Warning: spoilers ahead for Mank.
The new Netflix film Mank centers on the making of Citizen Kane directed by and starring Orson Welles. Specifically, the writing of the now legendary movie and who actually wrote it, a topic that has been hotly debated since the film's 1941 release.
The movie, directed by David Fincher from a script written by his late father, looks at how Herman J. Mankiewicz, a Hollywood insider with a disdain for the business and a costly love for alcohol, created the world of the film. And what a weird world the man, better known as "Mank," made. What might be even weirder is just how much of Mank is based in truth. Once you do a little research, you realized the the real stories behind Mank are often stranger than fiction.
Citizen Kane offers a semi-fictionalized look at the life of media magnate William Randolph Hearst via his onscreen counterpart Charles Foster Kane, a self-involved, power-obsessed newspaper man. Mank takes a closer at the real Hearst (The Crown's Charles Dance) through his relationships with his longtime lover, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), novelist and California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye), and, of course, Mank (Gary Oldman).
Mank is a work of fiction where the details of true stories are often tweaked for cinematic effect. However, some of the most bizarre anecdotes in the film are true. Well, mostly true. Keep reading and you'll see what we mean.
William Randolph Hearst Actually Did Own A Zoo
In the film, Marion and Mank take a stroll through the grounds of Hearst's a 168,000 acre ranch in San Simeon, California, partaking in some monkey business with some very real monkeys. The mansion, widely known now as Hearst Castle, really did feature the largest private zoo. Hearst reportedly told his architect Julia Morgan, the first certified female architect, that "he wanted his guests to feel as though they were driving through an area populated by interesting and exotic animals in their natural state, not a zoo." The zoo featured exotic and local animals such as bison, ostriches and giraffes, which make a cameo in Mank.
In 1958, the zoo was given to the state of California and is now open to paying guests who can see descendents of the animals that once roamed in Hearst's day. According to the zoo's website, in the summer, "zebras can be seen grazing in the pastures along Highway 1 near the town of San Simeon."
Louis B. Mayer Really Did Tearfully Ask His Employees To Take A Pay Cut
Yes, in real life, just like in the movie, the powerful MGM studio cried crocodile tears while asking his staff to take a pay cut because of the Great Depression. In 1933, Mayer asked the workers to take a 50 percent voluntary pay cut to keep the studio afloat. That might sound farfetched, but, at the time, MGM was suffering financially and without cutting wages it would have likely gone under.
Luckily, they believed his sob story. Legendary actor Lionel Barrymore got up and said he would take the cut and if others followed his lead it would be "for the good of MGM, of Hollywood, and the country," according to Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Mayer promised them that he would pay them all back once the banks reopened, but he never did.
Mank Really Did Help Refugees Escape Fascism
In the film, when Mank's German nurse refuses to throw out his booze at his personal secretary Rita Alexander's (Lily Collins) request, she reveals that Mank helped her entire village escape fascism. In actuality, Mankiewicz did not save a whole village, but, in the 1930s, he did quietly sponsor German refugees who were looking to escape Hitler, helping them find work, according to the biography The Brothers Mankiewicz.
In 1933, Mankiewicz wrote and attempted to make the anti-Nazi film, The Mad Dog of Europe, which included a villain named “Adolf Mitler." It was his attempt to waken the American public to the horrors of Nazism. That same decade Nazi Minister of Culture Joseph Goebbels banned anything written by Mankiewicz unless his name was removed from the onscreen credits.
MGM Really Did Fund Fake Election Newsreels
Before "Fake News" there were fake newsreels. In the film, MGM co-founder Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) enlisted a director to helm newsreels against Upton Sinclair, the novelist and social reformer who, in 1934, was the democratic candidate in the California gubernatorial race. The first one hit theaters on Oct. 19, 1934 and featured "regular" people talking about why they opposed Sinclair. It's considered the first attack ad, which made Thalberg the "Father of the Attack ad." Unlike the film, though, there is no evidence Mankiewicz inspired Thalberg to create the phony ads.
However, Mayer, who was state chairman of the Republican Party in California, did ask his employees to make voluntary donations to Sinclair's Republican challenger Frank Merriam. As did other Hollywood studio heads. Hearst also ran a smear campaign against Sinclair in his papers, claiming if he won the film industry would have to leave California for Florida.
Marion Davies' Big MGM Goodbye Did Include A Caravan
In the film, we watch Davies make a big Hollywood exit from the MGM studio lot complete with her trailer. In real life, her lover Hearst broke off her deal with MGM, in a huff over head honcho Mayer not giving her more serious dramatic roles. (In reality, Davies was more of a comedian, but that didn't stop Hearst from meddling.) She had to pack up her stuff and head over to her new studio Warner Bros. complete with her famous 11-room bungalow, an enormous dressing room Mayer built for her in 1924. The bungalow had to be broken down into separate pieces so it could be driven over to the Warner Bros. lot. It was later moved to Rancho Mirage, California for her niece.
Rosebud May Be A Reference To Marion Davies
The film makes mention that many believed "Rosebud," the name of the sled Kane covets from his childhood, was the nickname Hearst gave Davies' lady parts. Mank rejected the idea, but there is a evidence that those lewd rumors could be true. In his 1989 essay "Remembering Orson Welles" in The New York Review Of Books, Gore Vidal notes, "In actual life, Rosebud was what Hearst called his friend Marion Davies’ clitoris."
Vidal does not reveal his sources of this particular information in the essay, which was a review of Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. This led a reader to question the writer's reliability on the subject. The reader claims that the Welles biography doesn't make mention of Davies' clitoris. They also doubted that Vidal would have asked Welles, Hearst or Davies such a risqué question. However, in Vidal's response to the reader's letter, he challenges their claims that the biography doesn't make mention of the word "clitoris." Instead, Vidal said that the book uses its synonym "pudenda" when claiming Rosebud was named for Davis's anatomy.
In his book, Frank Brady wrote that the Rosebud rumors made their "way into the popular press in the 1970s," but there was early evidence that those rumors were, in fact, true. It's really about semantics. Brady wrote that "it is possible that the word 'rosebud' was used in general as an affectionate euphemism for a woman’s genitalia," citing Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang as his source. (Though, in that book, "rosebud" is believed to refer to the anus.) Still, as crazy as the story may have seemed, Brady felt there was a chance that Hearst "became upset at the implied connotation." Still, the biographer wrote that "any such connection seems to have been innocent on Welles’ part."