Thursday, May 09, 2013


(Dir. Leslie Iwerks, 2012) 

It should be no surprise that the large sha
dow of Orson Welles’ iconic classic CITIZEN KANE looms over this new documentary, out now on DVD about the media empire that William Randolph Hearst built. 

It’s something that can’t be ignored when viewing the old newsreel footage, hearing tales of Hearst’s political life and lavish San Simeon palace, with even the packaging for the DVD looking like it was designed for it to be shelved next to KANE in one’s home video collection.

But a half hour into Iwerk’s engrossing film, impeccably narrated by William H. Macy, Hearst, described here as “one of the world’s most powerful and controversial figures,” passes away (at age 88), the narrative shakes free of Welles' cinematic clutches as it takes us through the ups and downs of the Hearst Corporation in the post-World War II era.

In the age of flourishing consumerism and ultra specialization, magazines like Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan revitalized themselves through the leadership of Ellen Levine, Diana Vreeland, and Helen Gurley Brown, who Hearst Corporation CEO Frank A. Bennack, Jr. says is “one of the most important figures in the history of this 125 year old company.”

Levine, now Hearst Magazines Editorial Director, the first woman to edit Good Housekeeping (90% of women’s magazines were run by men at the time) tells us that Good Housekeeping still thrives because its “the only magazine that I’m aware of that will refuse an ad if its claims cannot be proven.”

The late Vreeland, who not long ago was the subject of her own individual biodoc, DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (2011), is given a graceful segment in which we see examples of her experimental influence, via many magazine covers and double page spreads.

But while the Hearst Corp. was having success with these magazines, there was trouble in their newspaper divisions. San Francisco Herald Examiner employees held a strike in 1968 that resulted in injuries and one death, and ended with the paper being engulfed by the non-union Chronicle. Anybody who has been following the current struggle of print media to stay alive will be way into this material.

Iwerk’s film gets less interesting when it gets to the Hearst Corps acquisitions in the more familiar world of cable television, but maybe that’s because I don’t care as much about the history and inner workings of ESPN.

This doc makes a strong case for the modern media television landscape made up of 24 hour news channels (not to mention the yellow journalism of Fox News), reality shows, and self help gurus (Oprah is here to testify about her magazine O, a Hearst publication), is one largely of William Randolph Hearst’s devising. As in: it’s still his world we just live in it. It’s hard to imagine that Hearst’s fictional doppelganger Charles Foster Kane’s empire would still be a major power, which might be the real testament to the man.

Interview excerpts (much more of which can be found in the Bonus Features) from film critic Leonard Maltin, journalist/newscaster Dan Rather, NY Times Cultural reporter Robin Pogrebin, Hearst Magazines President David Carey, Fashion Designer Ralph Lauren and a few Hearst family members provide a lot of insightful anecdotes, but the lesser known Bennack Jr., who Houston Chronicle VP Jeff Cohen calls Hearst’s “spiritual heir,” may be the most engaging of the talking heads here.

The film concludes with a sequence about the building of the Hearst Tower (with some cool time lapse photography on hand), which was the first skyscraper planned in New York after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

It may be seen as an ass-kissing tribute to the legacy of an overblown titan that glosses over a lot of darkness, but CITIZEN HEARST is a zippy informative overview of an American dream like none other.

Bonus Features: The “Hearst Castle” episode from the A & E television series America’s Castles, and over 30 minutes of deleted footage broken into 3 segments: “Growing Up Hearst,” “Hearst Tower Art Collection Tour By Gil Maurer,” and “State of News.”

More later...

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