Monday, February 27, 2012

Reeling Backward: "All the King's Men" (1949)

I will confess to being somewhat disappointed with "All the King's Men," the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1949. It's a well-done movie, certainly a gripping drama and more ambitious stuff than one generally saw out of Hollywood in those days, which tended to avoid overt political messages like the plague.

But somehow the movie seems too small for such a big story -- about power, democracy and in someways America itself. The book by Robert Penn Warren was one of my favorites from my high school days. As I said at the time, Warren could write about politics and make it absolutely thrilling, while Hemingway could somehow write about love and war and manage to make it dull as plain toast. (As you can tell, I gave my teachers fits.)

I stumbled across the movie version of "Men" after learning its relationship to "Champion," the subject of last week's Reeling Backward column. Kirk Douglas, already a bona fide star, lost the Best Actor Academy Award to Broderick Crawford that year. Bigger stars, including John Wayne, had turned down the role of Willie Stark, a Southern hick nobody who claws his way to the governor's mansion.

Crawford, known mostly for playing tough guys and cops in various supporting roles, was nobody's idea of a dramatic lead. But writer/director Robert Rossen saw something in Crawford's pugnacious face and zigzagging broken nose that suggested something of Willie's stubbornness and indomitable will. I am astonished to learn that Crawford was only 38 years old in 1949; I would have guessed closer to 60. He went on to have a long career in film and television.

(I should add that I have not seen the 2006 remake starring Sean Penn, though I recall it being greeted by nearly universally lukewarm sentiments.)

Narratively, the film takes its time setting up the characters and situation. Willie is a troublemaker from the sticks who can't even get himself elected to the local municipal council. He attracts the attention of Jack Burden (John Ireland), a cynical young reporter from the biggest newspaper in the state, who describes Willie as the last honest man left in politics.

Jack, the narrator and eyes of the audience through which we view Willie, is a piece of work himself. He is the son of the richest part of the state, which even bears his name, Burden's landing, where the wealthy and the powerful cavort and aim derision at the rascal politicians. His stepfather is exceedingly wealthy, and supports Jack's meager salary as a journalist.

Jack is deeply in love with Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), the descendant of the state's most revered governor. Her brother Adam (Shepperd Strudwick) is an idealistic doctor and Jack's best friend; their uncle is Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf), an elderly but respected man who ends up serving as kingmaker for Willie during his second, successful run for governor.

Two things disappointed me most about the film: the short shrift given to the secondary characters, and the way Willie's rise to power and conversion from warrior for the little man into corrupt power-monger is skimmed over.

"All the King's Men" was one of the first books I encountered where the supporting characters were as vibrant and well-drawn as the main figures. I particularly remember Sadie Burke, the mercenary political handler who ends up being one of Willie's inner circle, not to mention his lover. She was brittle, caustic and fully fleshed. Mercedes McCambridge won an Oscar for her turn -- her very first film performance; she was mostly known for radio work before 1949.

But in the movie version, the character remains mostly in the background, flitting to the fore whenever the mechanics of the plot require it. McCambridge earned her golden statuette through the tried-and-true "two good scenes" method; she got a pair of meaty scenes with terrific dialogue to sink her teath into, and did.

The Stantons are similarly cut short. Anne goes through an amazing conversion, from idealistic young beau of Jack's to Willie's mistress -- a monumental betrayal that the movie barely comments upon.

For me, the story of Willie Stark is about a man losing his way. When he starts out, Willie is all about pushing out the corrupt good ole boy network so the regular, rural folks who can't fend for themselves -- he proudly calls them, and himself, "hicks" -- won't get run over by the rich and the politically powerful.

It's interesting in this day of 99 percenters vs. 1 percenters to view Willie's populist insurgence. During his campaign swings, he talks openly about "soaking the rich." And yet, in the end it is the Stantons and other denizens of Burden's Landing who push him to the top. Strange, since people of power rarely give it up willingly.

Though it's a powerful performance by Crawford, I never really felt like this film version gets inside the head of Willie Stark. It plays out like a good guy who turns into a villian, but neither he nor those watching him really understand when or how it happens.

That's not what I took away from Robert Penn Warren's wonderful book, which filled in all the blank spaces the movie leaves unmarked.

2.5 stars out of four

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