Citizen Kane: Redefining the American Dream
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In the classic film Citizen Kane, director Orson Welles introduces the idea of the American Dream: a life of success and wealth. One’s formal expectation of this theme would be that of a perfect family life, large amounts of money, a successful career and ultimately, happiness. Welles redefined these expectations through the mise-en-scene of the first flashback in which Kane’s parents bequeath him to Thatcher.
The scene opens with Charles Kane’s mother, father and their banker, Thatcher, in the Kane boarding house. Kane’s mother is shown in the forefront of the scene, walking towards the camera with the two men following in the background. This is representative of the control Kane’s mother holds over the rest of the family, which is soon confirmed by her decision to give Charles to Thatcher despite the reluctance of both young Charles and his father. The scene then progresses to the three adults discussing the fate of Charles Kane. In this segment, Mrs. Kane and Thatcher are seated at the table while Mr. Kane stands slightly in the background. This shows Mr. Kane’s lack of dominance and his frustration due to this fact. As the scene advances, the camera moves backward for a deep focus shot. This shot includes Kane’s mother in the foreground, Kane’s father at the door, and Kane himself in the background, seen only through the window.
The audience’s attention transfers back and forth between Kane’s mother signing the papers and the outside window, where Kane is running around and throwing snowballs. This emphasizes how Kane’s mother is signing the control of her son’s life away. Later in the scene, the camera zooms in on Mrs. Kane’s face for a close-up that shows the audience the complete lack of emotion Mrs. Kane has for giving up her son. Through the combination of these cinematic elements, Welles alters the audience’s expectations that Kane would have grown up with a perfect family. Instead, Welles presents the audience with Kane’s conflicted childhood and a family with obvious control issues.
Welles surprises the viewer by using the first flashback scene of Kane’s childhood as a direct contrast to the wealthy life we previously saw Kane living at Xanadu. This scene is set in the Kane boarding home. This illustrates the meagre means from which Kane sprang. The camera angles used in both this scene and the previous scene at Xanadu are both low-angle shots, used to contrast the differences in space. At the beginning of the scene, we see Kane’s mother, Father and Thatcher crowded around the window. The audience’s attention is drawn to the obvious differences between the Kanes’ costumes and Thatcher’s. While Mr. and Mrs. Kane dress in simple, humble outfits, Thatcher is dressed in a nice suit and tie. This clearly defines the difference in social status between Kane’s parents and his new guardian. Welles furthers this distinction by having Thatcher speak with an accent.
Even Thatcher himself serves as a metaphor for Kane’s transition into a new life of wealth and prosperity. Later on, when the three adults walk outside to see Charles, the blocking shows a division between Mrs. Kane and Thatcher, again emphasizing the difference between the two characters. Welles uses setting, costume, characters and blocking in the first flashback to Charles Kane’s childhood in order to distinguish Kane’s childhood from his present. By doing this, Welles draws the viewer into the story of Charles Foster Kane and transforms their expectations of his life.
While there are many instances of both wealth and success in the film Citizen Kane, there is merely once example of true happiness. This example is shown only in the first flashback to Kane’s childhood. Throughout the first few minutes of the scene, Welles uses the technique of a deep focus shot so that the audience can watch Kane as he is being “bought” by Thatcher. Though Kane is poor and has not yet been introduced to his new, so-called improved lifestyle, the audience can see that he is having fun and is happy. This is an emotion we will not see in again in Kane’s life. After Thatcher has been officially declared as Kane’s new guardian, the setting moves to outside the Kane house, where it is snowing. This specific change to a snowy outdoor setting represents the innocence and purity that Kane will lose by leaving his old life behind. Kane’s happiness is dependant upon these fundamental characteristics that were lost in his childhood.
As the adults move towards Kane to tell him of his future destination, the actors move in a way that divides the viewers attention between Thatcher, Kane, and Kane’s mother. Through this screen division, it is possible for the audience to get a clear view of young Kane’s facial expressions. The audience can see that every time Thatcher speaks or moves closer to Kane, his features change to a worrisome scowl. This symbolizes Kane’s unwillingness to leave behind his parents and unbeknownst to him, his happiness. The use of actors’ movement around Kane also denotes Charles’s loneliness and isolation. This is a direct contrast to the earlier segment in which Charles was playing happily alone. The first flashback scene to Charles Kane’s childhood is very important as it shows the one time Kane is truly happy. By using this scene to represent Kane’s happiness, Welles has completely changed the audience’s formal expectations of the American Dream and thus, Charles Kane himself.
Through the mise-en-scene of the first flashback to Charles Kane’s childhood, Welles effectively creates new expectations for the audience. Welles offsets the 1940’s outlook on the American Dream with a much grimmer view of reality. By efficiently using setting, sound, lighting, editing and performance, Welles crafts a mise-en-scene that dashes the audiences hopes of the perfect American lifeBibliography:Citizen Kane, dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris and Orson Welles. Mercury Productions. RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.