RKO 281 (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

RKO 281 is a fictional account of the making of Citizen Kane.

VERY fictional.

In fact, I can summarize my response to this movie in two quick bullet points:

  • It's a helluva good yarn.
  • It isn't true.

You ought to enjoy watching it. I did. I've watched it three times now, enjoyed all three viewings, and find parts of it superior. I believe it earned all those Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Unfortunately, it just doesn't have much to do with the real story behind Citizen Kane. It bears as much resemblance to the real story as Citizen Kane itself bears to the life of William Randolph Hearst, which is to say that it borrows lots of facts and details from reality, but blends them with urban legends and fabrications until it is essentially a work of fiction.

Start with the basic premise, as shown in the opening scenes. Welles is in a period of writer's block. He needs to produce a movie in order to fulfill his highly-publicized contract with RKO. He is invited to a dinner party at Hearst's San Simeon estate. He and Hearst have a discourteous exchange of words at dinner. That night Welles wanders through the estate, drinking in the details of Hearst's opulent life. He has his motivation - anger at Hearst. He has his concept: a man who acquires wealth and power but never loves or is loved, ends up a virtual prisoner in his decaying castle, and eventually dies a lonely man.

Uh - no.

Bears no resemblance at all to reality. Welles never met Hearst before Citizen Kane. Welles never visited San Simeon. He had no special relationship with nor interest in Hearst at all.

Here's how Kane got written. Orson decided that he would base his first film project on a drama he had written in prep school called Marching Song, in which a reporter undertook a quest for a "prophet-warrior-zealot ... the most dramatic and incredible figure in American history," whose biography is told to the reporter in snippets from various different points of view, from which the reporter pieces together a vision of the man. Sound familiar? It is the exact structure of Citizen Kane. Orson then sent heavy-drinking screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to a dry resort to write a first draft of the idea, attended to by John Houseman, whose job was to keep the alcoholic scribe off the bottle. The plan worked. Mank worked up a solid first draft of the film which would one day be widely considered the best of all time. The details of Hearst's life came not from Welles but from Mankiewicz who had been a frequent visitor at San Simeon in the early 30s, until his sharp tongue got him permanently disinvited. Mankiewicz combined his firsthand observations with casual Tinseltown gossip and molded it into Kane. Welles re-wrote Mank's draft and sent it back to the writer for further revisions, which Mank performed and returned. Welles continued to re-write.

One detail which has been lost with time is that the character of Susan Alexander, Kane's mistress, was nothing at all like the beloved Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress. Many of the details of the Kane/Alexander relationship did come from Welles, but those embellishments had nothing to do with William Randolph Hearst. Welles appropriated details from the lives of two magnates from the Chicago area, where Welles had grown up.

  • The story of how Kane built Chicago's opera house for his wife was partially derived from the true story of Samuel Insull's construction and funding of Chicago's Lyric Opera building which featured performances by Insull's own wife, Gladys. Insull was a utilities mogul.
  • The Insull story was simply folded neatly into the story of another Chicago baron whose relationship with his mistress was directly appropriated for Citizen Kane. Harold Fowler McCormick, chairman of International Harvester, was the youngest son of the inventor of the McCormick reaper. He was married to Edith Rockefeller, but fell in love with an aspiring opera singer named Ganna Walska. He spent millions on Walska and her opera career despite the fact that she was known to lack the necessary talent. McCormick went so far as to finance an entire Chicago Opera production starring Walska, although the ill-fated production never did open. McCormick eventually divorced his rock-solid society wife and married Walska. Walska eventually abandoned him. If you know the story of Citizen Kane, you will recognize the correlation.

Of course, Charles Foster Kane is a publisher and many details of Kane's life are taken directly from Hearst's own, so the real publisher was suitably offended, and was powerful enough to strike back. He threatened to expose Hollywood secrets. His papers never took ads for Citizen Kane, and for a while they would not publish ads or reviews from any RKO pictures. Hearst also threatened to sue. Then he sicced his personal bulldog on Citizen Kane, in the form of snippy gossip columnist Luella Parsons. In the end, the studio decided to defy Hearst and release the film anyway, but the major theater chains wouldn't touch it. Hearst needn't have bothered with all the fussing. In the few theaters that did run it, the film was met with total public indifference. Hearst did continue to cause problems for Welles. Citizen Kane was booed by Luella and her minions every time it was mentioned at the 1942 Oscar ceremony in February. I think you all know that Welles struggled for the rest of his career, although that undoubtedly had less to do with Hearst's influence than with Orson's own irresponsibility and stubbornness.

I suppose the ultimate irony of Citizen Kane is that Kane really resembles Welles as much or more than he resembles Hearst. Many people have noted that Welles himself was an arrogant man who looked down on everyone and seemed incapable of loving or being loved. His movies tend to reflect that - great intelligence, a lot of razzle-dazzle, and plenty of wit and style, but an alarming lack of compassion and warmth. RKO 281 does make this point. Although it does not try to deny Hearst's monstrous sins, the film also shows Hearst to be the more thoughtful, more loving of the two men, genuinely capable of profundity, genuinely in love with Marion Davies, and she with him. And that was true in real life as well. On the other hand, did Orson Welles ever really care about anything but his legend or anyone but himself? Although RKO 281 fudges, embellishes or fabricates the facts, it does present the story in an epic way, as a battle between two near-equal giants who were very similar, almost reflecting the confrontation between God and Satan in Paradise Lost. At the end of the film, Hearst says, in another apocryphal scene, "I should have been a great man, but wasn't." Which character was that really about? Has any statement ever summed up Orson Welles better?

Bottom line, I really enjoy this movie. Unlike many other reviewers, I like Liev Schreiber as a young Welles. Roy Scheider, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith and John Malkovich are outstanding in the other four main roles. The film is also dramatically exciting.

I wish it were true.

It isn't.



  • The amazon.com site is not correct about the A/R. It is not a full screen DVD, but a widescreen transfer (16x9 enhanced)
  • There are no significant extra features.



There is some nudity (butts) in a set of photographs shown to Louis Mayer by Luella Parsons, putatively of Hollywood stars in compromising positions.

The Critics Vote ...

  • There are no major print reviews, but it was nominated for 13 Emmys, winning three, albeit none of the key ones. It was nominated for three Golden Globes, winning "Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV."


The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C. I really enjoy this movie, but it's pretty much total bullshit.

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