Sunday, April 7, 2013

Watching Oscar: All the King's Men

Film: All the King’s Men
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

There was a time when America was at least perceived as being pretty naïve. Films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington played with this idea. So does All the King’s Men. The main difference is that some of that naivety survived Mr. Smith and it most definitely does not make it through All the King’s Men intact. This is the story of the rise and fall of a man. There are shades (but only shades) of MacBeth here, but that’s often the case when this is the base story. In truth, it’s more Citizen Kane than anything else.

Newspaper reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) is ready for a vacation, but is instead sent to an out of the way corner of his state to report on a man named Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford). Stark is upset because he feels (rightfully) like his state is being run for the personal gain and pleasure of the few instead of for the good of the people. Burden is entranced by Stark and is disappointed when Stark runs for treasurer of his county and loses. Stark decides to concentrate on getting a law degree and fighting for the people as an attorney.

We also learn about Burden’s strange home life. He is a child of immense privilege, working as a newspaper reporter almost as a piece of defiance against his drunken and domineering mother (Katherine Warren) and disapproving step-father (Grandon Rhodes). We also meet the love of Burden’s life, Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), a childhood friend and the daughter of a former governor. Anne enjoys er life and world of privilege and isn’t ready to share any hardships with Jack Burden.

Fast forward to the next governor’s election. With the ruling party in trouble, the naïve and wholesome rube of Willie Stark is tapped to enter the race to split the hick vote, keeping the balance of power as-is. Guiding him through this process is both Jack and Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge in her first film role). Stark eventually figures out that he’s being played as a sap, but not in time to win. He bides his time, Burden loses his job and knocks around, and once again we fast forward four years.

This time, having learned the tricks, Willie Stark is elected in a landslide victory. What becomes apparent to us—in fact to just about everyone—is that he has sold himself out over and over to get the power necessary to become governor. While he certainly appears to want to do things for the people of his state, he is forced to make deal after deal with the devil to get there. He does this not so much reluctantly but openly and willingly. The level of corruption is total. Willie, after years of being a teetotaler, begins drinking heavily. He cheats openly on his wife. Much to Jack’s chagrin, one of his extra-marital conquests is Anne Stanton.

Eventually, Willie’s adopted son Tom (John Derek) acts like children of money and power often act, and gets into a drunken accident, killing a girl. And everything begins to unravel. The charges of corruption appear, the bullying, the backroom deals and shady actions all start piling up. Even Jack, so long loyal to everything Willie Stark did for any reason and despite Stark’s stealing of his girlfriend, loses faith. Stark fights back with everything he has and as hard as he can, never once thinking that the wielding of power like a blunt instrument is a bad thing.

This is the entire point of All the King’s Men. It’s all about the rise to power and corruption once the power arrives. It’s an old story, of course, but one that continues to resonate. I buy it completely, even if the film, as an artifact of 1949, speeds through some of the twisted road of Willie Stark a little too quickly.

Years ago, my friend Mark worked for the Wisconsin government. I made a half-joking comment once that I thought I should run for city council or something similar and he immediately balked. Now, I’ve known Mark for 30 years, and while we do disagree politically in a lot of ways, I don’t think he believes I’m dangerous. I asked him what the problem was, and he said that in all his years of working for the government, he saw the same story over and over. A new broom gets elected with big plans to clean things up, and within six months, that new broom is dirty, making deals, and using political power and influence for personal gain. In his experience, it was a one-to-one occurrence.

Is that the case? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, though, because All the King’s Men shows that story, and it’s a story that certainly happens. How often do we see a politician caught in a sex scandal or using influence in a way that violates the trust of his or her electorate? Often enough that Willie Stark’s story feels old hat. In a way, it should, since it is loosely based on the real life story of Louisiana governor Huey Long.

The largest issue here is focus. We spend a lot of time dealing with Willie Stark, of course, but we are almost never out of the company of Jack Burden. So is it Burden’s story? Sure it is, if you want the story to be about disillusionment and crushed hopes and dreams. Or is it Willie’s story? Sure, if you want it to be the rise and fall of a great man. It’s sort of both, and because of that, it’s not completely either one, and it’s not quite enough to be one of those stories through the lens of the other.

Regardless, it’s a pretty exceptional film. Even if it weren’t it serves an important role as the screen debut (and an Oscar win) of the great Mercedes McCambridge, who has one of the great speaking voices of the time. I’m a fan, and I can always pick out her voice—she sounds like a 45rpm record of Rocket J. Squirrel being played at 33rpm.

Why to watch All the King’s Men: The story hits home.
Why not to watch: It’s a little off focus with who it’s really about.


  1. This was one of my most pleasant surprises when I decided to watch all the Best Picture winners a while back. I had heard of it, but that was about it.

    I really got caught up in the character that Crawford plays. The hopeful rise and then the slow descent into the exact kind of person he wanted to help the people get away from. It was a train wreck in slow motion, one that you hoped would be able to be averted, but one that you knew probably would not.

    Far too many people get caught up in their own importance and rationalize that they need to get elected/re-elected because their work is important so if they have to compromise to get/stay in office then the ends justify the means.

    As you said, this story is as old as man, but it still resonates and this film did that with me. Good review.

    1. I was pleasantly surprised by it as well. It's a better film than I predicted by a long shot. So far, in looking into the non-List Oscar winners, this one and Gentlemen's Agreement have been the biggest and most pleasant surprises.

    2. I had never thought about which Best Picture winners had made the list and which had not. I just did a quick check and found only 21 that had not (not counting Argo which will likely be added this fall.) Only 4 winners since 1970 have been excluded.

      Of those 21 the only ones I would give less than three stars out of five to are The Broadway Melody of 1929 - 1 star - and Cavalcade - 2 stars. (There are several that did make the list I would give less than 3 stars to.)

      For completeness' sake, here are the rest:

      3 stars: Cimarron, The Great Ziegfeld, You Can't Take It With You, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Hamlet, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones, Oliver!, Driving Miss Daisy, A Beautiful Mind

      4 stars: Wings, Grand Hotel, Gentlemen's Agreement, All the King's Men, A Man for All Seasons, The Last Emperor

      5 stars: Shakespeare in Love

      I know it's fashionable to dump on Shakespeare in Love, but I feel it is one of the truly great films of the 1990s, working on far more levels than some give it credit for, because they only pay attention to the love story at the center of it.

      It also gets flack for beating Saving Private Ryan. In fact, most of the films left off the list have gotten flack for beating films that others consider to be better than them. And those people may be right about some of these winners, but just because a film wasn't as good as another from the same year doesn't necessarily mean it is not also a good movie.

      I feel that The Fellowship of the Ring should have easily beaten A Beautiful Mind, but I'm not going to say that the latter is a horrible movie out of spite.

    3. You're considerably nicer to Cimarron than I am, and far, far nicer to The Greatest Show on Earth and Around the World in 80 Days.

      I try not to get too upset about what wins in a given year, although there are things that I look at and wonder how it went that way. Often, though, I find myself in the position of wanting to defend the film that wins against its detractors.

      Case in point is Ordinary People. For a lot of Oscar followers, 1980 isn't the year OP won, but the year Raging Bull lost. I completely disagree. This doesn't mean that Raging Bull isn't a great film (it is), but it gives short shrift to one of the best family dramas ever filmed. It's fine to prefer Raging Bull, but it's ridiculous to slag off on Ordinary People, because it's still a great film (and it still holds up).

      It's also nice to see a good score from you on Grand Hotel, since I find myself having to defend that one a lot.