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The flaw in Citizen Kane (1941)


slaytonf
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The basis for much debate, perhaps more of the heated variety than the illuminating, and notwithstanding one's opinion of it, it is a landmark film.  From what I've read in various sources, the advocates and detractors are about evenly split, and equally vehement in their opinions.  But of all the aspects of the movie that are available for inspection, I don't propose to choose any of them for finding fault, not that I couldn't if I would.  The flaw I'm talking about is not in the movie, but in misconceptions people have about it.  We commonly think, and Orson Welles intended, Kane to represent William Randolph Hearst.  But when I look at Kane, I see another person behind him, and that's Welles himself.  Brilliant, ambitious, but also self-destructive, it's hard not to see resonances in Hearst and Kane of Welles.  Welles' tendency to snatch disaster from impending triumph differed from the other two only in that he had a number of opportunities in his life for it, and it didn't happen on so great a scale.  One of the great themes in Citizen Kane is the lament over the squandering of so much ability and energy.  When I think of Orson Welles, I think of the same thing.  And that's saying a lot, considering what he accomplished as it was.

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From what I've read in various sources, the advocates and detractors are about evenly split, and equally vehement in their opinions. 

 

From what I've read....it seems unanimous that everyone finds CITIZEN KANE a brilliant piece of work. I've shown the DVD to many people (first viewing) through the years and everyone has loved it.

 

I don't see Welles as someone who "squandered ability or energy", he just never had the same chance to create again after Kane. His very next film, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was edited against his wishes. It always seemed to me, that loss of artistic control ruined Welles.

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I can certainly appreciation what a great technical accomplishment Citizen Kane was, particularly for a film neophyte like Orson Welles. Mind you, this was not a one man show, of course. Among others, Greg Toland's photography has a little something to do with the film's success, as well. Visually, the film remains a great treat.

 

But the problem for me is that the film has never really touched me emotionally. I never feel engulfed by its story or really care about the characters. For that reason it has never been one of my favourites.

 

When it comes to the Welles canon, it's his noirs that are my favourites - Lady from Shanghai and his remarkable study of decadence and corruption, Touch of Evil. I'd probably rather watch either of those films a dozen times to any one viewing of Kane.

 

When Sight and Sound not so long ago got headlines by declaring that Vertigo should be ranked above Kane as the greatest film of all time I didn't have a problem with that since the Hitchcock film has always enthralled me emotionally. (Not that I'm saying it's the Number One film, I'm not, merely that it is a favourite and one, among so many others, than I would rather watch than the technically brilliant Kane).

 

Gotta admit it, though, I've always been fascinated with Welles's brief superimposition of the cockatoo with the missing pupil. Was the missing eye a technical error or intentional?

 

kane-cockatoo.jpg

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I've often wondered about that bird myself.  Was it some kind of technical "glitch" that Welles just left in due to time constraints?  Or some other kind of sybolism, like his "multiple image" walk past that mirror.

 

The striking thing for me( and probably a LOT of people) was his dying word, "ROSEBUD",  and when seeing  it was the name emblazoned on his old homemade sled,  it hits us that at the end, and despite all Kane accomplished in his life, that his last thoughts are of a time BEFORE all the life he was noted for began.

 

And who REALLY knows what will be on their mind at THEIR "last gasp"?

 

 

Sepiatone

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Orson Welles on the differences between Susan Alexander and Marion Davies. He always regretted the fact that Kane had stained Davies' reputation as an actress:

 

And what of Susan Alexander? What indeed.

 

It was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story, but the man was not Hearst. Susan, Kane's second wife, is not even based on the real-life soprano. Like most fictional characters, Susan's resemblance to other fictional characters is quite startling.

 

To Marion Davies she bears no resemblance at all.

 

Kane picked up Susan on a street comer—from nowhere—where the poor girl herself thought she belonged. Marion Davies was no dim shopgirl; she was a famous beauty who had her choice of rich, powerful and attractive beaux before Hearst sent his first bouquet to her stage door. That Susan was Kane's wife and Marion was Hearst's mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today's changed climate of opinion.

 

The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them: they were pleasure domes indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations. Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape from it. The mistress was never one of Hearst's possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than thirty years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.

 

Susan was forced into a singing career because Kane had been forced out of politics. She was pushed from one public disaster to another fey the bitter frustration of the man who believed that because he had married her and raised her up out of obscurity she was his to use as he might will. There is hatred in that.

 

Hearst put up the money for many of the movies in which Marion Davies was starred and, more importantly, backed her with publicity. But this was less of a favor than might appear. That vast publicity machine was all too visible; and finally, instead of helping, it cast a shadow—a shadow of doubt. Could the star have existed without the machine? The question darkened an otherwise brilliant career.

 

As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow—the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane—I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person. The proof is in this book, and I commend it to you.

 

Orson Welles
Los Angeles, California
May 28, 1975

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I think there may have been a touch of Florence Foster Jenkins in Susan Alexander too.  Jenkins was someone who had no business being on the operatic stage yet was propped up because of her wealth and influence.  Of course there are as many differences too.  Alexander is a reluctant singer who is aware of her shortcomings.  Jenkins apparently was unable to hear the flaws in her own voice but just enjoyed singing to an audience.

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I think there may have been a touch of Florence Foster Jenkins in Susan Alexander too.  Jenkins was someone who had no business being on the operatic stage yet was propped up because of her wealth and influence.  Of course there are as many differences too.  Alexander is a reluctant singer who is aware of her shortcomings.  Jenkins apparently was unable to hear the flaws in her own voice but just enjoyed singing to an audience.

 

I never heard of the lady. Thanks, Bogie.

 

220px-Florence_Foster_Jenkins.jpg

 

From Wiki:

 

Florence Foster Jenkins (born Narcissa Florence Foster; July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American socialite and amateur soprano who was known and mocked for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability. The historian Stephen Pile ranked her "the world's worst opera singer". "No one, before or since," he wrote, "has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation."

 

Despite (or perhaps because of) her technical incompetence, she became a prominent musical cult figure in New York City during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Cole Porter, Gian Carlo Menotti, Lily Pons, Sir Thomas Beecham, and other celebrities were fans.Enrico Caruso is said to have "regarded her with affection and respect".The poet William Meredith wrote that what Jenkins provided "... was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end.

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I can certainly appreciation what a great technical accomplishment Citizen Kane was, particularly for a film neophyte like Orson Welles. Mind you, this was not a one man show, of course. Among others, Greg Toland's photography has a little something to do with the film's success, as well. Visually, the film remains a great treat.

 

But the problem for me is that the film has never really touched me emotionally. I never feel engulfed by its story or really care about the characters. For that reason it has never been one of my favourites.

 

When it comes to the Welles canon, it's his noirs that are my favourites - Lady from Shanghai and his remarkable study of decadence and corruption, Touch of Evil. I'd probably rather watch either of those films a dozen times to any one viewing of Kane.

 

When Sight and Sound not so long ago got headlines by declaring that Vertigo should be ranked above Kane as the greatest film of all time I didn't have a problem with that since the Hitchcock film has always enthralled me emotionally. (Not that I'm saying it's the Number One film, I'm not, merely that it is a favourite and one, among so many others, than I would rather watch than the technically brilliant Kane).

 

Gotta admit it, though, I've always been fascinated with Welles's brief superimposition of the cockatoo with the missing pupil. Was the missing eye a technical error or intentional?

 

kane-cockatoo.jpg

 

Regarding the cockatoo's eye, I would guess that the bird's pupil was so dilated that it appeared to be missing altogether.  I grew up with a pet parrot, and he could dilate his pupils almost at will, usually when he was excited about something, making his eyes look as though there was no pupil at all because the pupils were dilated so completely.  But you're right about the shot -- it's very odd looking.

 

Your reactions to CITIZEN KANE and VERTIGO are interesting, because I had almost exactly the opposite experiences.  The first time I saw KANE, forty-some years ago on the TV late show when I was in high school, I was immediately drawn in by it and enjoyed the first viewing immensely.  (At that time, I don't think I knew that many critics and scholars considered it the greatest movie ever made.)  I've never failed to find it extremely entertaining in the many times I've seen it since then.  

 

VERTIGO, by contrast, left me somewhat cold when I first saw it, during its theatrical re-release in the '80s.  I recognized Hitchcock's artistic achievement -- the movie had a very striking appearance -- but the story and characters didn't engage me very much.  But the next time I saw it -- on TV -- I was drawn in a bit more, something I noticed at the time.  I've seen VERTIGO several times since then, with my admiration increasing each time, to the point where I'd now agree that it's one of the greatest movies ever made.

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I recall a friend of mine who suggested there was a missed opportunity to skewer both Kane AND Hearst with an added line....

 

In the scene after the election's over and it's more than apparent that Kane lost, Jed meets Kane in the campaign headquarters and at one point suggests both he and Kane go out and get drunk.  Kane replies, "I don't get drunk..."  and my friend says that was the perfect time for Jed to come back with, "Not with  liquor anyway..."

 

As it's clear to anyone that both the fictional KANE, and the real HEARST were BOTH drunk with power.

 

 

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Regarding the cockatoo's eye, I would guess that the bird's pupil was so dilated that it appeared to be missing altogether.  I grew up with a pet parrot, and he could dilate his pupils almost at will, usually when he was excited about something, making his eyes look as though there was no pupil at all because the pupils were dilated so completely.  But you're right about the shot -- it's very odd looking.

 

 

Interesting about a parrot dilating his pupils, BingFan.

 

I admit it's been years since I last saw Kane but, if memory serves me correctly, you can see right through the cockatoo's eye to something behind the bird. Therefore, I suspect your pupil dilating theory really doesn't apply here.

 

I'm ready to be corrected if my memory is wrong.

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Regarding the cockatoo's eye, I would guess that the bird's pupil was so dilated that it appeared to be missing altogether.  I grew up with a pet parrot, and he could dilate his pupils almost at will, usually when he was excited about something, making his eyes look as though there was no pupil at all because the pupils were dilated so completely.  But you're right about the shot -- it's very odd looking.

 

Your reactions to CITIZEN KANE and VERTIGO are interesting, because I had almost exactly the opposite experiences.  The first time I saw KANE, forty-some years ago on the TV late show when I was in high school, I was immediately drawn in by it and enjoyed the first viewing immensely.  (At that time, I don't think I knew that many critics and scholars considered it the greatest movie ever made.)  I've never failed to find it extremely entertaining in the many times I've seen it since then.  

 

VERTIGO, by contrast, left me somewhat cold when I first saw it, during its theatrical re-release in the '80s.  I recognized Hitchcock's artistic achievement -- the movie had a very striking appearance -- but the story and characters didn't engage me very much.  But the next time I saw it -- on TV -- I was drawn in a bit more, something I noticed at the time.  I've seen VERTIGO several times since then, with my admiration increasing each time, to the point where I'd now agree that it's one of the greatest movies ever made.

 

Well I tend to view Kane like Tom and Vertigo like you (Bingfan).   While I enjoyed both films and see their artistic merits I don't form an emotional connection with any of the characters in these film.     Of course one doesn't always need a protagonist to root for but when there isn't one it causes some 'distance' emotionally between the film and myself  (if that makes any sense). 

 

I have seen both films many times but mainly because I'm exposing those films to 'newbies'.    Great films no doubt but not in my top 25 favorite films  (films that I can watch by myself over and over again). 

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an important scene for me in the movie is when he meets Susan Alexander for the first time and he told her he was on his way to a warehouse to look for souvenirs of his youth or somehing like that,probably for his sleigh.,it represents the happiest period of his lfe.

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It's fairly obvious that Kane is based mostly on Hearst--a newspaper

tycoon, Xanadu/San Simeon, an unsuccessful stab at politics, etc.,

though the biography of other tycoons was blended into the Hearst

mix--Samuel Insull and his promotion of his wife, who thought she was

an opera singer. Mankiewicz was often a guest at Hearst parties, and

he knew the true meaning of rosebud. I doubt many people personally

identify with the story of the poor little rich boy, but that doesn't mean

people can't relate to the story in a general way.

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I can certainly appreciation what a great technical accomplishment Citizen Kane was, particularly for a film neophyte like Orson Welles. Mind you, this was not a one man show, of course. Among others, Greg Toland's photography has a little something to do with the film's success, as well. Visually, the film remains a great treat.

 

But the problem for me is that the film has never really touched me emotionally. I never feel engulfed by its story or really care about the characters. For that reason it has never been one of my favourites.

 

When it comes to the Welles canon, it's his noirs that are my favourites - Lady from Shanghai and his remarkable study of decadence and corruption, Touch of Evil. I'd probably rather watch either of those films a dozen times to any one viewing of Kane.

 

When Sight and Sound not so long ago got headlines by declaring that Vertigo should be ranked above Kane as the greatest film of all time I didn't have a problem with that since the Hitchcock film has always enthralled me emotionally. (Not that I'm saying it's the Number One film, I'm not, merely that it is a favourite and one, among so many others, than I would rather watch than the technically brilliant Kane).

 

Gotta admit it, though, I've always been fascinated with Welles's brief superimposition of the cockatoo with the missing pupil. Was the missing eye a technical error or intentional?

 

kane-cockatoo.jpg

 

Roger Ebert also commented on this boo-boo in the DVD commentary. This was the golden era of optical printing (instead of "cgi") with two images sandwiched together. Many of the Xanadu scenes were simple sets with added matte shots and optically added (thanks to more than one projector) windows placed on walls that never existed. One can also get nitpicky about many other scenes, but Hitchcock's THE BIRDS also look strange too. If this was in color, the cockatoo would likely have a green "tinge" around it. Also I wonder if the eyes reflected as red in the camera lighting (much like other humans and animals when flashes go off) and the special process filtered that color scheme and, thus, resulted in white. Yet it was too complicated to fix and the editors figured nobody would notice.

 

Much of the fun with this film comes from spotting what was "borrowed" from other films in the RKO library: the "birds" of SON OF KONG shown in a Florida backdrop, Disney's SNOW WHITE's queenly castle window, RKO-Pathé "Vagaband Journey" footage used in "News On The March", etc.

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Interesting about a parrot dilating his pupils, BingFan.

 

I admit it's been years since I last saw Kane but, if memory serves me correctly, you can see right through the cockatoo's eye to something behind the bird. Therefore, I suspect your pupil dilating theory really doesn't apply here.

 

I'm ready to be corrected if my memory is wrong.

 

It's been a while since I've seen KANE, too, so you may well be right that my theory is wrong -- I was just speculating based on the still photo and memory.  JLewis may be correct that the cockatoo's eye appears so strange because of some kind of optical effect.  Now that I look at the still shot again, I can see a noticeable "border" around the bird, suggesting that it was either an image projected on top of another image or was actually standing in front of a back-projection.  Either way, it's a very striking shot, one of the things I love about KANE.

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First, for those who may have never caught this 11 minute clip of Welles being interviewed in 1960 on the BBC, I've always found he presents some interesting thoughts about much that has already been discussed in this thread. If you stay to the end of it, Welles is presented with the same idea that this thread is about and gives his answer to it, and an idea which had even been posited before this 1960 interview took place...the idea that perhaps Kane is more "autobiographical" than Welles might have even comprehended...

 

 

(...and secondly, and I've brought this up before around here and have yet to receive a plausible answer to it...the "flaw" I've always seen in CITIZEN KANE is that when he somewhat quietly utters his final word, there appears to be no one within his bedroom other than himself, as the nurse is situated outside the room behind a closed door, and then after he expires she opens the door and steps inside...and thus, how could she clearly and distinctly hear him say "rosebud"?) 

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I can certainly appreciation what a great technical accomplishment Citizen Kane was, particularly for a film neophyte like Orson Welles. Mind you, this was not a one man show, of course. Among others, Greg Toland's photography has a little something to do with the film's success, as well. Visually, the film remains a great treat.

 

But the problem for me is that the film has never really touched me emotionally. I never feel engulfed by its story or really care about the characters. For that reason it has never been one of my favourites.

 

I totally agree.  While visually stunning, the film leaves me cold and I really don't care about anyone in it.  To my mind, it has never deserved to be considered "The Great American Film."  

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(...and secondly, and I've brought this up before around here and have yet to receive a plausible answer to it...the "flaw" I've always seen in CITIZEN KANE is that when he somewhat quietly utters his final word, there appears to be no one within his bedroom other than himself, as the nurse is situated outside the room behind a closed door, and then after he expires she opens the door and steps inside...and thus, how could she clearly and distinctly hear him say "rosebud"?) 

The Russians bugged his room.

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It's been a while since I've seen KANE, too, so you may well be right that my theory is wrong -- I was just speculating based on the still photo and memory.  JLewis may be correct that the cockatoo's eye appears so strange because of some kind of optical effect.  Now that I look at the still shot again, I can see a noticeable "border" around the bird, suggesting that it was either an image projected on top of another image or was actually standing in front of a back-projection.  Either way, it's a very striking shot, one of the things I love about KANE.

 

The other thing about that sudden inclusion of the squawking cockatoo is that the darned bird's noise startled the heck out of me the first time I saw the film. It jolted me. (Was Welles afraid audience members might be falling asleep? Is that the reason the bird is there? A little game by the master?). In any repeat viewings I was anxiously awaiting the bird's brief moment in the Wellesian sun. Film made me a cockatoo squawking junkie.

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(...and secondly, and I've brought this up before around here and have yet to receive a plausible answer to it...the "flaw" I've always seen in CITIZEN KANE is that when he somewhat quietly utters his final word, there appears to be no one within his bedroom other than himself, as the nurse is situated outside the room behind a closed door, and then after he expires she opens the door and steps inside...and thus, how could she clearly and distinctly hear him say "rosebud"?) 

I'll offer a couple of suggestions here Darg.

 

First, the audience hears Welles say that mysterious word at the beginning of the show.  It's possible that he could have been uttering it throughout the day as he ventured closer to Valhalla, and it's possible that it's the last thing the nurse heard him say when she was in his presence.  She certainly heard the snow globe hit the floor with a thud.

 

The second theory I pose is purely conjectural.  This is Orson 'freaking' Welles we're talking about here...they guy had a fairly commanding screen presence.  Whether I like him or not, or the characters he portrayed, I find myself noticing him in every scene he's in and studying every line he speaks.  What comes across to the viewer as a whisper from him, was probably heard three or four rooms over on set!  Yeah, that's a stretch, but it's all I got.

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I'll offer a couple of suggestions here Darg.

 

First, the audience hears Welles say that mysterious word at the beginning of the show.  It's possible that he could have been uttering it throughout the day as he ventured closer to Valhalla, and it's possible that it's the last thing the nurse heard him say when she was in his presence.  She certainly heard the snow globe hit the floor with a thud.

 

The second theory I pose is purely conjectural.  This is Orson 'freaking' Welles we're talking about here...they guy had a fairly commanding screen presence.  Whether I like him or not, or the characters he portrayed, I find myself noticing him in every scene he's in and studying every line he speaks.  What comes across to the viewer as a whisper from him, was probably heard three or four rooms over on set!  Yeah, that's a stretch, but it's all I got.

 

It isn't a stretch at all.   After seeing him, for the first time, this week in Black Magic I know exactly where you're coming from.

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First, for those who may have never caught this 11 minute clip of Welles being interviewed in 1960 on the BBC, I've always found he presents some interesting thoughts about much that has already been discussed in this thread. If you stay to the end of it, Welles is presented with the same idea that this thread is about and gives his answer to it, and an idea which had even been posited before this 1960 interview took place...the idea that perhaps Kane is more "autobiographical" than Welles might have even comprehended...

 

 

Thanks, Dargo for that interview.  It was illuminating.  I'll take Mr. Welles at face value when he says there is no autobiographical element in Citizen Kane--though I do note a tone of hesitancy in his voice.

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Thanks, Dargo for that interview.  It was illuminating.  I'll take Mr. Welles at face value when he says there is no autobiographical element in Citizen Kane--though I do note a tone of hesitancy in his voice.

 

slayton, did you notice in the interview that while Welles praises his CITIZEN KANE cinematographer and mentions he learned a lot from him while even calling him a genius, he failed to mention Gregg Toland by name?

 

(...I could be wrong, but for some reason I got the feeling this says a little something about Welles basic persona, and perhaps why a supposed rift developed between him and his CK co-scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz over the authorship of the film)

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slayton, did you notice in the interview that while Welles praises his CITIZEN KANE cinematographer and mentions he learned a lot from him while even calling him a genius, he failed to mention Gregg Toland by name?

 

(...I could be wrong, but for some reason I got the feeling this says a little something about Welles basic persona, and perhaps why a supposed rift developed between him and his CK co-scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz over the authorship of the film)

 

 

Yeah, he missed two opportunities to mention Mr. Toland's name.  And I think you are right about it revealing something about Mr. Welles.

 

And I am feeling quite smug about myself, as I am keeping pace with you.  

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The second theory I pose is purely conjectural.  This is Orson 'freaking' Welles we're talking about here...they guy had a fairly commanding screen presence.  Whether I like him or not, or the characters he portrayed, I find myself noticing him in every scene he's in and studying every line he speaks.  What comes across to the viewer as a whisper from him, was probably heard three or four rooms over on set!  Yeah, that's a stretch, but it's all I got.

 

He and fellow radio actors William Conrad, Marvin Miller and Paul Frees were the Voices of Gawd. Most of them worked for CBS dramas like Suspense, Escape and The Whistler in addition to Mercury Theater. They also became the most famous documentary film narrators from the 1940s onward, with Welles even handling the first National Geographic special "Americans on Everest". Later they were stuck with animated cartoons: Conrad was featured on Rocky & Bullwinkle (with Frees too), Miller as one VERY loud Hemo The Magnificent, Frees as Ludwig Von Drake (and the Gawdly "Mister Spirit" lecturing Donald Duck in Mathmagicland... AND Disney's Haunted mansion) and Welles giving his very last BOOMING performance in The Transformers. It is fitting that Welles ended his career in a robotic state.

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