Kane’s Rosebud – It’s not as simple as you think

July 22, 2007 § 2 Comments

“All he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story — how he lost it.”

— Jed Leland

By Lars Trodson

More than 65 years after the release of “Citizen Kane” it’s time to reevaluate the significance of that sled — the famous “Rosebud.”

After all, Charles Foster Kane essentially threw “Rosebud” out — he had put it in storage, and was careless enough about it so that it was incinerated. But there was something more essential he held onto: the glass ball, that snowglobe we first see in the apartment of the woman who was to be his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).

Rosebud wasn’t a physical representation of something Kane had lost — it was a reminder. He hadn’t lost his innocence, or his childhood — he had lost himself, and he had thrown away the only chance he had at love. That is what he meant when he breathed that last word, “Rosebud.”

Orson Welles is one of those rare public artists whose reputation keeps increasing — he looms larger and larger with each passing year — and it seems the appropriate time to examine perhaps the most prominent element in a film most people regard as the greatest ever made. An element, by the way, that Welles himself called a cheap trick. And if he called it that, why should we believe it?

Three things keep throwing the audience off about just why the snowglobe should be the more significant symbol. One is of course the obvious and rather bland fact that the sled itself is named “Rosebud.” We know that, fine. The other two are this: inside the globe there is a scene reminiscent of Kane’s childhood in Colorado, a snowy, desolate landscape. It’s evocative of scene where we seeing him use the sled. The third is the fact that when Charlie destroys Susan’s room in Xanadu after she leaves him, the one thing he doesn’t smash is this snowglobe. When he holds it amidst the wreckage he has caused, Charlie whispers the word “Rosebud.” We are being led to believe that he is remembering his more innocent childhood and the love of his mother. We are led to believe the snowglobe is reminding him of Rosebud, and his childhood, but really he is thinking of the night he met Susan. He is thinking of that the moment she walks out the door and how he lost his chance.

There are countless reasons why “Kane” holds up as the most deliriously entertaining films ever made — and we don’t need to go into them here. But one of the most important reasons why we return to the movie over and over again is that this is a film of multiple mysteries, both large and small, and the audience is teased into trying to figure them out. Movies that are too obvious — M. Night Shayamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense” comes to mind — don’t require multiple viewings. But films with a deep sense of the unknown, such as “Kane”, certainly do.

Given that, why would we ever expect the real answer in the film would be as obvious as “Rosebud” the sled? In a film this complicated and sophisticated, why would it not be something more sly and obscure?

These questions are important, because the film is essentially the unraveling of a puzzle. We try to figure out just who Charlie Kane is, and what he means to us, and how we think of him. That we still debate these questions is one of the miracles of this strangely enigmatic film. Just who Charlie Kane is remains a mystery even though almost every single conversation in the film is about Charlie Kane — even when Kane himself speaks it is more or less about himself. That we never get tired of the probing or the self-examinations is tribute to the liveliness of the script (credited to Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz).

The entire scenario unfolds so seamlessly, so fluidly, so languidly or joltingly, that the riddle of the story doesn’t tax us. The film is an examination of Charlie Kane’s life, but it’s not psychoanalytic, and that allows the audience a wide opportunity to form its own interpretations.

Yet eminent critics such as Roger Ebert have always had only one interpretation. Ebert once wrote: “’Citizen Kane’ knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means.” That has been the line of thinking for 66 years.


Welles and his entire production team at some point decided not to emphasize just how the glass ball came into Charlie’s possession — all we know is that he is holding it on his deathbed. As he is dying, he holds the ball with his lifeless arms outstretched at his side — he is not (thank goodness) looking at the ball as he says the word “Rosebud” — which would have been too much. And then Charlie Kane, the famous Charles Foster Kane, dies and the ball slides out of his fingers and explodes as it hits the floor.

Then we are off on the journey. “Rosebud,” says the news editor after they have watched the “News on the March” newsreel that opens the movie. “Dead or alive. It could turn out to be a very simple thing.”

No — not for us, or for the history of the movies.

The magazine writer Jerry Thompson (William Alland) then heads out to unravel the mystery of Rosebud. Thompson treks to Atlantic City and the boardroom of the Kane empire, and the hospital and eventually to that “coliseum”, Xanadu, that Charlie built for himself and Susan Alexander. We never get a very clear picture of Thompson’s face — he’s always in the shadows. That was a way for cinematographer Gregg Toland to express the fact that Thompson didn’t really care about Kane. The life of Kane was just a job to Thompson.

No one has a satisfactory answer for the “Rosebud” question, of course — and as we know it is never revealed for the participants within the film.

Welles himself said the idea of “Rosebud” was a deception, a “mickey”, but he was simply deflecting the real idea behind Kane’s pain. Pain that Welles undoubtedly felt, and pain the rest of us feel: most of us do not want to be revered, or feared, or respected, all we really want to be is loved, and to love.

And we want to be loved for who we know ourselves to be, not how others interpret us. The adult Kane was loved in the cheapest way: by his staff, and by Bernstein (Everett Sloan) and Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton), and he was only a status symbol, one would guess, to his first wife, Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick). The rest of the people around him either used him, or took him for all he was worth.

But it was Susan Alexander, on the first night they met, that truly liked him, and loved him, for who he was, and not for the person that the rest of the world thought of as Charles Foster Kane.

Susan and Charlie meet because he is standing (improbably) on the side of the road on some lower Manhattan street, waiting for… waiting for what? A trolley? But a carriage splashes into the mud, we hear the sound because of the extraordinarily crisp soundtrack, and as Susan emerges from the local drugstore with her aching tooth, she laughs at the sight of the man in the expensive suit drenched in wet dirt.

They are both vulnerable in this scene. She’s in pain, and he looks ridiculous. The script makes imminently clear that the one thing Kane does not appreciate is the idea of looking ridiculous.

Charlie accepts Susan’s seductive invitation to clean his suit — “I can give you some hot water… if that’s what want… hot water…”

It is during the following playful interlude in Susan’s apartment that Charlie is at his most likable. He shows her shadow puppets to alleviate her pain. He asks her: “How old did you say you were?”

“I didn’t say,” she replies.

“I know you didn’t. If you had I would have remembered.”

She tells him she’s almost 22 and he says, nicely, “That’s a ripe old age.”

He rhetorically asks her what he was going to do before he ruined his “best Sunday suit”, and he goes on to say he was about to go on a kind of “sentimental journey.” He was headed to the Western Manhattan Warehouse to see the contents of his old house in Colorado. Charlie and Susan talk briefly about the importance of the love a mother can give to a child. (Charlie’s mother is played by the great Agnes Moorhead, in a stunning performance.)

This is another point in the script where Welles and Mankiewicz throw us off track. Because he’s going to the warehouse on a search for a memory, and because of the way the film plays out, we believe he’s on his way to recapture his youth, and to find the sled, which will remind him of happier times.

But it is also during this scene where we first see the snowglobe. It’s sitting unobtrusively on Susan’s dresser. We see the globe twice in this scene, but of course we never see any scene in which Charlie is either given, or takes, the snowglobe.

It doesn’t matter, because it is in this scene, in Susan’s boardinghouse room, that Charlie Kane is liked for his own self, his own person, by this unassuming, lovely young woman. “I bet I’ve heard your name a million times,” she says, adding that she’s “pretty ignorant” and that Charlie probably already knew that. I would guess that her unworldliness was an immense attraction to this worldly man, as was her desire (her mother’s desire) for her to be a singer.

And that’s also what caught Charlie’s attention.

There is no real reason for this, other than the mysteriousness of the script, but I have always thought of Charlie as having the soul of an artist, an ambition that was aborted by the autocratic Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), who probably beat that sensibility out of him. So it makes sense for Charlie to run a newspaper — it is an outlet where he can be creative, but in a business milieu. And it is also why he has an obsessive appetite for collecting art: if I can’t make it, Charlie thinks, I’ll be close to it. I’ll collect it.

In that regard, Susan was much closer to his inner sensibility than the politically motivated Emily Norton ever was, and it was Susan that sensed Charlie appreciated her modest dream, and that was why she, at first, loved him. The most important aspect of the relationship between Charlie and Susan is not that he loved her — but rather that she loved him without reservation. At first.

It makes it all the more poignant — and bitter — when she says to him late in the story, during the picnic in Florida, that he never gave her anything she really wanted. She knows that Charlie had a chance to escape with her, at the beginning, but he didn’t take it. He could have just continued to love her. But he was not courageous enough, inwardly, to embrace the simple boy that he truly was, the boy who could do magic tricks and wiggle his ears, and who was at his heart a sentimental old fool. He was too wrapped up in the person that the world had told him to be.

And so he kept the snowglobe to remind him of the night Susan fell in love with him. The most important symbol in Charlie Kane’s life couldn’t have been the sled — because that life in Colorado was wrenched away from him. You cannot argue the fact that his mother gave him away, sent him away, gave him up. Who would not harbor some resentment about that? The most important symbol is the snowglobe, which represented the only time he was loved for who he truly felt himself to be.

In one of the last interviews for the magazine, Thompson feels a moment of humanity. He tells Susan in that terrible Atlantic City nightclub that he “can’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Kane.”

And she says, “Don’t you think I do?” She knew what they had, and what they had lost. And what Charlie had lost.

Welles was a nostalgic filmmaker, right from the beginning. He was always acutely aware of the passing of time, and the toll that it takes on people. So if we wholly identify that loss with the sled, with “Rosebud”, then I think we are missing the point.

But if we rather focus on the fact that Charlie held onto the snowglobe, we recognize that we all surround ourselves with mementos from the past — books, pictures, pieces of art — and that all of us are sometimes desperate not to lose the things and people we love. But no matter how rich, no matter how influential or powerful, we are all helpless from keeping those people that we love, and are about to love, from slipping away into the past.

The lesson that “Citizen Kane” teaches us, one that is always buried beneath the dazzling filmmaking, beneath the heavy myth of the film itself, is that we need to love those people while they are here. That’s what Charlie wanted to say to us, if he was to be honest. But, as always, he had a hard time doing it.


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