1941 Fifty Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail

By the time Citizen Kane finally made its debut on May 1, 1941, Radio City Music Hall had refused to show the picture and the Palace Theater had taken on the premiere instead. Orson Welles had spent the six weeks since his film had originally been scheduled to open directing a Broadway adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son . The controversial play, telling the story of a black man accused of murdering a white woman in Chicago, was well received. It made an ideal distraction for the young director as he waited for the difficulties surrounding Citizen Kan’s release to be resolved.

When the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst learned he was the model for the fictionalized Kane, he scared off wider distribution of the film by allowing friends to make threats on his behalf against RKO Pictures and by calling Welles a “Communist” through his army of newspaper columnists. In early January Hearst gave the order to refuse RKO advertising in his papers nationwide. There were rumors he was conspiring to have every print of Kane bought up. Welles himself publicly offered RKO Pictures a million dollars for the rights to the picture and threatened his own lawsuit against the movie company for delaying its release.

Despite RKO’s attempts to make Kane sound like a harmless love story (“What made this cutie walk out on $60,000,000? … Neither she—nor any woman—could endure his kind of love!”), theater owners were intimidated by rumors of a lawsuit as reported by Louella Parsons, Hearst’s star gossip columnist, who had attended a screening of the film accompanied by two lawyers. The film’s unconventional story line also worried RKO brass: A reporter follows conflicting stories of Kane’s friends and enemies to pursue a mystery he finally abandons. The film blended the lives of Hearst, the publisher Robert McCormick, the financier Samuel Insull, and Welles himself, whose own childhood mentor was the basis for the banker guardian of Charles Foster Kane.

The film grossed nearly twenty-four thousand dollars the week it opened, but it lost a net of eighteen thousand after nine weeks. William Randolph Hearst and the actress Marion Davies, upon whom Kane’s mistress was based, attended the film unrecognized in a small San Francisco theater. Hearst, having watched Kane’s rise and fall in 119 minutes, later told a friend, “We thought it was a little too long.”

Lou Gehrig died June 2 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a little-known and incurable disease of the spine that had left him, at age thirty-seven, sadly diminished from the “hulking figure” he had once been. One sportswriter, describing Gehrig as a rookie, wrote that “the boy picked up a bat—one of Ruth’s, by some curious chance—and advanced to the plate. He was obviously nervous, missed the first two pitches, then bounced one weakly over, second base. Then he hit one that soared into the right field bleachers, high up, where only Ruth had ever hit a ball. … He hit another ball in there—another—still another. His nervousness had slipped from him now. That’s enough,’ [Manager Miller Huggins] cried. He turned to the players. ‘His name’s Gehrig …’”

Unlike many of the flamboyant characters with whom he played, Gehrig was pretty much what he seemed: a soft-spoken stoic who was good to his mother and could hit a ton. He batted cleanup, behind Babe Ruth in the Yankees’ famous “Murderers’ Row” lineup of the late twenties and early thirties. Ruth had spent much of his youth in a school for wayward boys and lived life to its wildest ever after; Gehrig, by contrast, lived quietly with his parents in New Rochelle, New York, until his marriage in 1933. After the game, recalled a Yankee clubhouse attendant, “he’d be the first one dressed and on home to his momma.”

Following his success playing both football and baseball at Columbia University, Gehrig went a little farther uptown to join the New York Yankees in 1923. On May 31, 1925, he pinch-hit for Pee Wee Wanninger and began his record string of 2,130 consecutive games played. Despite injuries to his hands, spasms in his back, and attacks of lumbago, Gehrig managed to enter every regular-season game from 1925 to April 30, 1939, his final appearance as an active player. He finished with a .340 lifetime average, 493 home runs, and 1,990 runs batted in. The acceleration of his spinal disease in 1938 prevented Gehrig from hitting above .300 for the first time since his rookie season. During his famous farewell at Yankee Stadium in 1939, Gehrig, with tears in his eyes, called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Soon after, the new Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, waived the normal five-year wait for eligibility and inducted the dying man.

In June the Roosevelt administration took further steps to prepare for the spreading war in Europe. On the fourteenth the United States froze the assets of Germany and Italy; two days later the administration ordered Germany to close its American consulates; on June 24, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Roosevelt pledged American support for the Soviets. The President was not one for gloomy assessments and refused to believe initial reports from his military commanders predicting that the Red Army would be destroyed within weeks. Confident that the Russians could hold out against Hitler’s army, Roosevelt planned to meet with Winston Churchill at Argentia, Newfound-land, in August to discuss long-term strategies for the war.