Category Archives: 1940’s

22. All The King’s Men (1949)

Director: Robert Rossen


Alex –7.5   Elliot – 7.5    IMDB 7.5    Rotten Tomatoes 7.9

Alex’s Commentary:

This is a film I had not previously seen. Based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All The King’s Men, the film follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a Midwesterner who’s passion to improve the lives of the poor and down-trodden leads him into politics. Played effectively by Broderick Crawford, MV5BNDA5MDg1YWMtMzcyYS00NjY0LWIzMTgtZWQ2YWQ5NGJiZGQ4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_Oscar winner for Best Actor, the story follows Willie’s transformation from unsophisticated do-gooder into maniacal leader of a political machine that will stop at nothing to accomplish Willie’s goals – goals which now center on Willie Starks’ personal agenda and far less on his constituency.

It is difficult not to draw comparisons with politicians of today and by that, I mean politicians in the most pejorative sense. Unfortunately, the story of leaders, whether it be executives, politicians, or anyone in a position of power, lining their own pockets at the expense of others is an age-old tale.  Although the premise of the story seems a bit contrived, that a person could change so dramatically in such a short period of time, it makes the viewer contemplate whether Willie did change or was he always a “bad” person without the opportunity to exploit his true nature.

One of the underlying themes repeated in the film is the notion that good things are borne from bad things.all-the-kings-men This is Willie’s way of justifying his wrongdoings if, ultimately, it results in a greater good. In other words, it is acceptable to bribe and pay graft if the result is a new hospital or highway. Of course, every highway, hospital, university or museum has the Stark name prominently displayed lest people forget who made it all happen. Interestingly, some of Willie’s campaign promises of free health care, free university education and no farmer losing his land to foreclosure can still be heard on the campaign trail today.

However, the film is more than the Willie Stark story, there are numerous subplots and rich character portrayals throughout. All the King’s Men is a blend of interwoven character studies that generate a feeling of excitement or, at a minimum, engage the viewer to watch with eager anticipation of what will occur next. The feel of the movie can be attributed to Robert Rossen, who was nominated in both the Best Director and Best Screenplay categories. Among the strong performances, include Best Supporting Actress winner, Mercedes McCambridge, who plays Sadie Burke, a political organizer working behind the scenes to promote Wille Stark to his people- the poor and uneducated (sounds vaguely familiar). Not that it detracts from the movie, but I believe the actress playing Ms. McCambridge was cast by a more attractive actress than originally intended for the character described in Robert Penn Warren novel.

I would be remiss not to mention John Ireland’s portrayal of Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter who’s writing aids in the rise of Willie Stark, and Burden’s ownc34e6b23bb093464fe40334d4f015e12 dubious slide from idealist to hatchet man. Also, Joanne Dru provides a solid portrayal of Anne Stanton; however, the notion that this socialite girlfriend of Jack Burden’s would become Willie Stark’s mistress seems far-fetched.

One of my favorite aspects of our Oscar Chronicle journey is watching films that take place in the period that the film is produced. All the King’s Men provides a wonderful glimpse into life in 1949 and the excellent black and white cinematography only enhances the experience. From the cars to the clothes to the daily activities of the people, it is interesting to see many things have changed and surprisingly, how many have stayed the same. I would encourage any film buff who enjoys stories surrounding politics or simply good character studies to watch All the King’s Men.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel, ‘All The King’s Men’ by Robert Penn Warren, the film tells the story of Willie Stark, played with amazing presence by Broderick Crawford.  Broderick’s performance garnered him the Oscar for Best Actor.  Actress, Mercedes McCambridge, also won an Oscar for best supporting actress in the film for her portrayal as Sadie Burke, Willie Stark’s righthand woman throughout the course of the film.  The film chronicles Willie’s journey as he raises himself from rural farm life to the governor’s mansion.  Willie Stark stands out as a candidate in his small town of Kanoma County running for county commissioner due to the unfortunately maligned designation All_the_King_s_Men_Mercedes_McCambrdige_5as an honest politician.   Willie’s honesty and need to share the truth with the people during his campaigning is met with this biting response: “We all believe in free speech Willie- We got to, it’s in the constitution.” Essentially this quote damns free speech to a necessary evil that is not much appreciated in this small town.  We are also given an introduction into his character’s psyche, as a man having adopted the son of a friend who was too poor to support him and one who was victimized by the institution that fired his wife due to his exposure of the corruption of the system.  Willie was a cog in the political machine that society ran on, and he aimed to throw a wrench into works and really shake things up from the inside.

At the same time as our introduction to Willie is occurring, we see a glimpse into the life of the reporter covering Willie, Jack Burden played with great poise by the actor, John Ireland.  Jack grew up not far away from the rural county where Willie is running for office, but their worlds are separated not only by distance but also by a clear separation of socio-economic class.   The scenes comparing a world of sailing, tennis, dinner jackets, and cocktails compared to the farm life of Willie illustrate the true dichotomy of the two main character’s lives.  After learning more about Jack’s reluctance to settle into the life his family has offered, he is determined to do something that means something more than just the opulence imbued by his upbringing.   As Jack makes the pronouncement of his new mission, we learn that Willie lost the race for which he was running.   Undeterred by the setback of the loss, we see the real bootstrap mentality of Willie as he completes law school by correspondence in a montage that moves the timeline accordingly.

After Willie has received his law degree and began to practice law, an unfortunate catastrophe occurred at the school house whose construction had been a catalyst to Willie’s first unsuccessful political attempt.  Willie’s calls for investigation into the bidding for the construction contracts had fallen on deaf ears, and unfortunately the poor construction of the school house had caused an accident with a loss of multiple children’s lives.  In response, Willie filed civil charges against the state and began to give speeches across the country side in defense of cleaning of the state capitol from the corruption that had paved the way for this type of blatant cronyism.   all-the-kings-menWillie’s speeches made waves in the state capitol, inspiring a political party to back Willie as their representative for the gubernatorial race.  Unfortunately, the group backing Willie’s true intentions were to split the vote of the rival candidate and make way for their actual front-runner.

As Willie becomes aware of the plot, he gives in momentarily and breaches his normal tee-totaling ways in a moment of weakness.  As the man with normally unimpeachable character gives into drink, it broke a metaphorical barrier that was holding him back.   Willie Stark faces the town with a new resignation and thirst for blood as he leaves the facts and figures of his tax plan in the dust in favor of good old-fashioned populism and passion-based rhetoric.  The performance by Broderick Crawford in this scene is spellbinding and his charisma lights the screen on fire clearly earning his academy award.   Through his words resonating with his base in a way that a career politician never could, Willie’s meteoric rise catches the old guard by surprise.  Unfortunately, he began the race too far behind and is unable to reach victory in this first attempt.  As Willie loses the race, we also learn that Jack quit his reporting job because the paper stopped covering Willie out of fear that he actually could win.  Even in 1949, the link between capitalism, the media, and politics represents a detriment to candidates who do not have the interests of the corporate big-wigs in the forefronts of their platforms.  As we move to the next scene, Willie tells Jack that he knows how to win now.   This foreboding pronouncement indicates a real tonal shift as the audience bears witness to the character’s paradigm shift.

As weAll-the-Kings-Men-1949-00-45-13 enter the next stage of the film, Willie is now a hero of the people running four years later for his second attempt at governor.   While at first, we are hopeful that he is staying true to the character that we met on the farm all of those years ago, we are greeted now with insinuations that the money financing his new campaign is coming with strings attached -the same types of promises that he criticized in his first campaign for county commissioner.  This time, however, Willie won in a landslide and the audience is left with a lingering question, “At what cost?”.  Willie offers Jack a job at a rate 25% higher than he was making at the newspaper with the ominous concession, “Money? I don’t need money.  People give me things. Because they believe in me”.  Jack even brings Willie to his parent’s house, the world that seemed unreachable just a few short years earlier.  At this point, through power, Willie is able to breach the socioeconomic divide and win their support albeit with the caveat of continuing to broker deals despite the repercussions.   It is at this point in the film where we see the beginning of a pivot from a morality play to a cautionary tale.  It’s hard to not continually compare the fictional political landscape portrayed in the movie to our current political landscape in America.   Almost seventy years later we are still pursuing the same issues: healthcare, education, tax reform, and the menace of political corruption.

Willie’s descent from upstanding citizen, to womanizer and corrupt politician is hard to watch.   As he forces Jack down the rabbit hole too, it solidifies his transformation from hero to villain.  During the journey, he betrays friend and lackey Jack by forcing him to dig up dirt on his friends from home, while dating Jack’s old flame behind his back.   Jack’s moral quest to do something meaningful has now become a farce as he has enabled the most corrupt politician of all, one who outrivals even the institution that he rallied against.   The conflict intensifies to almost soap opera standards as Willie’s adopted son kills a young woman in a drunk driving accident.  3875441582_c5cbdef7baIn the aftermath, the woman’s father disappears when he refuses a bribe, and then the adopted son is paralyzed in a football accident.  After the father’s beaten body appears, impeachment proceedings begin against Willie.  Willie uses his popularity with the people for his own gain by convincing them that the news and media were lying and that he was telling them the truth.  This type of gaslighting to bend the will of the people has clear parables to other current events today.

What started as an enjoyable, captivating commentary on the political landscape spiraled into melodrama.   This film’s compelling story and great acting keeps the wheels churning as we watch the rise and ultimate demise of the politician whose original aims were true before he gave into the systemic corruption that the film alludes to as a necessary evil.  It states that good comes from bad, and that brute force and corruption will be a means to an end.  However, the film clearly shows the dangers of succumbing to those more base instincts in humanity.  The greed and thirst for power bleeds through the cracks of even Willie’s most noble intentions ultimately leads to his demise.   Overall, I enjoyed the film and appreciated the acting even as the story teetered over the edge of melodrama.   The score was a little corny in the film which accentuated bits of the melodrama and ultimately impacts the film’s relevance in the modern film cannon.




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21. Hamlet (1948)

Director:  Laurence Olivier


Alex – 7.0   Elliot – 7.2  IMDB 7.8  Rotten Tomatoes 8.4

Alex’s Commentary:

To be or not to be the best picture, that is the question. I’ve always viewed a “best picture” winner as a movie with a great original screenplay, amazing characters, a larger than life epic, or something unique that possibly we’ve never seen in a movie before. Obviously, Hamlet, being one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, is a well-known story with more memorable lines than I had remembered.  But is it a best picture? – I’m not so sure. The film was produced in England so it may be the first film we’ve watched that would be considered a “foreign” film. thw-2011-01-05-12h58m46s227However, I don’t believe this would unique enough to qualify for best picture.

The black and white production is atmospheric but stark and at times visually harsh. Similarly, the musical score I felt was overly melodramatic and distracting. Laurence Olivier, often considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, did win the Oscar for best actor and that is an award that is well deserved. He even proved to be an excellent swordsman. Is something rotten in Hollywood? I wouldn’t go that far but Hamlet is definitely not one of my favorite films. Good night sweet prince – on to 1949.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Hamlet is a take on William Shakespeare’s classic play that Sir Laurence Olivier directed and starred in.  The film won Sir Laurence Olivier two Oscars- one for his acting and one for best picture due to his producing role in the production of the film.  Olivier also appeared in an earlier best picture winner, 1940’s Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Hamlet was the second film that Olivier directed and his second Shakespearean adaptation. Olivier is considered one of the greatest actors of the 20th century and this version of Hamlet is considered his seminal work.  Olivier was the first film actor to be elevated to peerage (knighted) for his work in film by the queen.  While Olivier obtained four Oscars during his long and prolific career, Hamlet is the only film for which he won a best actor award.  Olivier’s other Oscars besides the two for Hamlet, came from a special award for his work on his first film, Henry V, and a lifetime achievement award given to the knighted actor in 1978.  screen-shot-2013-03-30-at-5-59-01-pmHamlet is also the first film that we have reviewed where the director was also the leading actor in the film. While Olivier did not win the directing award, his achievement of directing a best picture where he also won best actor clearly solidifies his place in the annuls of Oscar history.

While the previous two films we have viewed from the 1940’s dealt with the post-war malaise in American culture and the despicable rise of anti-Semitism in America in the 1940’s, Hamlet pivots away from reality and takes a stab at the escapist entertainment of the golden age of Hollywood.  This import marked the first non-American film to win best picture and was the first film version of Hamlet to include sound. There have been seven post-war versions of Hamlet including this 1948 version, “Grigori Kozintsev‘s 1964 Russian adaptation; a film of the John Gielgud-directed 1964 Broadway production, Richard Burton’s Hamlet, which played limited engagements that same year; Tony Richardson‘s 1969 version (the first in color), Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1990 version starring Mel GibsonKenneth Branagh‘s full-text 1996 version; and Michael Almereyda‘s 2000 modernization starring Ethan Hawke”.  While I had seen a few of the other aforementioned adaptations, this was my first time watching this 1948 version.   

While many of the shots in this depiction of Hamlet seem staged like the theatrical production, it takes the introduction of phantasmagoria to become more abstract.   Using close-up angles and fog, Olivier symbolizes the arrival of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The special effects in the film held up well to modern standards in most scenes, with only the shots of the entire castle suffering from a lack of CGI or expensive budget.  On a somewhat related note, the voice of his father’s ghost coming from the helmet of his armor reminded me of how George Lucas styled Darth Vader in Star Wars.   Perhaps Lucas drew inspiration from this Olivier film.

Without writing too much of a book report on Hamlet, whose plot and subject matter is some of the most well-known in the entire cannon of English literature, I will instead focus on the cinematic elements.  This cerebral story, with many soliloquies and internal dialogue, has a tendency to drag a bit. With limited action for periods of time, the movie is largely saved by the peaks of action including flashes of violence and emotion. Hamley-Ophelia The acting is superb at parts, but does show flourishes of melodrama typical of earlier films.  Additionally, the sometimes dragging moments are disrupted by the hits of the Shakespearean dialogue with a performance of the “To Be or Not to Be” Monologue delivered with Olivier’s incredible acting chops.  Besides Olivier, the real star of this film is the soundtrack. Between the brilliant score played by the orchestra, the sound effects in the form of heartbeats and gusty corridors add tremendously to moments of introspection and eeriness.   

Overall, I found Hamlet to be a very traditional yet innovative portrayal of Shakespeare’s source material.   While the play was cut down to deliver a film 2.5 hours long, it still captured the major action and dialogue for which Hamlet is known.  In full honesty, Shakespearean English is not my favorite and watching this film was a little bit of a chore. Fortunately, there were sword fights and murder to break up the dense dialogue. Unfortunately, the film ceases to cross the line from cinema to entertainment for my particular tastes.   Olivier’s performance and direction breathed life into the already dramatic story and the themes of betrayal and loss are timeless motifs that will remain relevant for all time.  Additionally, in comparison to other best pictures which we have viewed throughout our journey, this film seemed to do much less to acknowledge the new realities facing post-WWII Europe/America.  While Hamlet is clearly a classical work, it’s hard to pivot from groundbreaking commentaries on antisemitism, treatment veterans returning after WWII and alcoholism that represented the subject matter of our last three entries.  I also preferred the films, The Red Shoes  and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which were both better films than Hamlet in the best picture category that year.  With that said, in order to truly enjoy this film you really need to commit with both of your love of literature as well as the melodramatic style of 1940’s cinema.   

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20. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan


Alex – 8.0   Elliot – 7.2    IMDB 7.4   Rotten Tomatoes 6.8

Alex’s Commentary

I have seen Gentleman’s Agreement a number of times and still enjoy it. The Moss Hart screenplay of gentile reporter, Philip Schuyler Green(played by Gregory Peck), going undercover as a Jew to give an angle to his story about anti-Semitism provides an excellent vehicle to explore the myriad of ways prejudice can manifest itself. Although anti-Semitism is the specific prejudice addressed, the hate and bigotry expressed is relevant to any person or group be it religion, race, sexual orientation, or anyone considered “different”. I found the script to be intelligently written and though some viewers may consider the movie’s pacing slow, I liked the theatrical dialogue. This is our second best picture winner dealing with anti-Semitism; the other being The Life of Emile Zola. However, the films are in no way similar and offer perspectives from different eras and viewpoints.

There were many memorable scenes in the movie but I found two particularly intriguing. One involved Philip Green’s son Tommy (played by a very young Dean Stockwell) who asked what a Jew was and why some people didn’t like them. It was clear from the boy’s inquisitiveness, innocence and absolute belief that his father’s explanation would lay the framework for Tommy’s own system of values and beliefs.b03a993022bb6110d70ce199ca3c62bb--classic-films-movies-to-watch If his father had responded to his question with an anti-Semitic or racist answer, the child certainly could have grown up with those ingrained prejudices and passed them on to his children. The other scene was toward the end of the film when one of the characters proclaims that maybe this will be the century when prejudice comes to an end. A wonderful thought be alas it proved not to be.

I was surprised that a movie written in 1947 would have very limited mention of World War II and absolutely no reference to the Holocaust. The film’s black and white cinematography is beautiful and I’m not sure New York City ever looked so clean. We’ve had a short break since our last commentary and I had forgotten the pleasure I get from observing the era’s clothing, cars, furnishings and architecture. I had also forgotten the endless chain-smoking – it’s no wonder tobacco use continued its pervasiveness for generations given society’s emulation of motion picture stars. I also have to admit that one historical character that was referenced more than one time in the movie, Gerald L.K. Smith, was unknown to me. After doing some basic research, I learned that Mr. Smith was a well-known anti-Semite in the 1940’s who, along with his publications and speeches, urged the release of Nazi war criminals convicted at the Nuremberg Trials.

The cast was very strong. Gregory Peck was nominated for best actor; Dorothy McGuire was nominated for best actress (as Kathy Lacy – Phil Green’s love interest); and Celeste Holm won best supporting actress (as Anne Dettrey – fashion editor at the magazine). McGuire’s performance felt a little stilted to me but I loved Celeste Holm. I still can’t understand how Phil Green could have chosen Kathy Lacy over the obvious better choice to me of Anne Dettrey. Phil Green’s mother, played by Anne Revere, was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Although not nominated, John Garfield’s portrayal of Dave Goldman, Phil Green’s Jewish childhood friend, was very convincing. John_Garfield_and_Dorothy_McGuire_in_Gentleman's_Agreement_trailerThis film won Director Elia Kazan his first Oscar win as well, but we will cover his second best picture, On the Waterfront when we get to our reviews for the 1950’s. Although by this point, Kazan’s reputation would be tarnished through his cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and their compilation of the Hollywood Blacklist.

Although the themes of prejudice and intolerance have been portrayed in numerous films since Gentleman’s Agreement was first screened, I do not find the film dated. Hopefully this will be the century when prejudice comes to an end.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Gentleman’s Agreement is a film directed by Elia Kazan that tackles a subject which was widespread in America in the 1940’s, anti-Semitism.  While I’ll address the film shortly, I want to preface my comments on the film with a statement about Elia Kazan.  Kazan was a gifted filmmaker who won two Academy Awards for Best Director for his work in both Gentleman’s Agreement and another best picture winner, On the Waterfront.  However, I cannot condone the role in which Kazan played in naming names in front of HUAC during his interrogation.  During the great depression he had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York, and therefore Kazan overcompensated and provided testimony in order to save his own career despite the effects it had on the people whose names were mentioned.  The great irony of his participation in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt was the largely anti-Semitic undertones of the trial.  Outing Jews as communists was a common way of discrediting Jews in American society without being openly anti-Semitic.  So while in my opinion, this injustice will always tarnish my view of Elia Kazan as a person, his directorial work still exhibited signs of genius.

While the subject of this film tackles a serious issue that was a significant problem in society at the time, antisemitism, I feel the way the film introduces the plot device is a bit convoluted.   Gregory Peck plays hard-nosed reporter, Philip Schuyler Green, who has made a name for himself in the journalistic field by going deep within the communities that he depicts in his pieces.  IFullscreen capture 6192011 102421 PMn the film, Green is given a new subject as his his publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) tasks him with capturing the controversial theme of antisemitism. Philip Green decides that the best way to learn about antisemitism firsthand was to pretend he was a Jew in society and study the results.  While pretending to be a Jew seems easier than Hunter S. Thompson’s adventures with the Hell’s Angels, at that point in time in there was still a large cultural stigma against Jewish people.  This movie tackles the subject from a variety of different angles, i.e. the repercussions of dating a Jew for a non-Jew (gentile) among WASPy Connecticut socialites.  The inability for Jews to rent in different apartment buildings or to stay at certain hotels was illustrated in particularly vivid detail with Gregory Peck playing the role of the rejected Jew brilliantly.  His role as the moral compass of the film reminded me of his later role as Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I was watching the film, there were certainly parts where the depiction of the issue felt a bit dated to me.  The doctor who visited Philip Green’s mother after a late night attack was smoking a cigarette as he delivered the prognosis.  I also found the acting of Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), the publisher’s niece and Phillip Green’s love interest to be a bit overstated and melodramatic which can occasionally be indicative of movies of this time period.  Luckily, the bigotry towards Jews displayed in the film has also become a more dated concept.  Although, I would be remiss if I did not mention that some anti-Semitism still exists in our country today, it just has been forced to a more underground role now that it is not socially acceptable.  Anti-Semitic sentiments now disgrace prominent figures in the media (*cough* Mel Gibson *cough*) rather than being the norm.  Even in our assessment of the prominent figures from the early 1900’s, history seems to sweep under the rug the hatred displayed by some of the country’s most powerful people.  If you are curious about the subject, do a little digging into the views that Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Walt Disney had on Jews.

I will give Gentleman’s Agreement a lot of credit for their courage to tackle this difficult and unpopular topic.  Two years after the WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, Hollywood decided to comment on the hatred here in our society that allowed for the atrocities to happen in another country.  While I am biased against Elia Kazan, I will give him credit for directing a powerful morality piece that forces viewers to evaluate their own personal beliefs and possibly the roots of their own irrational hatred.  360fbaaa6f56318407317601b7070b35--celeste-holm-mirror-on-the-wallIt definitely took an actor like Gregory Peck to deliver a performance that raised the sentimentality in the film from hokey to inspirational.  I found the storyline with Kathy Lacey to be a bit contrived, and while her sentiments towards society’s view of dating a Jew were probably accurate, Gregory Peck was too quick to forgive her truly hateful views.  The film just felt like a first step in dealing with bigotry, rather than hammering the point home.  It just didn’t quite deliver the gut-wrenching message that an anti-bigotry movie should be able to.  My final rating does take the historical context into account because it was truly important at the time of its release, however its effectiveness and ability to deliver its message have waned during the passage of time.