Sunday, February 19, 2012

All The King's Men (1949)

"Jack, there's something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud. There's ALWAYS something." --Willie Stark to Jack Burden (All The King's Men, 1949)

I dragged my feet to watch this one, but unlike Hamlet, I was pleasantly surprised.  It wasn't my favorite film, but it was fast-paced, entertaining, and interesting to watch.  There weren't always easy explanations for some of the character developments, and I found Willie Stark much more compelling than our hero, Jack Burden.  But still a worthwhile watch, though I doubt I'll ever see it again.

The Plot
Minor reporter Jack Burden, played by John Ireland, is sent to cover the campaign of Willie Stark, a self-taught man from a small town in the south who is running for town treasurer.  Stark, played by Broderick Crawford, is convinced that he can fight the corruption running rampant in the city council.  Jack watches him get arrested for holding an illegal political rally, but after he is released, Stark takes Jack home to his family.  Jack meets Stark's elderly father, adopted teenage son Tom, and wife Lucy who is a former schoolteacher and Stark's inspiration.  Jack is impressed with Stark's honesty and integrity and after he leaves writes several favorable articles about him.  Stark later loses the race.

Burden's article about Willie Stark
Jack goes to his home to visit, a place called Burden's Landing.  His mother is a fragile alcoholic, his step-father arrogant and verbally abusive.  Jack meets with his neighbor, an elderly judge of good character and a strong influence on Jack.  He and Judge Stanton's niece Anne, played by Joanne Dru, are childhood sweethearts, and her brother Adam is a doctor and one of his best friends.  Jack proposes marriage to Anne Stanton, but she says that while she loves him, she knows he still has to find himself.  She promises to wait for him while he goes out and discovers what he wants to do.

Jack and Anne
Meanwhile, Stark loses the election, but with help from Lucy, gets his law degree.  Later, when corrupt politics leads to faulty engineering in a local school, the collapse of a fire escape leads to the death of several children.  This act galvanizes the people, and they turn to Willie Stark to file suit against the builders.  Stark now finds himself the figurehead of a reform movement.  Worried that Stark's popularity will lead to more votes for a reform candidate for Governor, corrupt politician convince Stark himself to run, thinking this will split the vote and give their own candidate the win.

Sadie talks it over with Willie.
Jack travels with the campaign, but he, and the voters, are unimpressed by Stark's dull, factual speeches.  Jack tries to help Stark one evening with his speech, but political aide Sadie Burke, who has been dispatched to keep an eye on Stark, tells him the truth--he's not really running.  Sadie, played by Mercedes McCambridge, gets him drunk, but then watches in amazement the next morning when he gives the best speech of his career, gaining the support of the crowd.  He tells them the facts, but emphasizes he is just a "hick"  like them.  He loses the race, but learns what he must do to win.  Jack quits when he is told to stop writing positive pieces about Stark.

Willie's run for governor.
Four years later Stark has won the race for Governor, and hires Jack as his aide.  He has won by making deals with anyone who will help him, but on a trip to Burden's Landing with Jack convinces everyone that good can come of making deals with evil.  Judge Stanton agrees to take the position of Attorney General, and Anne is particularly impressed by Stark.  Stark pushes through red tape to help the poor and to build schools, stadiums, and a new hospital--all while dealing in corruption.  Judge Stanton resigns when face to face with Stark's perfidy.

Jack, Willie, and Judge Stanton
Stark tells Jack to dig up information on the Judge to use against him.  Jack refuses, but still ends up finding blackmail on the judge.  While he decides what to do with the information, Sadie informs him that Anne has been cheating on him with Stark.  Jack confronts Anne, who doesn't deny the affair.  Rather than betray the judge, he gives his blackmail notebook to Anne and walks away.

Anne has an affair with Willie.
As Stark's public life becomes more and more extravagant, his personal life is having problems.  His wife is icy and diffident, and his son is increasingly reckless.  After he accidentally kills a girl while driving drunk, he publicly admits his guilt, despite his father's attempts to cover up the incident.  Willie offers the girl's father a bribe, which he refuses.  Later, Stark insists his son Tom play in an important football game, although he is still recovering from the accident.  Tom ends up paralyzed, as he is further injured in the game.

Willie Stark and Jack Burden
Adam refuses to head up Stark's new medical center, until Jack and Stark threaten to reveal incriminating information about the judge.  Later the father of the girl killed in Tom's accident ends up dead, and Judge Stanton accuses Stark.  As impeachment proceedings begin, Stark demands that Jack reveal publicly what he knows about the judge.  Jack goes to Judge Stanton and begs him to stop the proceedings, only to discover that someone has told Stark who then went to tell the Judge.  Judge Stanton commits suicide, and Jack realizes it was Anne who told Stark.  He quits his job in disgust.

When Stark is not impeached, Adam shoots Stark and then is killed himself by the police.  Jack tries to get Anne to reveal what she knows about Stark to the crowd, but she refuses.  Stark dies in Jack's arms, still not knowing why he was shot.

Willie Stark
The History
In 1947, Robert Penn Warren won the Pulizter Prize for his novel about political corruption, based loosely on the life of Huey P. Long, former governor of Louisiana and that state's U.S. senator in the mid-1930s.  All the King's Men was soon picked up by writer-director Robert Rossen, who purchased the film rights himself.  He wrote the screenplay and shifted the focus of the novel from the Jack Burden character (played by John Ireland) to Willie Stark.  The film was produced by Rossen's own production company but distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Robert Rossen
Rossen was a Jewish New Yorker, who came to Hollywood in 1937 to make pictures.  He was also a member of the Communist party from 1937-1947, which he explained later as being "dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in."  Though this would later get him into trouble with the HUAC, he split with the Communist Party in Los Angeles when they severely criticized his beloved project, All the King's Men.  As it was, Rossen had to put in writing his political tenancies for Columbia's studio head Harry Cohn, denying that he was a Communist Party member.

Merecedes McCambridge and John Ireland
With the backing of Cohn, Rossen offered the part of Willie Stark to John Wayne, who violently rejected the script as being "unpatriotic" and accused Rossen of making a film that that threw acid on "the American way of life."  The role would go to Broderick Crawford, a supporting actor who saw a great role and jumped on it.  He stayed up late watching films of Huey Long, and poured his heart into his performance.  Mercedes McCambridge, a radio actress, got her big break into films when she threw a temper tantrum and stormed out of the audtition room, irritated by how long the actresses were being made to wait.  Giving them a piece of her mind worked--the producers thought her temper the perfect match for Sadie's.  Cohn's critiques of Rossen's script included scrapping a framing structure that was difficult for audiences to follow, and several improvements in the relationships and motivations of characters.  Even after edits, Cohn refused to support the film, despite its great reviews.  He also refused to promote it in Los Angeles in time for the Oscars.  Rossen poured all of his money into publicity for the film.

Harry Cohn
Rossen had some stiff competition for the award this year, mostly in war films.  Battleground and Twelve O'Clock High both won accolades for their realistic portrayals of war.  William Wyler directed Olivia de Havilliand in The Heiress, based on Henry James's novel Washington Square.  This was his first film since Oscar-winner The Best Years of Our Lives, nearly three years previous.  When asked why he had waited so long, he quipped, "Well if I don't make any picture at least I'm not making a bad one."  The studios were still having a tough time competing with both the advent of television and the loss of their theaters.  When it looked as though they would be unable to support the Awards for a second year in a row, Hollywood moguls traveled to New York to convince their bosses that investing in the Awards paid off in publicity and increased world-wide business.  After that successful pitch, the Academy now had the funds to reserve the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard for a glamorous Awards show.

Pantages Theatre during the 1949 Oscars
Newly minted star Paul Douglas, fresh off Oscar nominated A Letter to Three Wives, was the host and began the show with a warning against long speeches.  "I'll thank in advance all the writers, grips, hairdressers, cameramen, front offices and producers," he said, "And we'll also assume the without your mother the whole thing might not have been possible.  Just thank your lucky stars, the voters and no one else."  Highlights of this year's awards included a performance of "Best Song" winner "Baby It's Cold Outside," Ronald Regan's performance of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and a special award given to Fred Astaire by his partner, Ginger Rogers.  Olivia de Havilland walked off with her second Oscar for "Best Actress."  The remaining awards were split between the previously mentioned films, but with seven nominations, All the King's Men had three wins.  Mercedes McCambridge won for "Best Supporting Actress," Broderick Crawford for "Best Actor," and "Best Picture."  McCambridge encouraged "all beginning actresses" to "never get discouraged," while Broderick Crawford held the statue in silence before finally saying, "If my heart was to stop beating for a moment..."

Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge get their Oscars.
While none of the wins were unexpected, everyone had a good time at the once-again glamorous awards.  Broderick Crawford's wife got in the car immediately, worried the Academy had made a mistake, while Merecedes McCambridge accorded her win to her "lucky dress."  Olivia de Havilland was on top of the world with her second win, only to immediately drop her agency when they refused to let her husband approve all her advertising.  She never made another Oscar-worthy film again, and got a divorce in 1952.

Sean Penn in All the King's Men
All the King's Men was remade in 2006 with Sean Penn.  In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. To date, it is the last Best Picture winner to be based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  While the re-make was mildly successful, the film has never achieved great popularity in modern times.

The Verdict?
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