Let me unpack my emotional baggage. Just as I can admire Orson Welle’s “Citizen Kane,” I appreciate the storytelling of “Mank.” There is beauty in both films–in their story telling and acting and even the intentional social commentary. Both swirl around and contribute to the legend of William Randolph Hearst and Hearst Castle. “Citizen Kane” tarnished the image of Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. “Mank” attempts to rehabilitate it.
Yet both “Citizen Kane” and “Mank” are White history told by White men. The baggage I carry is in my face and in the fate that my mother shared with others who had faces like hers. “Citizen Kane” is fiction; “Mank” is fictionalized reality. It’s what “Mank” leaves out that is troubling.
“Citizen Kane” is about a ruthless publisher who, like Hearst, used yellow journalism to sell papers. Like Hearst, Kane manipulates public opinion about the Spanish-American War. Hearst did not, like Kane, marry into a strong political family. Hearst’s wife was a show girl.
Kane has an affair with a singer, but once the affair is uncovered, he loses his chance at a political career and his wife leaves him. Kane marries the singer, Susan Alexander, and attempts to build her an opera career despite her lack of talent.
In reality, Hearst’s first wife, Millicent (1882-1974), had been a vaudeville performer and attracted the 34-year-old Hearst’s attention when she was a teen, eventually marrying him when she was 20. Millicent outlived Hearst (1863-1951) and Marion Davies (1897-1961).
The title comes from a nickname for the writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. In 1940, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is the wonder boy of Hollywood and the RKO studio gives him creative freedom for his next project. Welles wants “Mank” (Gary Oldman) to write the script while he’s recovering from an automobile accident in Victorville, California. Mank dictates to his secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), who is at first annoyed by and then complicit in Mank’s alcoholism. We learn that Mank saved some Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. World War II is knocking at the door and already in progress in Europe (1939).
Flashing back to 1930, we see Mank at MGM meeting Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). There’s a suggestion that he might have been infatuated with this femme fatale. Through her, Mank meets William Randolph Hearst. The film cuts back and forth between the struggle to get the alcoholic Mank to finish the script on time in 1940 and then to get it produced despite potentially angering one of the most powerful men in the nation and Mank’s brushes with Hearst and Davies during the 1930s.
In 1933, Mank and his wife attend Hearst’s birthday bash (4 July) for Louis B. Mayer (producer at and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, MGM) at Hearst Castle. The attendees which include famous and powerful Hollywood people and someone close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt discuss Adolf Hitler and the upcoming gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair. Hearst approved of one, but not the other.
Hearst tells her, “Don’t be alarmed, Marion. he won’t be around for long. The Germans are a thoughtful, considerate people. Enough about the Nazis.”
“This Hitler sounds like a total drip,” Marion says. “Shouldn’t the United States do something, Mr. Tugwell?”
And yet, when someone says of Hitler, “Can’t last. Who in the world takes a lunatic like that seriously?” Mank replies, “Well, the last time I looked, 40 million Germans.”
The conversation turns to the gubernatorial race. Upton Sinclair is running for governor and his socialism is viewed as threatening. “That rat Bolshevik belongs right up there with Hitler on the list of people not to be taken seriously.”
According to Rex Tugwell in an off-the-record comment, the then-president, FDR, felt Sinclair bears watching in a race against Frank Merriam.
Marion lets on that, “I heard Pops on the phone helping to pick the president’s cabinet like casting a movie. They can stop a guy like Sinclair. Couldn’t you, Pops? Pardon.” Embarrassed, Marion covers up, “I don’t know what I’m saying.”
After this, Mank and Marion walk the grounds. Sinclair is a “sore subject,” she admits.
I don’t even know who this Mr. Sinclair is, but he wrote about us for a book. I used to quote it word for word. “I saw our richest newspaper publisher keep his movie mistress in a private city of palaces and cathedrals, furnished with shiploads of junk imported from Europe and surrounded by vast acres reserved for use by zebras and giraffes, telling in jest that he had spent six million dollars to make his lady’s reputation and using his newspapers to celebrate her change of hats.”
We know why Hearst hates Sinclair, but now why Mayer does must be established: “Sinclair caught him with his pants down….He wrote that Mayer took a bribe to look the other way so a rival could buy MGM.”
In the present-day, 1940, we learn from Fraulein Freda: “Herr Mank sponsored my family’s entry into this country. He’s responsible for us getting safely out of Germany, legally and financially…Our entire village, he brought here….Over 100 people. Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, will not allow his films to be shown in the Fatherland.” This is why Freda is an enabler, allowing Mank to drink and she convinces Rita to join the enabling force. This is the man most creative while drunk.
Mank is, like Marion, an alcoholic except Mank shows it in his face. The film “Mank” doesn’t allow the ravages of alcoholism to show in Marion. By 1940, Marion was 43; Seyfriend is 35. There’s something else that “Mank” doesn’t show.
When Mank’s off-hand comment in 1934 gets his gambling debt absolved and results in MGM producing propaganda films for a smear campaign, Mank attempts to get Marion to use her power as the mistress of “Pops” and have them pulled. Marion, however, is leaving MGM for Warner and has already made her exit. She is also on her way to join Hearst in Europe.
Sinclair loses and credits the smear campaign. A friend and colleague of Mank’s commits suicide, partially because he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and partially because he actually supported Sinclair. . A repentant Mank will drunkenly arrive alone at what we now know as Hearst Castle and propose the film that will become “Citizen Kane,” insulting all the bon vivants in attendance and angering the powerful Hearst and Mayer.
In the current time, despite attempts to dissuade both Mank and Welles from producing the script, the movie is produced.
“Citizen Kane” won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay on 26 February 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Filmed in black and white, “Mank” attempts to take us back to another era and now, the pretense also includes mimicking the newsreels of the day as “Mank” shows Welles and Mank separately speaking to the press about the Oscar. Neither attended the ceremonies.
Hearst, Hitler and the Holocaust
The script of “Mank” is deep with detail of White California power brokers allied with White-passing Jewish people attempting to prevent the Okies, White people from what became the Dust Bowl, coming to California. The fear of communism and socialism is alluded to. Mank comments at the party, “Irving, you’re a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.”
Tugwell (1891-1979) was a real person. He was part of FDR’s first “Brain Trust” group fro Columbia University. FDR later appointed him Governor of Puerto Rico during World War II and he was a professor at both the University of Chicago and the University of California at Santa Barbara.
There’s much more cultural and Hollywood references and most of them are outlined here in “Everything You Need to Know About Old Hollywood to Understand ‘Mank.‘”
Yet in its attempt to rehabilitate Marion Davies’ reputation (The character Susan Alexander of “Citizen Kane” bears greater resemblance to Ganna Walska and her fourth of six husbands, Harold Fowler McCormick. Walska’s Lotusland is a well-known botanical garden in Southern California), “Mank” glosses over that European trip.
In 1934, “Mank” tells us Davies joined Hearst in Europe. What “Mank” doesn’t mention is that together, Davies and Hearst met with Hitler. Hearst wasn’t so down on Hitler either.
From 1927 through the mid-thirties, Hearst solicited and ran regular columns from Benito Mussolini and then Adolf Hitler. After years of courtship, Hearst finally got to meet Hitler in 1934 in a carefully arranged rendezvous. Hearst flattered (and protected) himself by reporting that he had used the occasion to pressure Hitler to back off on the persecution of Jews. Jewish-Americans were not fooled. One more reason to hate Hearst.
When Hearst returned on the “Nazi liner Bremen” with “a party of ten including Marion Davies,” he was silent on the treatment of Jews under Hitler.
Later, Hearst would turn on FDR and change his view on Hitler (The film “Citizen Kane” references if flipflopping.) and Hitler’s treatment of European Jews. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Hearst and the Holocaust” :
Admittedly, Hearst was an unlikely ally for the Jews. His sensationalist style of journalism, strong attacks on president Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and pre-World War II isolationism made him anathema to much of the American Jewish community. Hearst’s meeting with Hitler in 1934, his sympathetic remarks about some of Nazi Germany’s policies in the early and mid 1930s and his publication of articles by both Hitler and Mussolini, reinforced his image among American Jews as a reactionary, and possibly even a closet anti-Semite. Kristallnacht appears to have been the turning point for Hearst. The nationwide Nazi pogrom in which nearly a hundred Jews were murdered, 200 synagogues were burned down and thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked convinced him that Hitler was “making the flag of National Socialism a symbol of national savagery.” After Kristallnacht, Hearst began advocating creation of “a homeland for dispossessed or persecuted Jews.” When news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews began reaching the United States in 1941-1942, the Hearst newspaper chain gave it prominent coverage – by contrast with newspapers such as The New York Times, which routinely confined it to the back pages (as Prof. Laurel Leff documented in her definitive study, Buried by ‘The Times’). In 1943, Hearst served as an honorary chairman of the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which was organized by the activist Bergson Group to demonstrate that rescue was possible – in contrast to the Roosevelt administration’s claim that the only way to rescue the Jews was to win the war. When the Bergson group in late 1943 initiated a congressional resolution urging FDR to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees, Hearst directed his newspaper chain to promote the resolution and he personally authored signed editorials endorsing it. One declared: “Remember, Americans, this is not a Jewish problem. It is a human problem.” “Hearst was the only newspaper owner who supported us without any qualifications or reservations,” Samuel Merlin, a leader of the Bergson Group, recalled in a postwar interview. “All his papers. He gave us pages after pages free. He gave us the whole editorial page – Hearst himself. He gave orders to print our material.” The group’s leader, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), noted that he and his colleagues endured some criticism because of their relationship with Hearst. “We were even attacked as ‘fascists’ because we approached William Randolph Hearst several times,” he recalled. But the Bergsonites were not dissuaded. “What right did we have to decide who should save the Jews?” Bergson asked rhetorically. “For God’s sake, we would go to anybody. I mean, would we need a rabbi to say ‘Save the Jews’? We were delighted that we got Hearst to say ‘Save the Jews.'” The support of Hearst’s 34 newspapers gave the congressional resolution an important boost, helped keep the refugee issue in the public eye, and focused negative attention on the Roosevelt administration’s opposition to rescue action. By early 1944, the combined pressure from Congress, the Bergson Group and the Treasury Department convinced FDR to establish the War Refugee Board, a government agency devoted to rescuing Jews from Hitler. During the last 15 months of the war, the board played a major role in the rescue of an estimated 200,000 Jews. In the minds of many Americans, William Randolph Hearst will be forever associated with the greedy and dishonest main character in the 1941 film, Citizen Kane. But whatever his unflattering traits, the real life Hearst had other qualities as well, including genuine compassion for the persecuted Jews of Europe and a determination to help rescue them from the Holocaust.
Fake news isn’t new. Hearst’s newspapers were known for yellow journalism.
His papers baldly submerged fact with fiction, splaying daily crime stories across their pages with headlines set amid large, lurid, titillating illustrations. (“Screams and scandals,” as Time would later describe the Hearst press.)
Yet, Hearst was able to find his humanity for the European Jews during World War II. The same cannot be said for other minorities.
What ‘Mank’ Misses
“Mank” ends in February 1941 after the Oscars as another Hearst smear campaign was culminating. By February of 1942, the Japanese American internment had begun.
Before that, and before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the military were already making moves on the ethnic Japanese population. On 18 August 1941, Representative John Dingell of Michigan sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that 10,000 Hawaiian Japanese Americans be held as hostages to ensure “good behavior” from Japan.
By 12 November 1941, 15 Japanese American business men and community leaders were picked up in an FBI raid. On 7 December 1941, within 48 hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,291 Issei were placed in custody of the Justice Department.
Less than a year after “Citizen Kane” won an Oscar, on 19 February 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. By 25 February 1942, the Japanese Americans living on Terminal Island are given 48 hours to leave. By 21 March 1942, the first groups would arrive at Manzanar. By 27 March 1942, Santa Anita Racetrack became an assembly center. “Santa Anita was the largest and the longest-occupied of the temporary WCCA camps,” according to the Densho Encyclopedia.
In “Mank,” Mank is writing as he recovers from the car accident in Victorville. Victorville is about 3 hours away from Manzanar. The Huntington Library in San Marino was used as a stand-in for Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The Huntington is 12-minutes from Santa Anita Racetrack which was the transfer center where Japanese Americans, including some of my relatives, were held before they were sent on to the internment camps in other states.
The Sacred Myth?
“Citizen Kane” and the gaudy Hearst Castle may be how some people remember William Randolph Hearst. That’s not how I first heard his name. I clearly remember my mother making a bitter off-hand comment about William Randolph Hearst. My mother wasn’t one to talk much about politics. She did talk much about protests and movements, but she felt that the Hearst family was plagued by bad karma or should be. Reading Alyssa Rosenberg’s The Washington Post article about how “‘Mank’ Punctures Hollwood’s Most Sacred Myth,” made me snort and want to snark. Asian Americans who know history don’t believe in the so-called sacred myth of Hollywood liberalism.
Rosenberg’s piece devotes a lot of space to another movie, the 2016 “Hail, Caesar.”
It’s no accident that both films are period pieces: If you’re going to challenge Hollywood’s idea of itself, best to do so from a distance. But stars who truly want to serve their causes should learn from what these films identify as their predecessors’ shortcomings.
But I think it’s also no accident that some things are left out. According to Rosenberg:
“Mank,” now on Netflix, follows screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz as he labors on the first draft of the script for “Citizen Kane.” He is inspired by the 1934 California governor’s race, as recounted in flashbacks. During that campaign, William Randolph Hearst funded and studio honchos Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg executed a highly effective smear campaign against Upton Sinclair, the socialist muckraking journalist turned gubernatorial candidate. The character Charles Foster Kane, a fictionalized version of Hearst, is intended as a damning commentary on Mankiewicz’s former friend.
William Randolph Hearst did have a smear campaign, but the one against Upton Sinclair wasn’t his only one.
But one clear takeaway from both “Mank” and “Hail, Caesar!” is that conjuring a vibrant fictional reality is a rather different task than changing the world viewers have to live in. These odes to cinema are sly warnings about the limits of Hollywood’s power.
There are a lot of period pieces that you won’t normally see, and I’m not talking about the Black face. I’m talking about the smear that left a bitter echo in my mother’s mind. This is something you won’t see in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” nor in “Mank.”
Hearst: Yellow Journalism and Yellow Perilism
Hearst began his Yellow Peril campaign in 1907. Another famous journalist, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, had already published a demand for exclusion of the Chinese workers in California in 1854. In his “Chinese Immigration to California” Greeley wrote:
They are for the most part an industrious people, forbearing and patient of injury, quiet and peaceable in their habits; say this and you have said all good that can be said of them. They are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order; the first words of English that they learn are terms of obscenity or profanity, and beyond this they care to learn no more.
By 1907, the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) had already been passed and was in effect. By 1907, most of the community purges and lynchings of Chinese Americans were over, but more anti-Asian laws were to follow:
- Immigration Act of 1917
- Emergency Quota Act of 1921
- Cable Act of 1922
- Immigration Act of 1924
In California, anti-Asian laws also were enacted:
- California Alien Land Law of 1913
- Anti-miscegenation Law (1850-1948)
California’s anti-miscegenation law originally only declared “all marriages of whites with negroes or mulattoes are declared to be null and void.” By 1905, the statute was changed so that “no license must be issued authorizing the marriage of a white person with a negro, mulatto, or mongolian,” and by 1933, it would be amended again to include “members of the Malay race.”
For Hearst, Time Magazine noted in 1933 “The Yellow Peril has for 30 years been a great circulation-getter for the Hearst papers.” The 58-year-old Hearst was already a decade into his Yellow Perilism when he formed Cosmopolitan Pictures and signed the teenage Marion Davies to an exclusive contract.
While some may doubt his role in the Spanish-American War, Dana Frank writing “The Devil and Mr. Hearst” for The Nation (22 June 2000) has no doubt about Hearst’s role in anti-Asian sentiment.
As for Asia, Hearst was the nation’s chief and most dangerous exponent of the “Yellow Peril” hysteria, and in this case we can assign clear blame–and, I hope, as with his role in Cuba, begin to feel our own hatred, because here again Hearst did some very effective hating of his own. Throughout his career he argued that the mythical “Yellow Races”–Japan in particular–were ever-conspiring to overtake the “White Races” worldwide. Hearst viciously attacked Asians both outside and within the United States, and he should be held responsible, in part, for the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans.
According to AmericanPopularCulture.com, the newsreel outfit, International Film Company had been involved in a controversy with Congress in 1917 over a film’s “blatant anti-Mexican and anti-Japanese message.”
Hearst’s personal view, which, as always, found expression in his papers, magazines, and films, was that it was Mexico and Japan that Americans should fear rather than Germany. However, as war with Germany was now declared, which also made Japan, as an enemy of Germany at that time, an ally of America, U.S. government representatives were demanding either withdrawal or substantial editing of Patria. Hearst complied with the wartime government’s wishes, having no desire to compound the public relations problem he was already having to deal with opinions inflamed by some pro-German reporting Hearst sponsored during the run-up to World War I.
During World War I, Japan was a US ally against Germany. Hearst found something to admire about Germany before World War I and in the lead up toward World War II.
By 1932, Hearst was publishing articles by Adolf Hitler, whom Hearst admired for keeping Germany out of, as Hitler put it in a Hearst paper, “the beckoning arms of Bolshevism.” Hitler instead promoted a transcendent idea of nationalism—putting Germany first—and, by organizing devoted nationalist followers to threaten and beat up leftists, Hitler would soon destroy class-based politics in his country. Increasingly, Hearst wanted to see something similar happen in the United States.
While Vanity Fair considers “Citizen Kane” a “dirty trick” on Davies, remembering her as a “The Ziegfeld Girl,” “The Hollywood Star,” and “The Hostess” and assures its readers that the Hearst-Davies love was real. What we’re not remembering is how she was a not so innocent racist.
A year after “Citizen Kane” won an Oscar, Marion Davies was also “helping to actively defend California against a potential Japanese attacks and possible invasion.” Davies moved to a residence closer to Oregon than Hollywood until 1944. While Davies complained about the quality of her accommodations (“Davies referred to Wyntoon as ‘Spittoon’ and found the exile intolerable.“), Japanese Americans in Oregon had been moved to stockyards. Eventually, most of them would be moved to Minidoka camp near Twin Falls, Idaho. The camps closed in 1945.
Davies would later write about the Japanese American internment (Manzanar in California) in her posthumously published “The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst”: “I didn’t know what they were complaining about, because they had lovely menus in their camps; I had a copy of the menu. They had the most wonderful breakfasts, and chicken for luncheon, and anything they wanted at night. But still they were dissatisfied.”
Yet as Marion Davies hosted her parties for Hollywood elite, she did know Japanese Americans. She must have been aware of William Randolph Hearst’s long-term smear campaign against the Japanese in California. It is likely that some of the fruits and vegetables that she served came from Japanese American farms that struggled under the racism that Hearst supported. It is likely that some of the fish she served came from fisheries that employed Japanese Americans, places like the Terminal Island community that would vanish in 1942.
Reading several accounts such as Franks, I noted that Hearst was seen as specifically targeting the Japanese. It’s worth remembering that the Chinese had been run out of many cities and towns. They had been subjected to lynching in the West and forced to flee from their homes. With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, their numbers were severely limited.
The number of people of Japanese ethnicity who were interned was about 120,000. In 1930, according to the US Census the total population of Asian Pacific Islanders was 168, 731. Of that 97,456 were Japanese and 37,361 were Chinese (30,470 were Filipino, 1,097 were Korean and 1,873 Hindu). In 1940, when Mank was writing “Citizen Kane,” Japanese numbered 93,717 and the Chinese were 39,556 (31,408 Filipinos and 1,088 Korean were counted).
Certainly, the Hearst campaign against the Baltimore-born Upton Sinclair was dirty politics and did Hollywood no credit. Sinclair had only moved to California (Monrovia) in the 1920s, about the time that many second-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) were being born. Sinclair unsuccessfully ran for the House of Representatives in 1920 (Republican Henry Z. Osborne, the incumbent won), for the Senate in 1922 (incumbent Republican Hiram Johnson won) and for governor in 1926 (Republican Clement C. Young earned 71% of the votes, with Democrat Justus Wardell at 27% and Sinclair 4%) and 1930 (Republican James Rolph, Jr. earned 72%, Democrat Milton K. Young 24% and Socialist Sinclair had 4%). Sinclair had 50,480 votes. Rolph was at the time, the longest serving San Francisco mayor and had resigned to run for governor. He died at 64 in the third year of his term and was succeeded by his lieutenant, Frank Merriam. It was Merriam’s run for governor that Mank is about and Sinclair would finally have the support of a major party, running this time as a Democrat. Merriam got 48.87 percent of the vote. Sinclair, 37.75 percent.
Still the smear campaign against Sinclair was only a couple of years. Hearst’s Yellow Perilism went on for four decades. The results affected people far beyond California.
The East Asians weren’t the only ones who felt the Hearst smear. Hearst had hoped for an all-out invasion of Mexico and characterized Mexicans as “cunning and unscrupulous.” In June of 1942, the Zoot Suit Riots would target Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, injuring over 100 people and resulting in the arrest of over 500.
I haven’t done research in this area, but I wonder to what extent Hearst and his newspapers encouraged the actions that led to this riot. The Chinese and Japanese were small minorities with a short history in California. California was part of Mexico before it became part of the United States. As East Asians ethnic groups are under-represented in Hollywood, so too are Mexicans and Latinos, even though they represent a great portion of the population than Asian Americans or Black Americans.
“Mank” is a myopic myth of Hollywood. Like “Citizen Kane” it ignores the racism that enriched men like William Randolph Hearst. It is a whitewashing of history. “Citizen Kane” is fictional and can be excused as a product of its time. In 1940, the US population was still under the oppressive constrictions of blatant legal racism. “Mank” is black and white as a matter of conceit and as Hearst was not particularly motivated or known for racism against Black people, it remains a product of a Black and White binary system of racism, even oddly eschewing the actual Hitler connection that might tarnish both Hearst and Davies.
As Davies, Seyfried is luminous. You want to love her and forgive her. It’s much easier to do both if you don’t know Davies went to meet Hitler or dismissed the suffering of interned Japanese Americans. Oldman’s Mank is charming, but he’s also part of a questionable system, one that has semi-naked secretaries and a leading lady that is a well-known mistress. In this #MeToo era, that sleaziness is harder to excuse. It’s easier to love the alcoholic Mank if you don’t know that he was more interested in gubernatorial loss of failed politician than the financial and legal losses of a whole ethnic group.
When I watch “Mank,” I think of all the things lost and left behind by the people who distilled their possessions to only the baggage they could carry. As an Asian American who has lived in cities that drove out the Chinese, who has lived near and visited Santa Anita racetrack, who has lived near Terminal Island where a whole community was erased during World War II and whose relatives suffered under several decades of Hearst’s yellow peril smear campaign, “Mank” seems like a White wino’s whine. That might have been mitigated if it were clearer than that Mank was not only Jewish, but an observant Jew who had to hide his religiosity to survive in Hollywood.