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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Citizen Kane is a serious, grown-up film that will have little appeal for young kids. For teens (and any older kids who shows a budding interest in the art of movie-making), however, it is the must-see portrait of an early 20th century media tycoon. Made in 1941, it's thought by some to be the best movie of all time, both for its audacious techniques and for the depth of its characterization. Several scenes show principals drinking or drunk; there is pipe, cigar, and cigarette smoking throughout. Kane's implied adulterous affair has an impact on the plot, but there is no overt sexuality and no swearing or offensive language.
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What's the story?
As Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) dies, his last word is "Rosebud." Reporter Jerry Thompson is sent to find out who Kane really was and what Rosebud means. He meets with five different people who were important in Kane's life -- from the man who raised Kane to his second wife -- to try to understand the small mystery of Kane's last word and the larger mystery of the man who was capable of both integrity and corruption, and who seemed to have no sense of peace or happiness. Thompson delves into Kane's decision to buy a newspaper and its rise to an influential chain; his marriage to the niece of a president and his own ambition for public office; his affair with an aspiring opera singer. While the characters never reveal the meaning of "Rosebud," the viewer is permitted to solve that mystery. But the answer only proves that there are never any simple answers to the complexity of the human spirit.
Is it any good?
Kids who watch this film can never know how revolutionary it was. Every one of its dozens of innovations, from the flashback structure to the use of sets with ceilings for additional authenticity, has become all but standard. No problem -- there is time enough for them to study these aspects of Citizen Kane's brilliance if they decide to learn more about film history and criticism. For their first viewing of this brilliant work (and for purposes of a family discussion), just let them focus on the story, the dialogue, and the characters, which remain as compelling and contemporary as they were more than 50 years ago.
Like Willie Stark in All the King's Men, Kane begins as a populist and dies corrupt and alone, and we cannot help but hope for some explanation of how that happened, as Thompson does. Both Kane and Stark were based on real-life figures. Kane was based largely but not completely on William Randolph Hearst, the almost impossibly wealthy heir to the largest gold and silver mine owner in America, who became a powerful publishing magnate. Kane might also have been based on Welles himself, only 25 years old when he co-wrote, directed, and starred in this, his first film. He spent the rest of his life coming up with one excuse or another for why he never came close to that level of achievement again.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Kane used his newspaper to influence politics and stir up the public's interest in war in Citizen Kane. Do newspapers and other news media still do that?
Why do you think he said "Rosebud" when he died?
Have you ever visited Hearst Castle, which was the model for Citizen Cane's Xanadu? (An overhead shot of William Randolph Hearst's estate on the California Coast at San Simeon is shown in the film as Xanadu, where Kane lives.) It's now a California State Monument and is open to the public for tours.
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