Who Wrote ‘Citizen Kane’? It’s No Mystery

“Mank,” the new drama from David Fincher, revives an old charge against Orson Welles. Was Welles, who with “Citizen Kane” (1941) created what is often cited as the greatest movie ever made on his first try, actually standing on the shoulders of another genius?

The movie, which began streaming on Netflix on Friday, dramatizes the writing of “Citizen Kane” through the eyes of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who received top billing on the shared screenplay credit with Welles. The film focuses on the period when Mankiewicz wrote what became a 300-page doorstop called “American,” partly drawing on his own experiences as a dinner guest of the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane.

Fincher’s movie, using a screenplay by his father, Jack Fincher, implies that Mankiewicz was the principal author of the script. When “Citizen Kane” won the Oscar for best original screenplay, neither Welles nor Mankiewicz attended the ceremony, but “Mank” concludes with its title character (Gary Oldman) telling reporters the acceptance speech he would have delivered: “I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which the screenplay was written, which is to say, in the absence of Orson Welles.” (As recounted in Richard Meryman’s 1978 biography of Mankiewicz, he really did devise an after-the-fact acceptance speech close to those words, although he also enjoyed a teasing correspondence with Welles at that time.)

For Welles scholars, the idea that Mankiewicz alone wrote “Citizen Kane” is an old falsehood, and its continued repetition may testify to the staying power of “Citizen Kane.”

“It’s the greatest film ever made, it has the longest track record of representing what cinema can be, and who’s responsible for making it that way is a continuing story,” Harlan Lebo, the author of “Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey,” an exhaustive account of the movie’s making, said.

Any controversy began in 1940, Lebo said. Welles, known for his spellbinding stage and radio productions with the Mercury Theater in New York, was making a much-watched arrival in Hollywood, having signed at age 24 to direct his first picture. He told the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that he had written the forthcoming “Kane.”

“Herman immediately flips, is threatening to sue, wants to make sure he maintains credit,” Lebo said.

Mercury Theater’s radio writers typically didn’t get credit, and Mankiewicz had waived his claim to authorship of “Kane” in a contract with the company. Welles could have pressed for full credit, Lebo writes, but his lawyer advised against the publicity of a dispute, and a shared credit was ultimately agreed to by both writers.

The “Mank” producer Douglas Urbanski said that Welles’s lawyer, L. Arnold Weissberger, had left credit contractually vague. “If they got Herman the drunk who didn’t deliver,” Urbanski said, “there was no way they were going to give it, quite rightly, and if he earned it, Orson was going to do what he ultimately did.” (He acknowledged that some of Weissberger’s communications cut against this theory.)

The question of who wrote what has surfaced periodically over the years, but it lives on mainly because of the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. In 1971, she wrote a two-part essay in which she asserted, quoting Mankiewicz’s secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins in “Mank”), that “Welles didn’t write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script.” Fincher told The New York Times Magazine that the essay, “Raising Kane,” provided the germ of an idea for the screenplay.

The 50,000-word essay is widely regarded as a misstep in Kael’s work as a journalist. She was accused of not having spoken to Welles or Kathryn Trosper, his assistant when “Kane” was written, and of ignoring archival material that might have complicated the article’s contentions. She was even accused of using, without credit, the research of Howard Suber, a young professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose interviews with Mankiewicz’s wife, Sara, and others can be found on file with Kael’s papers at Indiana University.

Peter Bogdanovich raised all these charges in 1972 in an Esquire essay, which itself has an air of mystique surrounding its authorship. “I did all the legwork, research and interviews, and the byline carried only my name, but Orson had taken a strong hand in revising and rewriting,” Bogdanovich wrote in 1997. Brian Kellow’s biography of Kael suggests that the critic, who died in 2001, chose not to respond to Bogdanovich’s charges.

For all this, today there is relatively little argument over who wrote what in “Citizen Kane.” In research published in 1978, Robert L. Carringer examined seven drafts of the screenplay in great detail and concluded that the writing Mankiewicz had done in Victorville, Calif., during the period depicted in the film “elaborated the plot logic and laid down the overall story contours,” but that Welles, principally, transformed the script “from a solid basis for a story into an authentic plan for a masterpiece.”

Carringer, who in a recent phone interview professed no interest in seeing “Mank,” described the differences between the two writers’ perspectives. Mankiewicz, he said, was a narrator. “You have a character — well, you have to say his age, family situation, economics,” he said. Welles, on the other hand, “hated that. So at every point possible, he created alternative ways of doing things.”

Mankiewicz’s contributions were essential and in some cases drew on his own experiences. Kael and Meryman both note that as a drama critic at The New York Times in 1925, Mankiewicz passed out drunk while writing a review, just as Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) does in “Kane.” (The Times ran a notice indicating the review’s absence.)

But Lebo, who has done his own analysis of the scripts and posted various versions of the screenplay online for easy comparison, noted that even the closest thing we have to a final script — the Museum of Modern Art, which holds one of two known copies of that draft, calls it the “Correction Script” — is still filled with strange things that didn’t end up in the movie.

“The final film is not really at all like the final script,” he said. “Every script goes through revisions during production, but this one much more than most, and what Orson Welles did to it, probably literally at the last second during production — just as he did with his theater productions — that’s what made the movie the movie we remember today.”

Even at the time, some cinephiles perceived Kael’s essay as an effort to discredit the auteur theory, the then-ascendant notion that the best directors were responsible for the stylistic imprints of their films.

“She picks the guy who is the epitome of the auteur in America and tears down his one great achievement that everybody can agree on,” said Joseph McBride, who wrote three books on Welles and acted for him in “The Other Side of the Wind,” a film belatedly completed in 2018. “But there’s a misunderstanding about the auteur theory, too.” The French critics who devised it “were accounting mostly for directors who didn’t write scripts, like Raoul Walsh, and how they could put their imprint on films that they hadn’t written.”

That point is made in “Mank,” when Welles (Tom Burke) angrily responds to Mankiewicz’s demand for credit by saying, “Ask yourself, who’s producing this picture, directing it, starring in it?” The critic Andrew Sarris, in an April 1971 retort to Kael’s essay, noted than even if Mankiewicz had written every word, Welles was no less the auteur of “Citizen Kane” than he was of his 1942 adaptation of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” whose “best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington.”

While Urbanski said that Kael’s argument had been discredited by historians, he added: “You could equally say that our film is 100 percent accurate if, and here’s the if, you accept that you’re looking at it through Herman Mankiewicz’s alcoholic perspective, because that changes everything.” Mankiewicz, he said, was the “motor” of a movie that functions on several layers.

McBride, who defended moviemakers’ right to dramatic leeway, nevertheless views “Mank” as a gross distortion and a missed opportunity to capture what was already an interesting relationship between Mankiewicz and Welles.

“They both worked on it, they both contributed their talents and they were better working together than they were alone,” he said. “You could show that. It wouldn’t detract from Mankiewicz’s genius and Welles’s genius.”

To Fincher, the point of “Mank” isn’t who wrote what. He said through a representative: “It was not my interest to make a movie about a posthumous credit arbitration. I was interested in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit. And who then changed his mind. That was interesting to me.”

Suber, now a professor emeritus, spoke almost nostalgically of how this debate has endured. When he began his “Kane” research for a seminar in 1969, he said, “I was simply interested in how a great screenplay — I’ve never questioned whether it was a great screenplay — how it came into existence.”

In retrospect, he said, the debate over the authorship of “Citizen Kane” belongs “in the same category as debates over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays or did Homer exist?”

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