Screen Time: A Perfume Moment in “Citizen Kane”

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Last night Mr. TC and I went to see Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey, a restored 1929 movie palace in Jersey City. Watching this masterpiece on the “big screen” for the first time, I was able to appreciate it more than ever before — its compositions, its use of light and shadow, its wealth of detail.

Speaking of detail, my eye was caught by one small object in a particular scene…

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“Do you want some hot water? I live right here…”

In this sequence, Charles Foster Kane has just been splashed with mud in the street, and a young woman walking past invites him to her nearby room to clean up.

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Her name is Susan Alexander and she works at the sheet music counter of a fictional department store called Seligman’s. She has no idea that she’s just extended this invitation to a newspaper tycoon who’s one of the richest men in America; pleased by her innocence, Kane spends the evening chatting and laughing with her.

Two details in this shot, two objects on Susan’s marble-topped dressing table, stood out to me. One is the snowglobe at the lower left. (If you’ve seen the full film, you’ll know why.) The other is the bottle on the shelf at upper left.

Could it be a perfume bottle?

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Photograph by PLATON for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bottle from the collection of Christie Mayer Lefkowith.

Yes.

It’s a bottle of Nuit de Chine by Rosine, the perfume house founded by French fashion designer Paul Poiret in 1911. I happened to purchase the above postcard last year at the exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nuit de Chine was released circa 1912-13 and was reportedly a soft fruity-floral “oriental” fragrance developed by perfumer Maurice Schaller. Poiret (with the assistance of artist Georges Lepape) designed the bottle to resemble a Chinese snuff bottle, with a blue glass cap, Bakelite rings at either side, and a label reading “flowers” and “night in the country from China.”

For more information about this fragrance, do visit the very helpful site Poiret Perfumes!

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1921 ad, via Poiret Perfumes

Here’s one of the earliest surviving ads for Nuit de Chine, via Poiret Perfumes, showing the bottle and its decorative case.

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1930 ad, via H-Prints

And here’s another, from 1930. Nuit de Chine was discontinued some time in the 1930s.

I don’t know who did the prop selection and set dressing for “Citizen Kane,” but the timeline fits: if Kane and Susan met a few years before his ill-fated 1916 campaign for governor, Nuit de Chine would have been on the market and probably available outside Paris.

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Via Poiret Perfumes, copyright ADAGP PARIS 2013

One question remains, however: how did a shop girl come to possess a bottle of high-end fragrance like Nuit de Chine?

It wasn’t the sort of thing she would have been able to pick up at her corner drugstore, and even if she shopped at New York’s luxury department stores, Poiret products would have been priced above her budget.

Was it a gift from an earlier “gentleman caller,” to use her own coy phrase?

Like Poiret’s fashion, Nuit de Chine offered a vision of exotic pleasures in faraway lands. Poor Susan, once she marries Charles Foster Kane, is trapped in a series of gilded orientalist cages—performing as the scantily clad heroine of the fictional opera Salammbô, then playing the wifely role of hostess at Kane’s gloomy Moorish-style palace Xanadu (in, of all places, Florida).

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Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane

It’s enough to make a girl long for a simpler past of rented rooms and boyfriends who gave really great perfume gifts.

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2 thoughts on “Screen Time: A Perfume Moment in “Citizen Kane”

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