Watch Orson Welles’ Trailer for Citizen Kane: As Innovative as the Film Itself

Over the years, the movie trail­er has evolved from being a long bag­gy com­mer­cial for an upcom­ing fea­ture to a visu­al­ly strik­ing mini-gem of film­mak­ing that some­times over­shad­ows the film it adver­tis­es. Pret­ty much every trail­er from a movie by Zack Sny­der, for instance, is expo­nen­tial­ly bet­ter than the actu­al film.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, one of the first film­mak­ers to embrace the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the movie trail­er was one of cinema’s great inno­va­tors – Orson Welles. The trail­er for Cit­i­zen Kane, which you can see above, has no actu­al footage from the movie – some­thing of a rar­i­ty. Instead, the trail­er serves as a curi­ous four-minute long doc­u­men­tary fea­tur­ing behind-the-scenes footage and short vignettes of char­ac­ters react­ing to the movie’s mys­te­ri­ous cen­tral char­ac­ter.

Dis­play­ing the same visu­al verve that would make Cit­i­zen Kane a cin­e­mat­ic land­mark, the trail­er opens with a gor­geous shot of a boom low­er­ing into view. And then we hear Welles’s sig­na­ture bari­tone voice intro­duc­ing him­self, “How do you do, ladies and gen­tle­men. This is Orson Welles.”

After inform­ing the audi­ence about a com­ing attrac­tion — his film — Welles segues straight into a shot of pret­ty girls, deliv­ered with a wry wink at the audi­ence. “Speak­ing of attrac­tions, cho­rus girls are cer­tain­ly an attrac­tion. Frankly, ladies and gen­tle­men, we’re just show­ing you the cho­rus girls for the pur­pos­es of bal­ly­hoo.”

He goes on to intro­duce the cast of Cit­i­zen Kane — mem­bers of Welles’s famed Mer­cury The­atre like Joseph Cot­ten, Agnes Moore­head, and Ray Collins — on set but out of cos­tume, look­ing bash­ful­ly toward the cam­era. The one per­son miss­ing is Welles him­self, who, aside from his urbane, author­i­ta­tive voice over, is com­plete­ly absent.

The trail­er then shifts gears. “Cit­i­zen Kane is a sto­ry about a mod­ern Amer­i­can called Kane, Charles Fos­ter Kane. I don’t know how to tell you about him, there’s so much to say. I’ll turn you over to the char­ac­ters in the pic­ture.” We then see a mon­tage of the char­ac­ters of Cit­i­zen Kane. They’re all on the tele­phone, air­ing their wild­ly diver­gent opin­ions of the film’s cen­tral char­ac­ter. Kane him­self nev­er makes an appear­ance. Welles ends the piece by pre­sent­ing Kane as an enig­ma, “a hero, a scoundrel, a no-account, a swell guy, a great lover, a great Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, and a dirty dog.”

Crit­ic and actor Simon Cal­low argued in his book Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu that the trail­er for Kane was just as ground­break­ing as the movie. It’s all shot with the same look as Kane — deep focus and expres­sion­is­tic light­ing.

Com­pare Kane’s trail­er with one that was more typ­i­cal of its time like Casablan­ca. Amid the over­wrought copy and some com­i­cal­ly flashy tran­si­tions, that trail­er all but tells you what is going to hap­pen in the film. There’s vio­lence! Dan­ger! Romance! Kane’s trail­er, on the oth­er hand, is less a sales pitch than a mys­tery. It shows plen­ty about the peo­ple behind the mak­ing of the movie but it shows noth­ing from the actu­al film. Based sole­ly on the trail­er, you don’t know what Kane is about, short of being about a shad­owy, com­pli­cat­ed char­ac­ter called Kane.

Welles wasn’t just being cagey for the sake of build­ing audi­ence inter­est. He was try­ing to head off a fight.  Though Welles pub­licly claimed that Kane was not about media baron William Ran­dolph Hearst, you can hard­ly blame the tycoon for feel­ing oth­er­wise. Hearst was a news­pa­per mag­nate with a show­girl mis­tress who built him­self a pre­pos­ter­ous­ly opu­lent cas­tle. Cit­i­zen Kane is about a news­pa­per mag­nate with a show­girl wife who built him­self a pre­pos­ter­ous­ly opu­lent cas­tle.

Hearst did every­thing he could to stop the movie’s pro­duc­tion – and he could do quite a lot. When he failed to kill the pic­ture by pres­sur­ing the stu­dio, he pres­sured the­ater own­ers. He used his media empire to slan­der Welles – using the direc­tor’s com­pli­cat­ed per­son­al life as tabloid fod­der and even imply­ing that he was a Com­mu­nist. Hearst’s cam­paign to dis­cred­it Welles was so suc­cess­ful that when the direc­tor’s name came up dur­ing the 1942 Acad­e­my Awards, it elicit­ed boos.

Welles, of course, got the last laugh. Kane was such an auda­cious, stun­ning­ly orig­i­nal work that, once redis­cov­ered in the 1950s, it was quick­ly declared a mas­ter­piece. The pres­ti­gious Sight and Sound poll of crit­ics and film­mak­ers rat­ed Kane as the best movie ever made for five decades straight before get­ting unseat­ed last year by Alfred Hitch­cock­’s Ver­ti­go.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Orson Welles’ Clas­sic Radio Per­for­mance of 10 Shake­speare Plays

Lis­ten to Eight Inter­views of Orson Welles by Film­mak­er Peter Bog­danovich (1969–1972)

Watch Orson Welles’ The Stranger Free Online, Where 1940s Film Noir Meets Real Hor­rors of WWII

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.


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