This Friday, Netflix will debut
Still, “Kane” made little impression upon its debut because the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, on whom the film’s protagonist was loosely based, was not pleased with the portrayal.
He put his considerable power behind burying the picture, blacking out its marketing in his papers and pressuring some theater chains not to run it.
(That story is told in both the documentary “The Battle Over ‘Citizen Kane’” and the historical drama “RKO 281.”) As a result, it was a commercial failure, and it won only a single Oscar, for best screenplay.
‘The Magnificent Ambersons’
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Throughout the “Kane” hullabaloo, Welles at least had the support of his studio, RKO. And despite the picture’s muted reception, the studio’s president, George J. Schaefer, gave Welles the go-ahead for his next feature.
Adapted from the novel by Booth Tarkington, this rendition — which Welles wrote, directed and narrated, but did not appear in — was handsomely mounted but moody and downbeat, with Joseph Cotten playing the kind of complex antihero that was decades away from vogue.
According to “Orson Welles,” Simon Callow’s extensive three-part biography (and counting), Welles had barely completed principal photography when he was sent to Mexico and Central America to direct a government-backed film called “It’s All True,” and he was able to supervise the editing of “Ambersons” only remotely.
In his absence, after poor test screenings (and the forced departure of Schaefer), RKO butchered the picture,
slicing off 40-plus minutes of Welles’s footage, shooting new scenes and adding a new “happy” ending without his involvement. “Ambersons” was critically acclaimed, and although Welles’s vision for the film was compromised,
it contains some of his best scenes and images. But it failed to find an audience, and Welles was released from his RKO contract.
Welles has said that after the failures at RKO, he figured he and Hollywood were through, and he found plenty of other endeavors to keep himself busy, working on the stage, the radio, and for his pet political causes.
But four years after “Ambersons,” he was lured back to the film industry by the independent producer Sam Spiegel. Welles has said he was also motivated by his strong anti-Nazi views to tell this story of a war crimes investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who tracks down a Nazi fugitive hiding under an assumed name as a small-town teacher (Welles), incorporating real documentary footage from German death camps in the production — the first fiction film to do so.
Welles had some arguments with his producer, including over the casting of Robinson (Welles told Bogdanovich he wanted to change the character to a woman and fill the role with Agnes Moorehead, who starred in “Kane” and “Ambersons”) and over the final edit — the theatrical version of which wound up 20 minutes shorter than what Welles wanted. For all that, “The Stranger” was the first and only box-office hit of his career.