Herman Mankiewicz, who, according to all evidence was the chief writer of the screen classic, Citizen Kane, was unusually well-informed politically for a Hollywood screenwriter in Golden Age Hollywood (and, given, the Meryl Streeps of the world, even more so, today). His huge library was composed almost primarily of political books, and his research on the thinly-veiled subject of Kane, William Randolph Hearst was impeccable.
Although taking “progressive” stands, (he supported the ACLU, labor leader John L. Lewis, and despised conservative president Calvin Coolidge) Mankiewicz blasted born-again Communists in Hollywood as uninformed idiots, whose information came solely from The New Masses. A former member of the Algonquin Round Table (famed for its diners, George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker among them, trying to top each other in the wit category), the screenwriter/producer unleashed his lethal wit on them. Reds, he asserted, thought Woodrow Wilson “was someone who founded a high school in Glendale.” And four years before Reds “discovered” Hitler was a threat he was peddling a script attacking the dictator.
One would think then, that his son Frank would follow in his father’s footsteps by being well-informed politically. But this was not so. As revealed in Frank’s autobiography, As I Was Saying, released right before his death, Frank was ill-informed and based his opinions not on research but on what validated his liberalism.
Take his position on the Soviet Union. His reaction to Kennedy’s pro-Cold War inauguration speech was a disappointment, as Mankiewicz did not regard the Soviets as a serious threat based on his perception that they had faulty missiles; however debatable this point, he didn’t back this up with research. Or take his service as a publicity man for Oliver Stone’s laughable JFK. Mankiewicz, claiming to have read most if not all of the books on the Kennedy assassination, parroted the director he defended (but to his cred, Mankiewiczewiz thought the film had “major flaws”) by obviously reading only that which supported his liberal position.
And what he didn’t read he based on what people told him—a huge howler for a journalist/historian. Hence, and considerable evidence to the contrary, he accepted Bobby Kennedy’s word that he and his brother did not try to kill Fidel Castro. But even the most cursory research revealed that they did; indeed, the CIA was astonished by RFK’s obsession with taking out the Communist dictator.
Regarding Castro, Mankiewicz took a position that went far beyond liberalism and into the anti-anti-Communist camp peopled by director Oliver Stone. The pundit openly admitted to admiring Castro (whose secret police once forced a dissident to eat his book), based on Castro’s supposed advances in literacy and health care. While accepting the absence of civil liberties in Cuba, he tried to mitigate it by asserting that the dictator did give dissidents the choice of leaving the island.
The more one compares the father and son, the more apparent it is that the latter hasn’t followed in the former’s footsteps; indeed, if Frank had been an adult in the 1930s, he would have been skewered by his father.
He also regarded Hollywood reds as political idiots. He asserted that the communists thought Woodrow Wilson was someone who founded a high school in Glendale. When the Left suddenly became supportive of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War against the Hitler-backed Francisco Franco, he lambasted them as ill-informed and ignorant, whose political education came solely from reading the New Masses.
Its screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz took left-wing positions. He hated conservative President Calvin Coolidge, was pro-union, and was an ardent support of the ACLU. He sent money to the imprisoned anarchisit Tom Mooney. His comment about the poor could have come from the New Masses:
“The poor are always suspicious of innovations. They feel instinctively–and almost always right–that the new is merely an improved form of exploitation.”
Moreover, within the content of the film, it seems to be promoting a leftist message. Charles Foster Kane is clearly modeled on William Randolph Hearst, who with his accusations of FDR being a communist made him the bete noir of liberals and the Left. The theme of the film is that money didn’t make Kane happy; indeed, it robbed him of his mother, who upon striking it rich, sent her son away under the management of a guardian tasked with giving Kane the best education the money could buy. It was also an albatross around his neck, preventing him from being “a great man.”
But the reality beneath the gloss is much more complicated.. Kane has a critical spirit that frustrates any leftist categorization. And this is very much the work of Mankiewicz (like Kael, I agree that Welles’ co-authorship to the contrary, the script is mostly, if not all, Mankiewicz’s own work).
Mankiewicz was ardently anti-communist. He loathed tinsel-town reds for a variety of reasons. One was that they tried to co-opt his stances before they were fashionable. At a time, when the official line of the Party was to root for Hitler coming into power so he would destroy the last vestiges of capitalism and then be replaced by a more political correct leader (the slogan was “After Hitler Our Turn”), Mankiewicz wrote a 1933 script attacking Hitler. He was even willing to give up his lucrative job at MGM to get it made.
He also attacked them at their weakest point: their hypocrisy of profiting from capitalism while at the same time spouting communist ideas. He once pointed out to a friend a “son of a bitch” Communist who was driving a Jaguar.” When highly-paid screenwriters threatened the studios with a strike, he mocked them saying:
“I think it’s a great idea. Chasens can dispense the vichyssoise on the picket line. I want to see the accounting of the first guy who applies to the union good and welfare fund–two hundred dollars a week for school tuition, a hundred twenty dollars for the pyschiatrist, three hundred dollars for the cook….You’ll go out on the streets carrying big signs saying, ‘Help! Help! We’re only being paid seven and a half a week.'”
He attacked the sudden switch of the Party from anti-fascism to pro-fascism when Stalin and Hitler signed a Pact that pledged they would never fight each other. After Hollywood reds attacked the government sending aid to a beleagured Britain, calling it a fascist, imperialist nation, Mankiewicz countered that he heard nothing in their speeches about the evils of Nazi Germany.
This balancing act between being pro-union, anti-Coolidge, and his anti-communism is apparent throughout the script for Kane. Unlike the Communists who lumped Hearst in with Hitler, Mankiewicz portrayed him as initially supportive and then becoming an enemy of the dictator. He was studiously fair to Hearst, showing him as once being an ally of the working man. Cleverly, Hearst had pitched this support to a group of businessman in a way that tapped into their fears of a communist revolution:
“You know I believe in property, and you know where I stand on personal fortunes, but isn’t it better that I should represent in this country the dissatisifed than have somebody else do it who might not have the same real property relations that I may have?”
In the script, Mankiewicz retained this warning:
“You see, I have property and money. If I don’t look after the under-priviliged maybe somebody else will…maybe somebody without any money or property.”
This same fairness was apparent when Mankiewicz portrayed, unlike the Left, Hearst as not anti-semitic. Kane is so middle of the road, that in the film he is attacked almost simultaneously from the Right as a communist, and the Left as a fascist.
Mankiewicz’s own complex politics, imbued in the script, were in stark contrast to Welles. Unlike Mankiewicz, who had a decided dislike of the American Communist Party, Welles had a much relationship with them. In the late thirties, he courted the Party when he staged a play based on fellow traveler Marc Blitzein’s anti-capitalist The Cradle Will Rock. Welles was, in later years, much more self-serving by feigning disgust with the Party. But the truth of the matter was that he was energitically pro-Soviet during World War II. Although he denied it to his dying day, Welles fled the country when HUAC, in 1947, began investigating Communism in Hollywood. Welles lamented the purging by liberal anticommunists of any Communism from their ranks.
(To his credit, Welles did buck fashion in the 1970s, when the Party was rehabilitated by the New Left into civil libertarians battling the fascism of HUAC. At the height of this fashion, Welles stated that he wasn’t “even faintly pro-Communist and begged HUAC for a chance to testify.)
From the vantage point of 75 years later, when the passions of Stalinism have cooled, Citizen Kane emerges as a mature, grown-up treatment of a figure who was unhappy and stifled because of his wealth, reactionary and supportive of the working man, pro-Hitler yet turning against him.
The movie has a bitter-sweet tone, for leftists today continue their tradition of treating complex figures in the agitprop of good vs evil.