The Cinema Show – Films about Films

Citizen Kane, RKO 281 and “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”

There are some films in which the production itself was so unbelievable that they spawned a separate film documenting or dramatizing the process.

I’m not talking about a middling DVD extra. I’m talking an actual documentary made by someone other than the studio.

For some films, to truly understand it, you really need to know the backstory (a.k.a. horseshit) about its production.

There are many and we’ll cover some of them. Our first is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made because it is the greatest fucking movie ever!

Yes, everyone says it and it is easy to discount that fact.

However, I ask you to consider this.

At the age of 24, if you had intimate details about the private life of the largest media tycoon in the world, a man who could crush your life, career and art, would you as an artist be willing to write that story, get it made and spend the rest of your life dealing with the fallout from it?

Orson Welles had that information on media magnate William Randolph Hearst and did just that.

Hearst’s power and influence is really quite unimaginable today. No one wields as much power over the media as he did. Rupert Murdoch is nothing compared to Hearst.

Every frame of Kane is steeped with jabs at Hearst. As detailed in Filmmakers Thomas Lennon (the documentarian not Lt. Dangle of Reno 911!) and Michael Epstein’s PBS documentary “The Battle over Citizen Kane,” when Hearst got wind of this, he was none too pleased.

He sent influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (think TMZ but with WAY more power to destroy people) to find out all she could about the film and obliterate it before its release.

When that didn’t work, Hearst tried to coerce the heads of the other Hollywood studios.

That didn’t work either. Hearst’s newspapers set about trashing the film and libeling Welles upon its release. Non-Hearst papers, however, gave it positive reviews.

In the end, the audiences of 1941 ultimately rejected Kane and it bombed.

With the death of Hearst in 1951 and advent of TV in the 50’s, Kane began its ascent to legendary status.

The story of Citizen Kane is a frame story that opens with a media tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s last words “Rosebud.” This sends an intrepid reporter on a quest, to find out what Rosebud means.

“RKO 281” was a dramatization of “The Battle” that HBO produced in 1999.

There are some criticisms about “The Battle” and, in turn “281,” claiming Welles and Hearst weren’t as similar as portrayed and that the “Hollywood legend” of Rosebud being a nickname Hearst had for his mistress’ clitoris wasn’t true.

Whether either is true or not, I have no idea. Considering the venom with which Hearst pursued Welles and Kane, I can certainly see it as plausible.

My preference is to watch the backstory on the films first, then watch the film. I find that it makes the viewing of the original film that much more compelling.

If you are a lover of film and have never seen these three, you must.

Citizen Kane – 1941

Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles – Original Screenplay; John Houseman, Roger Q. Denny and Mollie Kent – Uncredited, Contributing Writers

Directed by: Orson Welles

Main Cast:

  • Joseph Cotten
  • Dorothy Comingore
  • Agnes Moorehead
  • Ruth Warrick
  • Erskine Sanford
  • Everett Sloane
  • Paul Stewart
  • Orson Welles

Academy Awards: 9 nominations, 1 win.

On lists

  • 1001 Films
  • #1 AFI Top 100 ‘07
  • #1 AFI Top 100 ‘98
  • #4 WGA 101 Greatest
  • 1989 Addition to National Film Registry, one of the first 25 selected



Rotten Tomatoes


Playing Where? Netflix DVD, DVD Purchase


The Battle Over Citizen Kane – 1996

Written by: Richard Ben Cramer & Thomas Lennon

Directed by: Michael Epstein & Thomas Lennon

Main Cast

  • David McCullough (host)
  • Orson Welles (archive)
  • William Randolph Hearst (archive)
  • Richard Ben Cramer (narration)

Academy Awards: 1 Nomination for Best Documentary Feature


Rotten Tomatoes n/a


Playing Where? Netflix DVD, DVD Purchase


RKO 281 – 1999

RKO 281 Trailer

Written by John Logan; Based on “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon

Directed by: Benjamin Ross

Main Cast

  • Liev Schreiber
  • James Cromwell
  • Melanie Griffith
  • John Malkovich
  • Brenda Blethyn
  • Roy Scheider
  • Liam Cunningham
  • Kerry Shale


  • Golden Globe, 2000 Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television
  • Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special
  • Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special


Rotten Tomatoes


Playing Where? Netflix DVD, DVD Purchase

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