In 1937, Orson Welles took the theater world by storm with a string of Broadway successes, culminating in an influential modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The following year, his masterful adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds caused a sensation on the radio. And, after making the move across to Hollywood, the release of his debut picture Citizen Kane in 1941 set him on course to take the movie world by storm too.
Welles’ extraordinary film is now widely considered perhaps the greatest movie of all time. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, Welles and his co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay—though at least one person might argue their story was not quite as original as they might have once claimed.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was apparently furious that Welles had seemingly based so much of his film’s story on him—and he was determined to have his revenge by derailing Welles’ film before it even reached the cinemas.
First, Hearst banned all mention of it in his newspapers, losing the movie much (though not all) of its pre-publicity. He then tried, in vain, to buy up every cinema-reel copy of the movie ahead of its release to destroy them. To protect her boss, Hearst’s gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, then threatened to sue RKO Pictures if they released the film.
And Welles even later claimed that Hearst had tried to ruin his career ahead of the film’s release by hiring an underage prostitute and a photographer to hide in his hotel room in an elaborate attempt to frame and blackmail him. Alas, it was all to no avail: the movie was released to rave reviews in September 1941.
Welles later claimed that the character of Kane was not entirely based on Hearst, but rather was a composite character inspired by several notable media figures—including Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Chicago newspaper tycoon Samuel Insull. Hearst himself, meanwhile, later argued that it was not his portrayal that he objected to but that of the character representing his wife, who was depicted as an alcoholic failed singer and former mistress in the movie.
In his defense, Welles claimed that the character of Kane’s wife was an original invention and any similarity to any of the genuine wives involved was merely coincidental.
How true any of these denials are is unclear—as is Hearst’s repeated claim that, despite his supposed involvement, he never actually watched the movie.