The American Dream in Film

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Updated: Jun 26, 2022
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The United States of America has embodied the symbols of power and wealth throughout its history.  When these symbols were crippled by the devastating effects of the Great Depression, a notion evolved the “American Dream.”  James Truslow Adams defined this phrase in his book The Epic of America as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank”.  American society, has its varieties of race, religion, class, and beliefs, but one common idea stands – the American Dream.

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  In 1941, Orson Welles in his classic film Citizen Kane offered an alternate version of the American Dream, a dream that was anything but desirable.  As one film critic described it, the film suggests that, “mere associated with affluence may ultimately erode one’s spirituality and lead to moral corruption”.

The drama Citizen Kane was produced, directed, and starred media sensation Orson Welles and the screenplay credit was shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz.  The film was loosely based on: “the life story of media mogul William Randolph Hearst”, which caused a lot of friction for it’s release.  Hearst’s response to the portrayal of his life, was to destroy the film or at least limit its success.  Hearst was ultimately successful in terms of theater and media exposure and financial success due to his vast ownership of media outlets.  But it did not stop the film from rolling opening day May 1, 1941 (The Battle Over Citizen Kane). Welles used his film as an art form to communicate and introduce non-linear storytelling, unorthodox camera angles, editing techniques, and creative lighting which was uncommon for the era.

All these factors helped to create a film that would later be considered a masterpiece (The Battle Over Citizen Kane). The film follows Jerry Thompson (William Alland), an investigative reporter and his journey to find meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) dying words “Rosebud.”  The reporter gradually reveals a multifaceted man who rose from nothing to staggering wealth – the American Dream.  Through a series of flashbacks and interviews from the ones closest to Kane, the true nature of Kane’s character unfolds for it’s audience. The first flashback scene opens with Kane as a child, happily playing outside with a sled and throwing snowballs with a sense of security.  While his parents and their banker Walter Thatcher (George Coulourishow) are inside discussing the details of Kane’s future. 

His parents operate a boarding house in Colorado and were quite poor.  Until they stumble upon ownership of a profitable gold mine. After acquiring sudden wealth, Kane’s mother without his father’s approval, decides to sign guardianship of Kane over to Thatcher, for hopes of him achieving the American Dream.  Kane’s mother shows a complete lack of emotion, especially remorsefulness, while signing the paperwork with Thatcher (Citizen Kane).  As the scene advances, Kane learns his fate and is introduced to Thatcher, symbolizing his last moments of childhood innocence and happiness (The Battle Over Citizen Kane).  The film progresses to Kane at the age of twenty-five, his resentment towards Thatcher is revealed.  He blames Thatcher for destroying his family, more importantly, his childhood.  Kane even refers to Thatcher as his “ex guardian”, when introducing him to colleagues. 

Kane had the opportunity to attend several Ivy League colleges but was expelled from all the colleges, more than likely representing a form of rebellious behavior towards Thatcher. After an unsuccessful attempt at higher education, Kane decides to run a New York newspaper called The Inquirer.  Kane’s goal of running The Inquirer is, “to see to it that decent, hard-working people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because – they haven’t anybody to look after their interests” (Citizen Kane).Thatcher is furious about this decision but can no longer control Kane or his fortune; Kane gained full control of his trust at age twenty-five.  Thatcher is also upset because Kane writes yellow journalism headlines that undermines Thatcher’s business interests (The Battle Over Citizen Kane). 

Furthermore, Kane’s newspaper efforts are a million dollar a year operation with no return investment. Kane response to Thatcher’s comments about his newspaper, “I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in, 60 years” (Citizen Kane).  Again, displaying resentment and rebellious behavior towards Thatcher.  Kane has the ambition to operate The Inquirer but lacks the experience and staff to be successful.  However, Kane buys his success, he acquires the best journalists from his rivalry newspaper, in order to achieve his desired circulation.  It becomes apparent the longer he runs The Inquirer, the more he is interested in his self-image than actually looking out for the hard-working people in his community.

While successful with his newspaper operation, his next goal is to become the President of the United States. With hopes of reaching this goal, he married Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick); the niece of the U.S. President (Citizen Kane; The Battle Over Citizen Kane) Thompson interviews Kane’s friend and coworker, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), on his journey to discover who Kane really was. Leland does not keep his peace about Kane: ‘I was his oldest friend and as far as I was concerned he behaved like a swine. Not that Charlie was ever brutal, he just did brutal things’ (Citizen Kane).  In flashback form, Leland discloses the deteriorating fashion of Kane’s and Norton’s marriage and the scandal leading to the end of his political career. 

His marriage slowly fades due to his devotion to The Inquirer, frequently sleeping at the office and leaving their house at random hours. However, his political career depends on their marriage, so divorce is not an option for Kane.  Kane’s run for Governor of New York was anticipated to be a landslide victory.  Until his opponent, Jim Gettys discovers Kane’s love affair with mistress, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).  Kane is given the ultimatum to withdraw from the campaign or to be exposed about his love affair with Alexander. 

Kane’s wife and mistress both try to reason with Kane to accept his shortcoming, if not for his self-image,for the interest of his son (Citizen Kane).  However, Kane refuses to accept defeat and chose his mistress over his marriage, son, and political career.  The next day newspaper headlines read: “Candidate Kane Caught in Love Nest with ‘Singer” and Kane loses any possibility to the Presidency (Citizen Kane; Dirks). Kane and Alexander eventually get married and Kane begins to build his castle named Xanadu.  Xanadu was built on 49,000 acres complete with a zoo, statues that would fill ten museums, and accommodations for thousands of guests. 

Kane focuses all his attention to his wife’s opera career. However, she was a terrible vocalist, a laughingstock, and no vocal teacher wanted to work with her.  In response, Kane built his own opera house and found a vocal teacher Opening day, her performance is ridiculed in every newspaper, to include Kane’s own The Inquirer (Citizen Kane). Kane’s dream and eagerness to mold Alexander into a star opera singer leads to her attempted suicide.  Combined with Kane’s isolation to Xanadu and materialism, his wife leaves him. Kane ends up dying in his massive mansion alone and with nothing but his material possessions. 

His final words were, “Rosebud”.  The last scene in the film, depicts a worker burning Kane’s collection of material treasures.  The last item thrown in the fire, is his childhood sled bearing the name “Rosebud” (Citizen Kane). “Kane’s life was corrupted and ultimately self-destructed by a lust to fulfill the American dream of success, fame, wealth, power and immortality” (Dirks). Citizen Kane was unique for its era, because instead of representing the American Dream, it questions the notion.  It leaves the audience to reexamine the contemporary concept – consumerism.  Furthermore, it is a profound lesson of exchanging emotional security for financial security.

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The American Dream In Film. (2022, Apr 09). Retrieved from