Pauline Kael was a thoroughly independent thinker and much of the pleasure in reading Kael comes from the way she finds flaws in and counterexamples to so many standard stories. One of the more enduring of these stories is the tale of the unrecognized genius, the artists or innovators so far ahead of their time that they initially are only met with derision. ("They laughed at _____ too.")
Here's Kael's response to attempts to apply that narrative to Citizen Kane:
The picture got a thunderous reception, even in the Hollywood press. In recent years, the rumor has spread that Citizen Kane opened to bad reviews—presumably on the theory that it was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t understood—and this is now recorded in many film histories. But it was very well understood by the press (who would understand a newspaper picture better?), and it got smashing reviews. It isn’t, after all, a difficult picture. In some ways, it was probably better understood then than it is now, and, as far as I can determine, it was more highly praised by the American press than any other movie in history.
Several of the magazines responded to [Welles'] plea for the pressure of publicity by reviewing the picture before it opened, obviously with the intention of helping to get it released. A review in Time on March 17, 1941, began:
As in some grotesque fable, it appeared last week that Hollywood was about to turn upon and destroy its greatest creation.
To most of the several hundred people who have seen the film at private showings, Citizen Kane is the most sensational product of the U.S. movie industry. It has found important new techniques in picture-making and story telling…. It is as psychiatrically sound as a fine novel…. It is a work of art created by grown people for grown people.
In Newsweek, also on March 17, 1941, John O’Hara began his review with
It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.
With no less regret he reports that he has just seen the best actor in the history of acting.
Name of picture: Citizen Kane.
Name of actor: Orson Welles.
Reason for regret: you, my dear, may never see the picture.
I saw Citizen Kane the other night. I am told that my name was crossed off a list of persons who were invited to look at the picture, my name being crossed off because some big shot remembered I had been a newspaperman. So, for the first time in my life, I indignantly denied I was a newspaperman. Nevertheless, I had to be snuck into the showing of Citizen Kane under a phony name. That’s what’s going on about this wonderful picture. Intrigue.
Why intrigue? Well, because. A few obsequious and/or bulbous middle-aged ladies think the picture ought not to be shown, owing to the fact that the picture is rumored to have something to do with a certain publisher, who, for the first time in his life, or maybe the second, shall be nameless. That the nameless publisher might be astute enough to realize that for the first time in his rowdy life he had been made a human being did not worry the loyal ladies. Sycophancy of that kind, like curtseying, is deliberate. The ladies merely wait for a chance to show they can still do it, even if it means cracking a femur. This time I think they may have cracked off more than they can chew. I hope.
Along the way, O’Hara said such things as
My intention is to make you want to see the picture; if possible, to make you wonder why you are not seeing what I think is as good a picture as was ever made…. And aside from what it does not lack, Citizen Kane has Orson Welles. It is traditional that if you are a great artist, no one gives a damn about you while you’re still alive. Welles has had plenty of that. He got a tag put to his name through the Mars thing, just as Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote better than any man in our time, got a Jazz Age tag put to his name. I say, if you plan to have any grandchildren to see and to bore, see Orson Welles so that you can bore your grandchildren with some honesty. There never has been a better actor than Orson Welles. I just got finished saying there never has been a better actor than Orson Welles, and I don’t want any of your lip.
Do yourself a favor. Go to your neighborhood exhibitor and ask him why he isn’t showing Citizen Kane.
The same day—March 17, 1941—Life, which was to run several more features on the movie in the following months, came out with four pages of pictures and a review:
Few movies have ever come from Hollywood with such powerful narrative, such original technique, such exciting photography. Director Welles and Cameraman Gregg Toland do brilliantly with a camera everything Hollywood has always said you couldn’t do. They shoot into bright lights, they shoot into the dark and against low ceilings, till every scene comes with the impact of something never seen before. Even the sound track is new. And for narrative Welles has tapped a segment of life fearfully skirted by the U.S. cinema: the swift and brutal biography of a power-mad newspaper tycoon, a man of twisted greatness who buys or bullies his way into everything but friends’ love and his nation’s respect. To a film industry floundering in a rut, Citizen Kane offers enough new channels to explore for five years to come.
Hearst must have known he would be in for a bad time if the picture should be withheld; the Luce magazines—Time and Life—had always been eager to embarrass him, and certainly wouldn’t let the subject drop. (The financial backing that Welles said he had to buy the picture was probably from Henry Luce.) One surmises that Hearst decided not to try to block its release—though the petty harassment of R.K.O. and others involved went on, like a reflex to a blow.
Here is a representative selection from the reviews:
Variety: A film possessing the sure dollar mark.
Times (Bosley Crowther): Suppression of this film would have been a crime…. Citizen Kane is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon…. It comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.
Herald Tribune (Howard Barnes): A young man named Orson Welles has shaken the medium wide-awake with his magnificent film, Citizen Kane. His biography of an American dynast is not only a great picture; it is something of a revolutionary screen achievement…. From any standpoint Citizen Kane is truly a great motion picture.
Post (Archer Winsten): It goes without saying this is the picture that wins the majority of 1941’s movie prizes in a walk, for it is inconceivable that another will come along to challenge it…. Orson Welles with this one film establishes himself as the most exciting director now working…. Technically the result marks a new epoch.
PM (Cecelia Ager): Before Citizen Kane, it’s as if the motion picture was a slumbering monster, a mighty force stupidly sleeping, lying there a sleek, torpid, complacent—awaiting a fierce young man to come kick it to life, to rouse it, shake it, awaken it to its potentialities, to show it what it’s got. Seeing it, it’s as if you never really saw a movie before: no movie has ever grabbed you, pummeled you, socked you on the button with the vitality, the accuracy, the impact, the professional aim, that this one does.
Esquire (Gilbert Seldes): Welles has shown Hollywood how to make movies…. He has made the movies young again, by filling them with life.
Cue (Jesse Zunser): It is an astounding experience to watch Orson Welles, 25-year-old Boy Genius of the Western World, in the process of creating on the screen one of the awesome products of his fertile imagination. You come away limp, much as if you had turned into Broadway and suddenly beheld Niagara Falls towering behind the Paramount Building, the Matterhorn looming over Bryant Park, and the Grand Canyon yawning down the middle of Times Square.
Hollywood Reporter: A great motion picture…. A few steps ahead of anything that has been made in pictures before.
Chicago Journal of Commerce (Claudia Cassidy): Anyone who has eyes in his eyes in his head and ears to hear with will enjoy Citizen Kane for the unleashed power of its stature on the screen.
Even Kate Cameron, in the Daily News, gave it four stars, and on Sunday, May 4th, Bosley Crowther (though he had some second thoughts of his own) wrote in the Times, “The returns are in from most of the local journalistic precincts and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has been overwhelmingly selected as one of the great (if not the greatest) motion pictures of all time….” The Film Daily said, “Welles can prepare his mantel for a couple of Oscars.”