Rosebud from the Mouth of Orson Welles
Orson Welles did not have huge success with Citizen Kane in 1941, mostly because the main character was a loose depiction of newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst did his best to suppress the movie, but did not anticipate Citizen Kane’s success, so the movie endured, despite its failure at the box office. Speaking of that, the main character is a depiction of failure, despite being filthy rich. Welles explains his depiction of Kane in a 1941 press statement and connects this to the meaning of Rosebud. I discovered this quote online:
January 15, 1941
Press statement issued by Orson Welles regarding his forthcoming motion picture entitled, Citizen Kane, which will be released by RKO-Radio Pictures:
ORSON WELLES: I wished to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character. For this, I desired a man of many sides and many aspects. It was my idea to show that six or more people could have as many widely divergent opinions concerning the nature of a single personality. Clearly such a notion could not be worked out if it would apply to an ordinary American citizen.
I immediately decided that my character should be a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one. I then decided that I would like to convince my audience of the reality of this man by means of apparently legitimate news digest short concerning his career. It was of the essence of my idea that the audience should be fully conversant with the outlines of the public career of this fictitious character before I proceeded to examine his private life. I did not wish to make a picture about his public life. I wished to make a picture about the backstairs aspect of it. The varying opinions concerning his character would throw light on important moments in his career. I wished him to be an American, since I wished to make him an American president. Deciding against this, I could find no other position in public life beside that of a newspaper publisher in which a man of enormous wealth exercises what might be called real power in a democracy. It is possible to show how a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible to show how he can be good and bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to place my man in charge of some important channel of communication—radio or newspaper. It was essential for the plot of the story that my character (Kane) live to a great age, but be dead at the commencement of the narrative. This immediately precluded radio. There was no other solution except to make Kane a newspaper publisher—the owner of a great chain of newspapers. It was needful that Kane himself represent new ideas in his field. The history of the newspaper business obviously demanded that Kane be what is generally referred to as a yellow journalist.
There have been many motion pictures and novels rigorously obeying the formula of the “success story,” I wished to do something quite different. I wished to make a picture which might be called a “failure story.” I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose; I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but what he does with his money—not when he gets old—but throughout his entire career. A man, who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power. There are many, of course, in “real life” who are exceptions to this, but the assumption of flair and vigor on the part of Kane as a personality made such an inclination obvious in his makeup. It was also much better for the purpose of my narrative since the facts about a philanthropist would not make as good a picture as a picture about a man interested in imposing his will upon the will of his fellow countrymen.
If I had determined to make a motion picture about the life of a great manufacturer of automobiles, I should have found not long after I started writing it that my invention occasionally paralleled history itself. The same is true in the case of my fictitious publisher. He was a yellow journalist. He was functioning as such in the great early days of the development of yellow journalism. Self-evidently, it was impossible for me to ignore American history. I declined to fabricate an impossible or psychologically untrue reaction to American historical events by an American yellow journalist. The reactions of American yellow journalists—indeed all possible publishers—to wars, social injustices, etc., etc.
Were for a great period of time in the history of these matters identical. Some have identified their names with certain events, but all are concerned with them. My character could not very well disregard them. My picture could not begin the career of such a man in 1890 and take it to 1940 without presenting the man with the same problems which presented themselves to his equivalents in real life. His dealings with these events were determined by dramaturgical and psychological laws which I recognize to be absolute. They were not colored by the facts in history. The fads in history were actually determined by the same laws which I employed as a dramatist.
The most basic of all ideas was that of a search for the true significance of the man’s apparently meaningless dying words. Kane was raised without a family. He was snatched from his mother’s arms in early childhood. His parents were a bank. From the point of view of the psychologist, my character had never made what is known as “transference” from his mother. Hence his failure with his wives. In making this clear during the course of the picture, it was my attempt to lead the thoughts of my audience closer and closer to the solution of the enigma of his dying words. These were “Rosebud.” The device of the picture calls for a newspaperman (who didn’t know Kane) to interview people who knew him very well. None had ever heard of “Rosebud.” Actually, as it turns out, “Rosebud” is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.
In his waking hours, Kane had certainly forgotten the sled and the name which was painted on it. Casebooks of psychiatrists are full of these stories. It was important for me in the picture to tell the audience as effectively as possible what this really meant. Clearly it would be undramatic and disappointing if an arbitrary character in the story popped up with the information. The best solution was the sled itself. Now, how could this sled still exist since it was built in 1880? It was necessary that my character be a collector—the kind of man who never throws anything away. I wished to use as a symbol—at the conclusion of the picture—a great expanse of objects—thousands and thousands of things—one of which is “Rosebud.” This field of inanimate theatrical properties I wished to represent the very dust heap of a man’s life. I wished the camera to show beautiful things, ugly things and useless things, too—indeed everything, which could stand for a public career and a private life. I wished objects of art, objects of sentiment, and just plain objects. There was no way for me to do this except to make my character, as I have said, a collector, and to give him a great house in which to keep his collections. The house itself occurred to me as a literal translation in terms of drama of the expression “ivory tower.” The protagonist of my “failure story” must retreat from a democracy which his money fails to buy and his power fails to control. —There are two retreats possible: death and the womb. The house was the womb. Here too was all the grandeur, all the despotism, which my man had found lacking in the outside world. Such was his estate—such was the obvious repository for a collection large enough to include, without straining the credulity of the audience—a little toy from the dead past of a great man.