Hollywood Flashback: Who Really Wrote 'Citizen Kane'?

Citizen Kane BTS - Photofest - H 2019
RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Photofest

One question lingers about the classic film as Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz both received an official credit for the Oscar-winning script, but there was drama behind the scenes: "I don't doubt Welles contributed some to the screenplay, but most of it was written by Herman," says the latter's grandson, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.

In 1941, THR's review was filled with superlatives about Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. But to this day, a question lingers: Who really wrote the movie — Orson Welles or Herman Mankiewicz?

There's no doubt Mankiewicz, then 44, wrote the 266-page first draft over a 10-week period at Campbell's Guest Ranch, about 100 miles northeast of L.A. in Victorville. (The ranch still operates, as does The Green Spot, where he'd occasionally dine.) He was paid $1,000 a week ($17,500 in today's dollars) and a $5,000 ($87,500 today) completion bonus. But he was told in advance that the writing credit would go to Welles, then 25. (It was in Welles' RKO contract that he would write, direct and produce the film; he was paid $100,000, or $1.75 million today.)

Mankiewicz was in Victorville with actor-producer John Houseman, whose main job was to keep the screenwriter, who was quite the boozer, away from alcohol. And while there's no doubt Mankiewicz did the first draft (at that point called American), there's also no doubt Welles rewrote, reshaped, edited and added to what Mankiewicz delivered.

A total of seven drafts were written, and the final script was trimmed to 156 pages. As Kane progressed, Mankiewicz threatened to ask the Writers Guild to award him sole credit.

In the end, RKO gave him half of what he wanted but with top billing. The official credit was: Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.

"When asked how much of Citizen Kane Orson Welles wrote, John Houseman replied, 'Not one word,' " says TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a grandson of the screenwriter. "I don't doubt Welles contributed some to the screenplay, but most of it was written by Herman. Still, there's no doubt this was Welles' movie; it was his direction, his performance, his vision."

The 1942 Oscar for best picture went to How Green Was My Valley; Citizen Kane received nine noms but won just once — for original screenplay.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.