Revisiting Rosebud: The Mystery of Mary Kane

A new theory raises a fascinating question about Charles Foster Kane
by Michael Atkinson  posted April 8, 2013
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Here is where this Ameriad begins, in a Colorado cabin erected on the RKO lot in 1941 and surrounded by mounds of asbestos flakes, and with three adults and a kid and a sled. Something like both the Rosetta Stone and Sistine Chapel ceiling of cinema history, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) may have been finally supplanted in the globe’s most authoritative film critics poll (Sight & Sound’s) as the be-all, end-all "greatest" film ever made, but it remains an unparalleled feat of modern cultural hubris and textual density. In the course of 120 years of Babylonian exegesis, ranging from fast newspaper reviews and blog ejaculates to doctoral theses and Lacanian psychoanalytics, no other film has been analyzed and written about so much, and no film has therein generated such a varied and copious library of critical and analytic response. In fact, one could go so far as to say that no film, given the warehouses of dead trees and the warehouse servers of files in question, has remained so defiantly raw and fresh despite the amount of discourse devoted to it. From Andre Bazin’s 1957 employment of Kane as an auteurist foundation text to Pauline Kael’s over-famous 1974 essay Raising Kane to Laura Mulvey’s BFI Classics volume (1992) and beyond, each shipment into the subindustry of critical address surrounding the movie cannot help but demonstrate, the whole while, the analysis’s own singular inadequacy, and cannot help but pale before the scope and richness of the film itself.


Citizen Kane

If only more movies were rich enough to exhibit this kind of fortitude. (Film criticism can kill, and certainly has on occasion killed, a film – witness, say, how hesitantly the reevaluation of Heaven’s Gate is still proceeding, more than three decades after its crucified release.) What Kane has in its favor is an almost unique gestalt that manifests its essential thematic grist – the evasiveness of meaning, the mysteriousness of other people, the entropic self-cannibalization of both desire and extreme wealth, the unknowable blackness of others’ lives – in a cinematographic, editorial and graphic Hallelujah chorus that sings those dark harmonics in every frame. The effect is rather of a sorcerously-created world that does not require our viewership to exist and to thrive – it’s self-contained, like that landscape inside the snow globe, or like Xanadu itself, or like any mad effort to recreate the world and correct its chaos, by erecting walls and reconstructing inside what is valued, in miniature. Which, in every case, only leads to impacted chaos, of course, whether circumstantial or psychological or moral. It’s a Frankenstein story, and in Kane a man’s unhappy life is the experiment, defying God with its manias and laying waste to the villages.

Kane itself is also Welles’s monster, crafted so originally and thoroughly that its looming, voracious, Oedipal appetite destroyed him, in Hollywood terms, and the career Welles had thereafter remains, in all probability, the crow-picked corpse of the artistic life he could have had, had his initial creation proven less all-consuming, less absolute. But we needn’t reach for historicization or biography. Kane will always resonate and ache with known unknowns because in many ways we haven’t yet exhausted the basement of Xanadu. There are secrets here, as there must be, as Thomson the newsreel snoop realizes himself holding the jigsaw puzzle, right?, and every viewing of Kane is a reacquaintance with what its logorrheic-yet-evasive narrative flow doesn’t tell us. Seven decades later, we’re still that faceless reporter, full of information both unreliable and of questionable integrity but only nominally closer to whatever we might comfortably call the truth.


Citizen Kane

For example, let us consider Mary Kane, and that initiating scene in that fake frontier boarding house. No other scene is quite as troublingly hermetic as this one, harboring impacted secrets we can smell like snuffed candles, though we may not be surprised – what has more secrets, from itself and from its members and from the outside world, than a family? It’s the oddest backstory flashback in Golden Age history – a family of three stuck in the snowblind wilderness in 1870, visited by a New York banker hired to not only manage the wealth the Kanes have stumbled into, via an errant boarder’s gift of "worthless stock" in a mine, but to also manage their six-year-old son Charlie (seen famously through the entire scene obliviously playing in the snow outside), taking the boy away from his parents permanently and raising him in the East amid prep schools and professional nannies. A favorite for diagrammatical film scholars for ages, this scene’s first mega-shot may be, simply in terms of mise-en-scene, the wisest and most potent scene ever shot in America. But every firsttime viewer of Kane always stops short during this sequence’s storytelling, wondering first at the bizarre illogic of such an arrangement – must a nouveau riche’s ambition for their son mean signing him away forever? Why sign him over *now*, at such a young age? Why stay in Colorado, which wasn’t even yet a state in 1870, at all, especially when your finances are managed on Wall Street? Isn’t keeping the family together something this massive amount of money can afford?

Then, Mr. and Mrs. Kane’s behavior sends up red flags at every beat in the quadrangulated scene, Charlie romping outside with his sled in the meantime – Jim Kane (Harry Shannon) is a nervous, bulldozed mess, clearly not happy or satisfied with the arrangement on which they are all to sign, while Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) is a virtual sleepwalker, grimly exuding no emotion in what should be an emotionally charged moment, and placidly plowing ahead with the custody deal with Thatcher, which is clearly her idea. Watch it again, if you haven’t already committed it to memory, and the one dialogic cue that Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz toss at us – Mr. Kane’s impulsive but unconvincing thought to whup the boy after Charlie goes at Thatcher with his sled, and Mrs. Kane’s disassociative-fugue-state answer to send the boy away "where you can’t get at him" – wilts on the vine as a possible motive for the family’s dissolution and for the parents’ behavior. (Given a choice, any six-year-old would choose the warm Dad over Mom’s cold-blooded depression.) Then without ado Welles jump-cuts forward eighteen years, to the grown Charlie giving Thatcher amused hell with yellow journalistic stunts, and the enigmas of the Kane family are allowed to dissolve into the mists of the past.

We must remember that the boarding house scene is derived from the account found in Thatcher’s diaries, and so like every molecule of dramatic material we have about Kane, it is potentially fictionalized by Thatcher’s subjectivities, which were not mild. Perhaps Thatcher, in his unexplored particularities, saw these two hapless Western pilgrims for one-tenth of what they were, or of what they were enduring, just as his running and disdainful opinion about Charlie for years thereafter saw only a fraction of the man’s substance. That would be one way to read the scene – as a Thatcherite sneering – but it leaves the *why* of the custodianship unanswered. What was wrong with Mary Kane, anyway?


Citizen Kane

As far as I know, no one has ever broached a convincing theory to explain this scene’s weirdness. When asked by my students, I’d never had one, either. That is, until several years ago, when a returning-adult undergrad student of mine, a Vietnam vet, seeing Kane for the first time in a basic film history course, shrugged and offered a luminous explanation. It’s simple, really, and implanted in what we do see in the film like a virus: the unseen deadbeat boarder with the fortuitous mine deed, named "Fred Graves" in the screenplay, was in fact Charlie’s father. This would mean that Charlie was a bastard born to a wayward married woman, which in the western territories of 1870 meant he was to be hidden, spirited off and hopefully forgotten, regardless of how much money one might be coming into. (Vast wealth and the social prominence it brings might’ve made the disposal of the child even more imperative.) This explains the custodianship arrangement, and it certain justifies Jim Kane’s devastated uncertainty and uneasy patriarchal gestures; not only had he been cuckolded, but now, to somehow ameliorate the situation, he must sign over the boy he obviously loves. What’s more, his advanced age and the absence of any other children suggests that for all intents and purposes Jim Kane was infertile, a frontier stigma for a family man, and Fred Graves was not.

Numb and hollowed out inside, Mary Kane is suffering the crucible here, for her infidelity, for her bastard offspring, for the decision to abandon him to the gearwork of money and thereafter attempt to remake her life without the taint of forbidden flesh. Exploring this idea logistically, you end up asking how long ago Fred Graves had left, how long he’d stayed, how much of Mary’s pregnancy and Charlie’s childhood he’d hung around for, and what the Kane boarding house must’ve been like from, say, 1863 and the flashback’s present moment. What else did Mary Kane lose? Her haunted hiss of "where you can’t get at him," muttered in depressed mid-clinch with the boy, hints at a disdain for her husband that he hadn’t really earned, and perhaps this was because she loved Fred Graves, and was loved by Fred Graves, long and hard, and didn’t want to give him up when she should’ve, and bore Fred Graves’s child hoping it would keep him with her, when in all likelihood it did the opposite. The Kanes may have been emerging from a domestic catastrophe they were frayed from keeping hidden, but Mary’s emotional life is over. That is why Mary Kane is a zombie – hers is a broken heart that she’d ground up for meatloaf over and over again. Everybody else, especially Charlie, is collateral damage created by a headlong, illicit meeting of loins and lips years earlier, before the railroads had even crossed the Rockies.

Did Thatcher know, or care? Did Charlie himself, a grown millionaire with infinite resources and a presumably vexed relationship with his parents, ever find out? There are no tell-tale signs, although Kane’s overt and rebellious Oedipality, manifested primarily as a battle with Thatcher, would seem, because Thatcher is a proxy, to have Freudian roots in the loss of the unknown father, and not in the distance from the ineffectual Jim Kane. This emptiness, which Kane struggles to fill throughout his life and the film, is Kane’s weightiest tragedy, irremediable with a sultan’s treasure. This is what "Rosebud" is, at least in part (I’m beginning to suspect Rosebud is *everything*), and it braids another existential strand onto Kane’s lifelong efforts at connection and meaning, efforts that were doomed because his own identity remained a mystery. Welles’s film can be boiled down to the story of a Musilian "man without qualities" seeking, because he has no self-definition, to define himself through others, through power, through popularity, through ownership. His inevitable failure is a cascade that began before he was born, with a strange man in a married woman’s bed, whispering promises he will not keep. 


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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

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Author's Website: Zero for Conduct