Practically every notable bit of movie memorabilia has been bought for some obscene sum by some obsessive fan. But the sale of the Rosebud sled was special: the buyer who laid out a fortune for it wasn’t bidding on behalf of an ostentatious movie museum-cum-cafe or an anonymous Charles Foster Kane-esque collector. He was Steven Spielberg.
Just as Citizen Kane is often the default answer to the unanswerable question of what is the greatest film ever made, so its Rosebud sled is the easiest answer to the equally un-resolvable question of what is film’s most evocative object. Within the film, Rosebud is the undiscovered answer to the riddle that powers the entire plot, while to audiences it is symbolic of the loss of maternal love, childhood and a life unspoiled by greed or ambition. Rosebud’s final, devastating appearance – when it is tossed into an incinerator by a pair of uncomprehending workmen – is, quite simply, the key scene in the world’s most celebrated film.
Although it will be forever associated with Orson Welles, the sled was actually the invention of his co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz. As a boy, Mankiewicz had his beloved bicycle stolen when he left it outside a library. As a harsh punishment for what they evidently saw as his carelessness, his parents refused to buy him a replacement and Mankiewicz mourned the loss his entire life. In his childhood, his lost bicycle became emblematic of Mankiewicz’s lost innocence. In his adulthood, it mutated into a lost sled and became emblematic of a masterpiece. And by becoming emblematic of Citizen Kane, Rosebud became emblematic of Orson Welles’s achievement as its director – an achievement envied and imitated by almost every artistic-minded moviemaker who has come since. But just as Charles Foster Kane found it impossible to recapture his childhood, so every would-be Welles has found it impossible to replicate Kane’s quality and impact – and so it is unsurprising that film-makers would fixate on the object that best represents it. The Rosebud sled is the secret of Citizen Kane. Perhaps that is why Steven Spielberg was so keen to possess it.