Last night, introducing my wife to Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) — perhaps not the best, but surely the most brilliant, film ever made — I was startled to see that Kane contained a political speech. For some reason, I had forgotten about this moment, which appears near the middle of the film during Kane’s ill-fated run for Governor of California. While the film was made in the 1940s, Kane’s life was loosely based on that of the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who ran for Governor of New York in 1906. So this appears to be Wells’ recreation of what a political speech would have sounded like during the age of charisma.
For those of you who haven’t yet read the book (at the moment, that’s nearly all of you!), here’s the best audiorecording we have of a personally magnetic speech around the turn of the century: William Jennings Bryan’s “The Cross of Gold (originally given in 1896; recorded here in 1923). You’ll notice a few distinctive features of the speech: the expanded pitch range (high highs and low lows), the singsong quality of the voice, and the low, resonant tone described by contemporaries as the “orotund quality.” You’ll have to imagine the fourth major feature of this speaking style: a dramatic, expansive series of gestures, including — at the last — Bryan’s holding out his arms to mimic the crucified Christ. Listen to the excerpt; then we’ll return to Kane.
Before watching Kane, I had seen only one Hollywood representation of a magnetic speech from this time period: Frederic March’s performance as a thinly-veiled William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind (1960). I’ll talk about March’s performance in detail in another post, but suffice it to say that it’s pretty good, if a bit emotionless; March clearly did a lot of research, and the final performance reflects his hard work. So how did Orson Welles, the mad genius of American cinema, do with similar material? Let’s take a look:
Did Welles capture the charismatic speaking style? Well, yes and no — but mostly no. Yes, there’s the broad gestural style, complete with the crucifix gesture, which Welles may indeed have borrowed from Bryan. But Welles was at once the most original and the most derivative of minds, and he’s drawn from a number of sources here. There’s something of the old-school spellbinder in his work, the bloody-shirt orator who predated the magnetic style; and there’s more than a little of a more contemporary figure, the anti-semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin. All these disparate influences are subsumed within Welles’ own inimitable style, with his characteristic panache.
It’s worth remembering that Welles was only twenty-five years old when he gave this performance; he appears twice that age. But while Welles was certainly an intensely charismatic figure in the colloquial sense, his charisma was not of the personal magnetism variety common to speakers at the turn of the century. Welles was a true American original, with his own unique approach to cinema. In the end, it seems a bit silly to look for anything in this performance other than Welles himself.