiness. The sequence also prepares us for the rosebud’s reappearance at the film’s conclusion, where it reveals its fuller meaning. The bud is the boy’s potential, which, due to the cold calculations of his well-intentioned but hidebound guardian, never flourishes as it should. Instead, his promise remains frozen under the cold calculations of his adult overseers.

This perfectly exemplifies the language of film: images edited together shot by shot to tell a story. It’s revealing that this sequence is not in the surviving script from 1940. Welles and his assistants probably decided to ignore the written script in favor of a cinematic trope.

My point is this: no matter how good a formal script is, it must bow to the exigencies of necessity and inspiration of the moment. It’s not, as they say, cast in stone. It follows that the concept of authorial ownership is often an elusive will-o’-the-wisp.

So who is principally responsible for the final screenplay? Fincher subscribes to Kael’s 1971 argument that it was Mankiewicz all the way. But there have been several plausible dissenters from this view, notably film critic Andrew Sarris. He became convinced that Kael wanted to deprive Welles of any claim to authorship to further her support for Mankiewicz. Exactly why remains a mystery, one that hardly merits the lengthy disquisitions that have been bestowed on it. After all, the film’s the thing.

Over the past 60 years Citizen Kane has been regularly acknowledged as one of the best films ever made. Even our former film critic-in-chief, Donald Trump, cast his ballot for Kane’s superiority. Of course, his judgment may be swayed by his admiration of Charles Foster Kane, the media mogul he may aspire to resemble himself. The only problem with the character in Trump’s estimation is that he remained together with the wrong woman. An exquisitely Trumpian judgement.

Acclaim for the film’s achievement persists despite its cinematic deficiencies: It was filmed in black and white in the old 4:3 aspect ratio. But this never dampened its ardent supporters who point to its technical innovations and its continuously resonant story.

Kane is a semi-fictional account of the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon of the first half of the 20th century and grandfather of Patty Hearst. In creating the film, Welles caused an uproar of major proportions due to the battle it instigated between the fans who praised it and the detractors who damned it. The first group judged it a revolutionary breakthrough in filmmaking, the second decried its political animus against what they deemed America’s honorable capitalist tradition. Hearst’s “journalists” tried to kill it at the box office and almost succeeded, until open-minded critics assessed its merits. I should add that if you’re going to watch Mank, it would be better to watch Kane first if you haven’t already done so. Mank’s issues will be vastly clearer as a result.

Being rather too young to see it in a theater in 1941, I first saw Kane on television 13 years after it was released. It was shown frequently on television in New York, often several times a day. That’s how Martin Scorsese came to see it and, like me, he watched it repeatedly, thereby learning much of his craft. I, on the other hand, only learned that I should show it to my students.

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Hearst became the model for Charles Foster Kane because Welles judged that he exemplified what American culture and values had brought forth in the first half of the 20th century. Was this true or merely Welles’ way of avoiding any further legal action past that which he had already endured? The question, I suppose, is unanswerable.

Whether we’re talking about plagiarism or influence, there is another author to consider. Aldous Huxley emigrated to Hollywood in the early 1930s where he made money writing screenplays while composing some of his best novels, one of which was After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which the principal character, Jo Stoyte, is unmistakably modeled on William Randolph Hearst.

Huxley had been a guest at Hearst’s castle and marveled at its mad collection of art, architecture, and artifacts of popular culture, including an actual zoo.

Like Hearst, Stoyte stuffed his impossibly garish home with a helter-skelter collection of world art, popular culture, and a functioning zoo. Mankiewicz used all of this in his screenplay, but moved the Hearst estate from California to Florida and renamed it, appropriately enough, Xanadu. Mankiewicz knew Huxley’s novel and clearly drew upon it to create his characters and their circumstances for Citizen Kane.

So when the question of who wrote Citizen Kane arises, we must include Huxley as one of the film’s essential progenitors. Oddly, Huxley’s name doesn’t come up in Mank. This is unfortunate. Despite Huxley’s loopy excursions into the world of psychoactive drugs in his last decades, his work deserves our continuing attention for its keenly honed satire of American mores.

One question remains: Will we ever have enough of Mankiewicz and Welles? I certainly hope not. And I further hope that Welles’ rosebud will remain tightly furled. It’s a mystery that deserves to remain unopened. ◆

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles.  He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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