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Citizen Bernstein

Not only did Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane—which turns 70 this spring—change the way films were made, it broke new ground in how Hollywood portrayed Jews onscreen

Harold Heft
March 31, 2011
Everett Sloane and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.(Alexander Kahle/RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Photofest)
Everett Sloane and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.(Alexander Kahle/RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Photofest)

This May will mark the 70th anniversary of the first public screening of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest movie ever made. Although it has been studied for decades, one of the film’s major characters, Mr. Bernstein, Charles Foster Kane’s Jewish business manager (and the first of several characters in the film given the opportunity to tell their version of Kane’s story), remains largely overlooked.

The creation of Hollywood by Jewish studio moguls has been amply documented by film historians, but Jewish characters were rarely portrayed onscreen when Welles started his career. Intentionally or otherwise, the inclusion of Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane was a political act.

Bernstein is the most sympathetic character in the film. Expertly played by Everett Sloane, Bernstein (whose first name is never mentioned) remains loyal to his boss despite Kane’s deep character flaws and through his tragic fall. Bernstein is, at times, playful, avuncular, philosophical, rabbinical (without ever becoming stereotypical), and romantic. He is also accorded some of the best lines in film history. (“It’s no trick to make an awful lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.”) His famously nostalgic speech about seeing a girl in a white dress on the Jersey Ferry for a moment in 1896—“I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl”—encapsulates the film’s major theme of loss and longing. He’s a one-man Greek chorus and Horatio to Kane’s Hamlet, the trusted friend whose loyalty spans, as he says, from “before the beginning” to “after the end,” and who lives on to tell the tale.

Welles, who was 24 when he made Citizen Kane, arrived in Hollywood with a track record of staging plays that subverted expectations around race and intolerance. His revolutionary all-black production of Macbeth in 1936, known as Voodoo Macbeth, was set in 19th-century Haiti and staged through the Federal Theatre Project in Harlem. The next year, Welles staged a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in contemporary fascist Europe, giving fresh poignancy to the scene in which Cinna the poet is attacked by an angry mob. Shortly after the play opened, Welles said in a New York Times interview: “It’s the same mob that hangs and burns Negroes in the South, the same mob that maltreats the Jews in Germany. It’s the Nazi mob anywhere.”

While investigating the evolution of the character of Bernstein in Citizen Kane, I reached out to the legendary film director Peter Bogdanovich, a close friend and confidant of Welles’ whose conversations with the director were recorded and published in 1992 as This Is Orson Welles. Bogdanovich is not surprised that Welles was moved to include a sympathetic Jewish character in his first film: “Orson was very fascinated and crazy about all things Jewish,” he said. “He was a big fan of the Yiddish art theater.” When asked where Welles’ empathy for Jewish culture originated, he talked about Maurice Bernstein, a doctor who was a close friend of the Welles family: “Bernstein, who was [Orson’s] legal guardian after his father died, was a very, very important figure in his life. He named Bernstein in the movie as a gesture toward his guardian … because he loved him dearly. Don’t forget, he lost his mother when he was 8 and his father when he was 15, so Dr. Bernstein was a huge influence in his life.” Asked if he thought Welles was moved to create a sympathetic Jewish character in Citizen Kane because Europe’s Jews were under fire, Bogdanovich said, “it was very much on his mind.”

Welles described the evolution of Mr. Bernstein to Bogdanovich in 1969, noting that he “sketched out the character in preliminary sessions,” but that Welles’ co-writer, Herman Mankiewicz “did all the best writing for Bernstein.” Mankiewicz was a frequent guest at the parties of William Randolph Hearst, the media giant on whom Charles Foster Kane was modeled.

Despite the collaborative writing of Citizen Kane, there’s evidence that Mankiewicz was considerably less comfortable than Welles in having a major Jewish character in the film. Bogdanovich has unearthed an August 1940 memo written by Mankiewicz after he’d seen Bernstein’s first major scene in the film: “In Bernstein’s office with Bill Alland [the actor who played the reporter Thompson]: Everett Sloane is an unsympathetic looking man, and anyways you shouldn’t have two Jews in one scene.” Mankiewicz was clearly uneasy about transgressing unspoken Hollywood rules concerning Jews on screen (whether as characters or actors), and Welles would have been well aware of this resistance. Asked if Welles, a Hollywood neophyte at the time, may have been unaware of such rules when he developed the Bernstein character, Bogdanovich replied that Welles “knew what he was doing there.”

Mankiewicz may not have been the only participant in the Citizen Kane project concerned about whether Sloane’s appearance was sufficiently sympathetic. As Mankiewicz knew, Sloane was a Jewish actor and a veteran of Welles’ theater company. In the years following the filming of Citizen Kane, Sloane embarked on a series of plastic surgeries to reduce the size of his nose and thereby, he imagined, broaden the range of acting roles available to him. Welles later said that Sloane “must have had twenty operations before he killed himself. He must have thought, ‘If I could ever bob my nose right, then I’ll be a leading man.’ ”

The evolution of the Bernstein character has long been misunderstood. In her 1971 essay “Raising Kane,” film critic Pauline Kael writes that the use of the name Bernstein “was Mankiewicz’s way of giving Hearst points … because, whatever else Hearst was, he was not a snob or an anti-Semite.” Kael also argues that Mankiewicz was giving Hearst points in the film’s famous breakfast montage (where the history of Kane’s marriage to his first wife, Emily, is condensed to a short series of breakfast scenes), when Kane stands up to Emily after she is, according to Kael, “snobbish about Bernstein.”

But Kael is wrong on a number of levels. The identifiably Jewish name Bernstein, as Bogdanovich reminds us, was not Mankiewicz’s. And she’s wrong about Hearst’s attitude toward Jews. In his efforts to have every copy of Citizen Kane destroyed prior to its release, Hearst threatened to use his newspapers to expose the dominance of Jews and Jewish refugees working in the film industry. Also, Emily isn’t just “snobbish” about Bernstein in the breakfast montage; she’s chillingly anti-Semitic. And Mankiewicz didn’t write the breakfast montage; Welles wrote and inserted it during production.

Welles’ later work continued to reflect his fascination with Jews and Jewish concerns. His 1946 film The Stranger, which depicts a Nazi-hunter’s search for a war criminal hiding in the United States, is said to be the first postwar film to include footage from a concentration camp. In 1962, Welles made a film version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, altering the novel’s ending in which Josef K. is executed without resistance because, he said, the original “seems very Pre-Auschwitz.” He worked unsuccessfully for many years to complete a film version of The Merchant of Venice; a clip of Welles performing Shylock’s soliloquy, and moving himself to tears, appears in the 1995 film Orson Welles: One Man Band.

For Bogdanovich, it’s not a wonder that a non-Jew proved to be such a pioneer in exploring Jewish themes and characters onscreen.

“The anti-Semitism that existed then,” he said, “was largely from the Jews themselves.”

Harold Heft has taught literature and film at the University of Western Ontario and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His last article for Tablet Magazine was about mystery writer Walter Mosley.

Harold Heft, Director of Research and Innovation at North York General Hospital, has taught literature and film at the University of Western Ontario and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.