‘Mank’ Welles Up Classic Debate: Who Wrote Oscar-Winning ‘Citizen Kane’ Script?

Todd McCarthy
·11 min read

In a few months Citizen Kane will be 80 years old, all involved now long-since departed, its status as one of the greatest films of all time as solid as ever. You’d think any old beefs would by now be gone with the wind, but no. With the imminent appearance of David Fincher’s stimulating and beautiful new film Mank, the perennial argument over who actually wrote this certified classic, which won its only Oscar for screenplay, is about to rear its aging head once again.

Most people will need telling that the title of this shimmering new black-and-white film (which, as a Netflix production, will be seen almost exclusively on home screens) refers to Herman J. Mankiewicz, older brother of the more eminent writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and grandfather of TCM movie host Ben Mankiewicz. A legendary wit who was a Broadway critic for the New York Times and The New Yorker and a member of the Algonquin Round Table before being paged by Hollywood in 1926, Herman quickly became one of the highest-paid screenwriters in the business, first at Paramount, then at MGM.

However, other than co-adapting the well-known plays The Royal Family of Broadway and Dinner at Eight into successful movies in the early 1930s, Mankiewicz worked on a lot of films but virtually nothing else you’ve ever heard of during that vital cinematic decade; he was busy, made a good deal of money but was more renowned for his great wit and epic drinking than for any literary accomplishments. Like many other screenwriters of the era, he was adept both at re-writing other writers and being re-written himself.

By mid-1939, at age 24, Orson Welles had already conquered the worlds of New York theater and radio when he signed an unprecedented deal to write, direct and produce films of his own choosing at financially troubled RKO Pictures. After a couple of false starts on other projects, the notion of making a film about a figure closely resembling the still-ubiquitous press lord William Randolph Hearst proved intriguing, and Mankiewicz, who had come to know the newspaper tycoon on numerous weekend visits to San Simeon, seemed like the right man to tackle the script, all the more so since the writer was largely bedridden with a broken leg.

This is not to say that the film spends much time watching the scenarist dictating dialogue to a secretary who takes it all down with great dispatch.

Like Kane, Mank thrives on its flashbacks, structural ingenuity, virtuoso black-and-white cinematography, fabulous locations and diverting production design (my only major beef with the film is the 2.85×1 widescreen aspect ratio, which of course didn’t exist at the time and is inconsistent with the hyper-attention to authentic detail that informs every other aspect of the production). This is a Fincher film unlike any other; it’s a character-based period piece, not a thriller, but its visual brilliance will not surprise the director’s many (and patient) fans.

At issue here is the writing, both that of Mankiewicz and of screenwriter Jack Fincher, the director’s father, who died in 2003 and whose sole credit this is (a pilot himself, he is said to have also written an unproduced screenplay about Howard Hughes). Expository by necessity, Mank, like Kane itself, jumps around a good deal but in a useful way that paints a detailed, if highly select, portrait of Hollywood politics as well as of grander ideological movements afoot during the Depression.

Mank sharply conveys the writer’s cantankerousness along with goodly samples of his inventive mind and unending supply of wit and humor. Eccentric barely begins to describe the man, and to be around him requires a certain capitulation to his waywardness and eccentric demands in exchange for a bountiful return by way of laughs and constant surprise at what comes out of his slot-machine of a mouth; feed it a bit and you usually come away with a good payoff.

The first stretch of Mank largely takes place in a modest desert lodge in Victorville, 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where the hobbled writer is ensconced with a vigilant secretary and, to a lesser extent, John Houseman, away from all distractions and booze (he was permitted one drink in the evening) so he can tackle the epic subject of a film a clef about Hearst. Mankiewicz brought a lot to the table, knowing not only the man and his circle but the world of journalism. Welles made quick visits from Hollywood to check on progress, and the writer, who was just 42 but looked older, bore down. By April, 1940, he had produced an initial draft of 268 pages (a conventional script is normally about 120 pages and the final Kane shooting script ran 156 pages). Huge continuity gaps remained, however, and much additional work clearly needed to be done.

No one disputes the course of events up to this point, but what happened thereafter has remained a contentious issue ever since. Welles enjoyed an unprecedented contracted that guaranteed him credit as director, producer and screenwriter of his films at RKO and there is no question that, from the outset, Mankiewicz had signed away his right to any screen credit for his work. At certain points, it’s evident that Welles intended to take full onscreen credit for the screenplay—“I wrote Citizen Kane,” he told Louella Parsons, whose boss was Hearst—as he was fully permitted to do by contract.

At a certain point, however, Welles’ attorney Arnold Weissberger advised that, “It would be unwise to deny Mankiewicz credit on the screen and have him get credit therefore through the press by publicizing his complaint.” When all was said and done, Welles was both generous (contractually) and accurate (in terms of his contributions) in sharing the screenplay credit with Mankiewicz and, at Welles’ insistence, giving him first position on the credits above his own.

But that was far from the end of it. On Oscar night, the only award for Kane out of nine nominations went to—what else?—the screenplay. Neither nominee was present—Welles was in Brazil preparing the ill-fated It’s All True, while Mankiewicz at the last minute decided to stay home even though he had written a short Oscar acceptance speech, one he subsequently shared with the press: “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’ absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.”

Thirty years later, this was a baton taken up by Pauline Kael in her initially celebrated, ultimately infamous 50,000-word essay “Raising Kane,” which was published as a two-part piece in the New Yorker as well as serving as an introduction to a lavish book edition of the screenplay, which had never been published before. In it, Kael rebuked widespread Welles worship by emphasizing the primacy of Mankiewicz’s work on the screenplay while damning Welles with faint praise.

Welles was deeply hurt by Kael’s broadside, which was taken seriously on the basis of Kael’s reputation. But Peter Bogdanovich and others rose to Welles’ defense, criticizing her for not speaking with the director (she claimed she didn’t need to because she knew what he would say) or any of his collaborators other than those that had a beef with him—Houseman, RKO’s former chief George Schaefer and the Mankiewicz family. Many scholars rebutted and rebuked her and, eventually, Kael’s essay was largely discredited.

Over the past four decades or so, the matter had seemed basically settled; the general view has been that Mankiewicz did the heavy lifting of the initial drafts, characterization and dialogue, while Welles, once the project proceeded, reshaped, rewrote, transposed, added, eliminated and in all ways tailored the script to his ultimate liking.

However, Mank, in which Orson Welles as a character barely appears, very clearly takes the Kael and Mankiewicz position, that Welles did virtually no writing on Citizen Kane. Therefore, it looks as though the dispute is now going to have to be adjudicated all over again.

Fortunately, we have what seems destined to remain the most judiciously researched and thoroughly considered word on the subject. This comes from scholar Robert L. Carringer, who, in the Winter 1978 edition of the journal Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 2, published the study “The Scripts of Citizen Kane.” This provided a comprehensive analysis of all the extant drafts of the Kane screenplay, based on “a virtually complete set of script records for Citizen Kane” preserved in the RKO archives. Two Carringer books grew out of this, The Making of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction.

Carringer’s bottom line is that “Welles’ contribution to the Citizen Kane script was not only substantial but definitive.” To back that up, the scholar proceeds through each draft of the ever-growing and transforming script, identifying major subjects that Kane’s inspiration, William Randolph Hearst, supported and were initially part of the script, such as women’s suffrage and relief help after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Mankiewicz’s second full draft ran to an incredible 325 pages, or long enough for a more than five-hour film, so there was obviously much work to be done to streamline and edit the scenes down to something manageable. At the same time, a “de-Hearstification” of the material was commenced in order to avoid offending the obvious inspiration for the drama, a process that, in the event, proved not thorough enough.

If the first two, ever-expanding drafts represented the undiluted work of Mankiewicz, Welles’ influence was increasingly felt through the five major drafts to come. In Carringer’s estimation, in the second draft, “roughly a third to a half of the lines are written substantially as they will be played in the film.” But it’s in “the all-important third draft,” Carringer states, “that the Citizen Kane script undergoes its most dramatic distillation,” and here that Welles’ “direct involvement can be documented and precisely identified.”

This third draft resulted in some 140 new revision pages and almost certainly reveal the guiding hand of Welles, in intent and execution if perhaps not entirely in line-by-line dialogue. For example, the famous “breakfast” montage of scenes between Kane and his wife initially consisted of several full dialogue scenes. Welles worked out a brilliant way to convey the gradual cooling of their relationship through a series of brief vignettes at table that conveyed all the necessary information. Was this “written” by Welles? Not exactly, but it was “fashioned,” “shaped” or whatever you want to call it through inspired collaboration that neither man would likely have come up with on his own.

There were many more such examples resulting from scenes that Mankiewicz “wrote” in the literal sense but which Welles then reshaped (very often by concision) to suit his purposes. There are also memos from Houseman to Mankiewicz that would seem to conclusively refute the idea of Welles’ “absence” from the writing process: “Received your cut versions also several new scenes of Orson’s.” Constant revision was a hallmark of Welles’ working methods, and this included reworking dialogue and scenes on the set and in the cutting room.

Contrary to Kael’s portrait of Welles as a credit hog, the end credits of Citizen Kane reveal, if anything, a sense of beyond-the-call generosity. At first, Welles no doubt expected he would receive sole credit for writing Kane simply because his contract dictated it; with some reason, he expected as much. But at the end of the day, he not only acquiesced to sharing writing credit with Mankiewicz, but witnesses (including Richard Wilson, one of Welles’ long-term associates) testified that, upon being presented with a typed version of the credits that RKO had prepared with Welles getting first screenwriter billing before Mankiewicz, the director crossed it out with a pen and placed Mankiewicz’s name above his own.

To top it off, Welles insisted that cinematographer Gregg Toland share the final credit card with him. There was ample credit to go around, even with an ego the size of Welles’ involved.

As far as I’m concerned, anything that revives interest in great old films in general, and Orson Welles and his great colleagues in particular, is a good thing. It’s also wonderful that David Fincher was in a position to push through this admittedly specialized project—something his father labored on for a long time—and have it turn out so well. But it’s also unfortunate that Welles, who started at such heights only to increasingly struggle just to get a few more films made in his life, now will have to suffer a few more slings and arrows flung by those who will automatically buy into the view that he had nothing to do with the writing of Citizen Kane. It was a fraught collaboration but a mighty one on which everyone involved made everyone else look better than they could on their own.

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