Saturday, February 8, 2014

All the King's Men

TCM is running All the King's Men tonight at 10:00 PM. Apparently I haven't blogged about it before, and apparently the DVD is out of print. So now would probably be a good time to blog about it.

All the King's Men is one of those movies whose stories is probably already reasonably well-known, in part becasue of the movie's critical acclaim having won all those Oscars, and in part because it's loosely based on real events. Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a small-town man running a quixotic campaign for Country Treasurer in one of his state's more out of the way regions. His campaign theme is that everybody else is corrupt, and that if only you'll elect a man like him who's never held power before, he can help fight that corruption. It's such a novel idea that the state's big-city newspaper sends out reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) to do a story on the campaign. Needless to say, the campaign is ultimately unsuccessful, but it gives Stark a taste for civic-mindedness.

That taste is stoked when there's an accident at the local school. A fire escape collapses, killing several children, and it's discovered that the escape was built shoddily, on a contract given out through nepotism. Now perhaps the people are going to stand up and take notice about a guy going on about corruption, even though the folks in power have a strong, well-oiled machine to keep them in power. In fact, they want Stark to run for Governor: there's another reform candidate besides Stark on the ballot, and having two reform-minded candidates will dilute their strength in a first-past-the-post system and allow the machine to maintain its stranglehold. But the political machine is only as strong as its weakest link, which here is Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge), a political operative the machine sent to keep an eye on Stark. She tells him the truth, and that enrages Stark.

Stark may have lost this round, but he decides that he's going to do whatever it takes to get elected the next time around. He's succesful, at least in the sense that he wins election. But he's got people who backed him and now has to repay, which ultimately means that he too is going to succumb to the lust for power. Stark's is just a different form of corruption than what the machine was inflicting upon the people of the state. Worse, Stark has become a prick in his personal life too. Although Stark is married, he takes up with Sadie, and then with Jack's wife Anne (Joanne Dru). Anne's father, meanwhile, is a prominent judge, and when the judge won't do Stark's bidding, Willie is perfectly willing to have dirt dug up on him. Obviously, the Production Code can't let Willie Stark get away with all this....

All the King's Men is inspired by, if not quite based on, the career of Louisiana politician Huey Long, who ran a populist campaign, won election to the governor's mansion, and then became too corrupt for his own good. Broderick Crawford is a good choice to play Willie Stark. As in a lot of his movies, he's blustery, but the sort of person you feel you could prick with a pin and deflate. It's the sort of bravado that I think a neophyte would have to have to take on a poliitcal machine: if you look weak, nobody's going to vote for you, sad to say. Crawford is ably assisted by the cast of supporting actors; McCambridge won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role.

The atmosphere portrayed here is also excellent. When I blogged about The Firemen's Ball, I commented that even though it's set in Communist Czechoslovakia, the stuff being shown on screen could be pretty much any small town. The same holds in All the King's Men, I think. The scenes, and the fact that the story was inspired by Huey Long, suggest that the movie is set somewhere in the south, but it could just as easily have been the northeast (The Last Hurrah) or out west (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

If the movie has any weakness it's that this is another one of those movies where the story is a bit obvious. Willie Stark goes almost from one extreme to the other; there's no middle ground here. But this is a minor weakness, as it's one I didn't really think about the first time I watched the movie, but only afterwards.

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