Movie Review: Citizen Hearst

The newspaper proprietor, William Randolph Hearst (1863 - 1951), with the film star, Marion Davies (1897 - 1961).  Original P
The newspaper proprietor, William Randolph Hearst (1863 - 1951), with the film star, Marion Davies (1897 - 1961). Original Publication: People Disc - HE0172 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Citizen Hearst is a documentary that traces the 125-year old Hearst media empire from its humble beginnings when young William Randolph Hearst was a Harvard student and editor of the University's Harvard Lampoon, to the global media empire it has grown in to today.

Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the 84-minute film packs a lot of information fairly quickly and concisely, given there are 125 years to go over. Hearst's own life and death occur in the first 30 minutes, making it perhaps the breeziest bio on any media mogul ever. The rest of the film covers the company's assets and how important and pioneering they were in the history of the media landscape.

The film is at once packed with fascinating information, but at the same time, comes off like something you'd expect to see playing on a loop on the lobby TV screen at Hearst's headquarters. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Heidi Klum to Donna Karan to Dan Rather to Leonard Maltin are trotted out to sing the company's praises. Meanwhile one can't help but notice Hearst Corporation CEO Frank A. Bennack, Jr.'s 125 anniversary pin on his lapel every time he speaks.

That's not to say that the film isn't worthy of viewing. On the contrary, it probably should be required viewing for anyone who wants to know their media history. No matter how much one may think they know of Hearst and his empire, there's surely facts in this documentary that will be new and fascinating.

Among the company milestones that are worthy of touting include Hearst pioneering the comic strip syndication and Good Housekeeping magazine's unique product evaluation research institute that tests every ad to make sure its claims are real. (Which is why you'll never see cigarette ads in the pages of Good Housekeeping.)

The doc also devotes time to Helen Gurley Brown's impact on Cosmopolitan magazine and how Harper's Bazaar and its editor Diana Vreeland made history by putting the first non-Caucasian model -- China Machado -- in its pages.

It's also interesting to see just how 24-hour sports network ESPN went from being a "laughing stock" network that covered tractor pulls (early footage of field reporters getting in to fights with fans live on location are priceless) to a respected channel in a seminal moment that occurred when the a big earthquake happened during 1989 World Series in San Francisco.

The official broadcasting network ABC lost power but ESPN was the only news outlet with a working generator and provided up to the minute coverage on all the confusion.

Hearst's philandering ways with actress Marion Davies is never spoken of in a negative light, and the mogul's displeasure with Orson Wells' 1941 film Citizen Kane doesn't delve in to the juicy story it probably was at the time. But that's what you get when the documentary's executive producers and associate producer are Hearst employees: those types of facts are given a quick mention and then swept under the rug.

Citizen Hearst is one of those documentaries that will likely be shown in future media studies classes and is perfectly suited on several of Hearst's own networks like the History Channel or the Biography Channel. It's not gossipy or salacious like some of Hearst's own newspaper headlines, but it's a good, solid and informative piece on a giant media empire.