When enormously-wealthy media magnate Charles Foster Kane dies, he utters the word “rosebud”. An obituary newsreel documents the events in his public life. The producer of the newsreel asks a reporter, Jerry Thompson , to find out about Kane's private life and personality, in particular to discover the meaning behind his last word. The reporter interviews the great man's friends and associates, and Kane's story unfolds as a series of flashbacks.
First, Thompson approaches Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander, who refuses to tell him anything. Thompson then goes to the library of Walter Parks Thatcher , a banker who served as Kane's guardian during his childhood. It is there that Thompson learns about Kane's childhood. In the first flashback, Kane as a young child is forced to leave his beloved mother when he becomes suddenly wealthy after becoming an heir to a silver mine, and is sent to live with Mr. Thatcher, despite the misgivings of Kane's abusive father.
Thompson then interviews Kane's personal business manager Mr. Bernstein , best friend Jedediah Leland , Susan for a second time, and Kane's butler Raymond . Other flashbacks show Kane's entry into the newspaper business and his profit-seeking with low-quality “yellow journalism.” He takes control of the newspaper, the New York Inquirer, and hires all the best journalists . His attempted rise to power is documented, including his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton , a President's niece, and his campaign for the office of governor of New York State. A “love nest” scandal ends both his marriage and his political aspirations. Kane remarries, but his domineering personality destroys his relationships and pushes away his loved ones.
Despite Thompson's interviews, he is unable to solve the mystery and concludes that “Rosebud” will forever remain an enigma. At that point, the camera pans over workers burning some of Kane's many possessions. One throws an old sled, with the word “Rosebud” painted on it, into the fire – the same sled that Kane was riding as a child the day his mother sent him away. There is a shot of a chimney with black smoke coming out. For the viewer this solves the “Rosebud” mystery: The sled is a token of the only time in his life when he was poor; but it also represents a time in which he was truly happy and wanted for nothing.
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