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.
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.