Thursday, March 2, 2023

Citizen Kane, José Ferrer-style

Some time back, TCM did one of those month-long topic spotlights on radio in the movies. Now, talking pictures came about in the same decade as widespread radio, so the two media grew up together, so to say, and both faced the same challenges when television came along after World War II. One of the movies that TCM selected for the spotlight that was new to me was The Great Man.

Ferrer is not the great man; indeed, we don't even see the titular great man. Instead, Ferrer plays Joe Harris, a New York radio reporter who is popular in New York for his coverage of Broadway, at the end of an era when you could still have radio programs about Broadway, or, indeed, radio networks programming their own shows instead of syndication or anodyne music programming. Of course, Harris works for Amalgamated Broadcasting, which is getting into the TV game, this being the 1950s. The great man of the title is one Herb Fuller, who was a popular correspondent and later TV host. But Fuller died suddenly in a car accident.

Network boss Philip Carleton (Dean Jagger) wants to do a memorial radio program on Fuller's life, because of his status of being beloved by the public. Carleton brings Harris in for the job, and Harris accepts, knowing that putting together a good tribute could lead to a much bigger profile with Amalgamated Broadcasting. This latter fact isn't much of a secret, as people like Fuller's producer Sid Moore (Keenan Wynn) know it and may or may not want Harris to get that promotion. Harris starts looking for people who knew Fuller at various points during his career.

What Harris finds begins to trouble him. Starting with the viewing of the coffin, and continuing with people like Carol (Julie London), the singer on Fuller's show; or Paul Beasley (Ed Wynn), husband in a fairly religious marriage who with his wife gave Fuller his first big break back in the early 30s, Harris learns that a lot of the people who worked with Fuller didn't really like him. They tell him all sorts of things that the public never knew about Fuller and would be shocked to learn.

There's a problem, of course, in that if Harris were to relate these stories on air, it would likely jeopardize his chances of getting that promotion. And you better believe that's something that the people around him have figured out too. Who's trying to help Harris, and who's trying to hinder him?

To me, I think The Great Man had two main problems. One is the era in which it was made. The ending, which is a montage of people everywhere listening to the radio tribute to Fuller at 10:00 PM on a Friday, seems deeply unrealistic. By this time radio programs like this were dying and everybody would have been watching television, at least all those who had television sets. Perhaps the movie would have worked 20 years earlier as a serious programmer. Twenty years later, and the script would have been written to be about a TV host and the material made as a TV movie of the week as a perfect way to bring in a bunch of guest stars to play the various people who knew Fuller.

The other problem, surprisingly, is José Ferrer himself. He was not only the star of the movie, but also director and co-wrote the script, which might explain things. Ferrer the actor plays his character in too laid-back a manner, and Ferrer the director doesn't seem to have noticed this. Most of the rest of the cast gets their opportunities to shine, however, and aren't bad at all.

To sum up, I think I'd say that The Great Man is a movie with an interesting premise, but one that's not without some pretty substantial flaws.

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