24. An American in Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli


Alex – 7.2   Elliot – 7.5  IMDB 7.2    Rotten Tomatoes 8.0

Alex’s Commentary:

An American in Paris is a musical that shares similar features with many musicals. Often, plot takes a back seat in a film or stage production as it is merely a device to present music and dance. The plot of American in Paris, shows a struggling American artist (Gene Kelly)  falling in love with a woman (Leslie Caron) who was to be married to another man (Georges Guétary).  This premise is ultimately weak. Not that I don’t believe in love at first sight, but it would seem as though artist Jerry Mulligan proposes to Lise Bouvier after knowing her for less than a week or two. sd american in parisAN_AMERICAN_IN_PARIS-0There are also unanswered questions such as what happened to the heiress/art patron, Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch), after Jerry leaves her at the big soiree to run off with Lise.  Additionally, the film doesn’t show the conversation that occurred in the cab ride between Lise and Henri Baurel to make them return to the party with Henri’s apparent blessing. Of course, with a running time of close to two hours, I didn’t really care that much!  Our previous three Best Picture musicals, The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, and Going My Way, had much better stories (or at least the last two). It should be noted that Alan Jay Lerner did win an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, so some people must not share my feelings regarding the shortcomings of the story.

With that being said, please don’t be mistake my critiques for a dissuasion for viewing this film. If you are a fan of elaborate production dance numbers, this movie offers a dance extravaganza that I would suspect had not previously been seen on film. I love tap dance numbers and An American in Paris showcases Pittsburgher Gene Kelly at his finest. The movie’s backdrop, Paris just after WWII, is beautiful and interesting particularly as portrayed through an American 1950’s perspective. cinema-hollywoodien-sexpose-lhotel-ville-pari-L-ZMsZoSThe film was produced in MGM Technicolor which director Vincente Minnelli uses to its fullest with lush Paris street scenes, sidewalk cafes, and a climatic epic colorful dream sequence dance number. This particular dance number, that feels like it could be fifteen minutes or longer in length, combines tap numbers with ballet, modern dance and traditional Broadway show mega-ensemble vignettes.  This film also won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Set Decoration – Color, Best Costume Design and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. I agree that all of these awards are well deserved.

Most of the songs were written by George and Ira Gershwin in the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t clear to me why these songs were chosen for the film as I do not believe they have anything to do with Paris of the late 1940’s. In fact, “‘S Wonderful, S’ Marvelous” first appeared in the 1927 Broadway musical Funny Face. The songs are immediately recognizable, which may have contributed to the film’s success.

French born Leslie Caron makes her film debut in An American in Paris. Probably better known for her future roles in Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958), I did not realize she was such accomplished dancer an-american-in-paris-leslie-caron-1951_a-G-9920143-8363144and obviously classically trained. She was also unbelievably flexible!! I would be remiss not to mention Oscar Levant as an unemployed piano player/composer. Another fellow Pittsburgher, he has some incredible piano numbers and some memorable one-liners. Oscar was a good friend of George Gershwin and after Gershwin’s death, Levant was considered the preeminent interpreter of Gershwin’s works.

The movie has a line which I found very funny. When Jerry Mulligan is visiting Milo Roberts in her apartment, she appears in a cocktail dress with an exposed shoulder. Jerry asked Milo, “What’s keeping that dress up?” and she replies, “My modesty.” Love that line!

Although the movie does drag at times and feels overly long, I would still recommend it for any viewer who enjoys musicals and Gershwin songs.

Elliot’s Commentary:

With An American in Paris, we take our journey back to the land of the musical.   Previously, we have viewed three other musicals: The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, and Going My Way.  These films all have their own unique traits, but none of them had the cohesion and vision that An American in Paris showed.  Additionally, while I do enjoy the grandeur of a Ziegfeld or Busby Berekely production, I appreciate Vincente Minnelli’s direction to establish the setting of this picture in a different environment and provide viewers with a more modern approach to the musical.   sd american in parisAN_AMERICAN_IN_PARIS-6Minnelli is a legend in the movie musical community, and his work on film classics like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)  and the soon to be reviewed 1958 Best Picture, Gigi, have cemented his place in film history.  His meticulously planned out scenes reflect his past working in the theater as a set designer and costume artist during the great depression.  While his direction and work have made quite an impression on the film community, his personal life also intersected with some of the most dynamic stars in Hollywood History.  Minelli’s first marriage to an actress he met on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland, resulted in the birth of his oldest daughter, legend in her own right, Liza Minnelli.  While Judy Garland was snubbed twice from her two Oscar nominations, she received an Academy Juvenile Award for her performance in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.  Judy and Vincente’s daughter, Liza Minelli, followed her parents into the movie musical genre and received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Cabaret in 1972.  However, unlike Vincente, neither Judy nor Liza ever appeared in a film that garnered the award for Best Picture.

While Vincente was a true auteur in his own right, his stylistic choices are a bit over the top by today’s standards.   The mesmerizing use of technicolor in the costumes and scenes presented in vivid light are so bright, many scenes take on a dreamlike quality.   This is the second film to win best picture that was presented in its entirety in technicolor, the first being Gone With The Wind.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s only a limited number of films were produced using the technicolor technique due to the cost of the production.  3strip_camera_prismWithout getting too scientific, the Digital Intermediate Guide describes the technicolor technique as “Two strips of 35 mm black and white film negative, one sensitive to blue light and the other to red light, ran together through an aperture behind a magenta filter, which allowed blue and red light to pass through. A third film strip of black and white film negative ran through a separate aperture, behind a green filter.” This expensive process made production houses prioritize the use of Technicolor for large, big budget productions that would bolster their ROI’s through the use of this technique. Due to the box office success of movie musicals, these larger productions were often prioritized for the use of Technicolor.  84ce8d447d7c950cc78adac8ff6347fbVincente Minnelli’s success with Meet Me in St. Louis helped him secure the authorization for the use of Technicolor for the production of An American in Paris.  Additionally, based on Minnelli’s stylistic choices, the film would not have been as visually spectacular if the technique was not utilized.

While Minnelli’s spectacular mise-en-scene solidified the visuals in the film, the success of An American in Paris was also driven by the 1928 George Gershwin piece of the same name.  Gershwin died 1937, 14 years before the success of An American in Paris, however his achievements in orchestral composition are some of the most influential in the 20th century.  Between An American in Paris (1928), Rhapsody in Blue (1924), and Porgy and Bess (1935), Gershwin made a remarkable imprint on the musical landscape of America.  If not for his tragic death in 1938, who knows how many other timeless classics would be included in this brief summary of his talents?  Before reviewing the film, I listened to the entirety of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” to provide context for my watching experience.  As the score shifts between each musical stanza, 850 1there is a clear narrative structure in the composition that is exciting and interesting even to my untrained ear. George was not the only Gershwin who lent his with musical talents to Hollywood for this film, George’s brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for all of the songs included in An American in Paris.  He also collaborated with his brother to create the lyrics for the opera, Porgy and Bess.  Together, the Gershwin brothers produced the perfect musical score to provide the backdrop for Minnelli’s Hollywood production.

An American in Paris stars Gene Kelly with a performance that helped solidify his place in film history.    Gene Kelly was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and attended the University of Pittsburgh (Where my father and I received our graduate education).   While An American in Paris enlists the help of Kelly as a triple threat (Dancing, Singing, and Acting), his GeneKellyPlaqueAtPitt_cropreal talent shines through his dancing ability.   Kelly not only danced in An American in Paris, but as was the case in all his movie musicals, he choreographed all his dance numbers and assisted on many of the other numbers throughout the film.  Gene Kelly was also fluent in French and his linguistic skills are reflected throughout the film.

The movie centers on the story of painter, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), and his friend concert pianist, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) as they navigate post-war Paris.   The film does a good job navigating between scenes taking place on the streets and restaurants in Paris as well as larger sound stage productions.   med_1430775945_00060Kelly’s character, Jerry Mulligan, is a hero to many of the kid’s in his neighborhood in Paris, making friends by bribing them with bubble gum.  His first solo number in the movie, “I Got Rhythm” is one of the big hits of the film and my personal favorite.   His singing is sweet and effortless, but the tap number he breaks into halfway through the song is really what takes the viewers breath away.

French Singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary) and his girlfriend and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) become interwoven in the plot as Adam Cook introduces Jerry to Henri at a coffee shop.  They have a great number where Henri describes his new girlfriend Lise to Adam.  Although Lise doesn’t appear in the scene in actuality, they show a cut-away with a very stylized monochromatic dance number in a variety of different scenes and different colors corresponding to the attributes being described.  Leslie Caron is an incredibly graceful dancer and the scene showcases her tremendous talents.  Jerry and Lise’s paths cross later in the picture without the context of Henri’s presence to distract, and there emerges a love-triangle between Lise, Henri, and Jerry.   While the love triangle is unfolding, there is a great interstitial number starring the pianist Adam Cook.   850 3Minnelli takes an interesting stylistic choice to show the actor playing Adam Cook, Oscar Levant, play every member of an entire symphony for a momentous instrumental number.   The visually stunning scene coupled with its bombastic score is one of the strongest moments of the film.

As with most typical comedies with love triangles, there is a certain dramatic irony conveyed in the film.   As the two men, Henri and Jerry give each other advice about how to handle relationship difficulties with the same woman.   The conflict is quickly deflated after Lise reveals to Jerry that she is engaged to be married to Henri.   This revelation forces Jerry into the arms of a wealthy benefactor who has been bankrolling his art career, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch).  While this distraction did not improve Jerry’s general disposition, the sadness and mania conveyed in a French-colored (Red, White, and Blue) Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrilloabstract set with an intentionally disorienting dance number, reemphasizes the strength of this film.   The sensational finale with an almost uninterrupted 17-minute dance number is incredible.  The set design takes us from painting to painting, with each successive scene taking the audience from loss, to hope, to happiness as the story is resolved abstractly in bright colorful mood-indicative lighting.   While we do have a joyful embrace as Jerry and Lise end up together, it almost seems superfluous after the phenomenal dance number that is one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen in film.

An American in Paris is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is stylistically distinct and significant with true flashes of brilliance through song and dance.   Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are sensational in this picture and Minnelli is able to frame scenes in a visually-stunning fashion that creates a true delight for the senses.   The plot is a bit pedestrian and not terribly interesting or well-developed, but with many musicals that is an aspect that can be overlooked since ultimately, they are merely a vehicle by which to orient the musical numbers.   While there was only one true song that dazzled me lyrically (“I’ve Got Rhythm”), the musical score and dancing in this film were truly captivating and beautiful.  an-american-in-paris I can’t help but be charmed by watching Gene Kelly tap dance, and the closing number combining men tap-dancing with women led by Leslie Caron dancing on point is truly amazing.  It’s hard to compare the cerebral and psychological All About Eve which won last year, with this film which thrives on its visual stimulation.   Honestly, I would have preferred A Streetcar Named Desire as this year’s Oscar winner but that is not to say that this film was without merit.  In fact, the argument that An American in Paris did more for film makes sense due to the innovation in set-design, cinematography, choreography, and production that this film conveyed.   It has been my favorite of the four musicals that we have seen thus far, but in general I prefer the more lyrical Rodgers and Hammerstein style of musical.

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23. All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz 


Alex – 8.0   Elliot – 8.5  IMDB 7.5    Rotten Tomatoes 7.9

Alex’s Commentary

In our last movie,  All the King’s Men, we saw that a person can be blinded by political ambition. In All About Eve, we see that an actress can also be blinded by ambition. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) idolizes stage star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), and plots to steal her role in a future Broadway production. The film is an interesting character study combined with an element of mystery – who really is Eve Harrington and what are her plans to achieve her goals? Who will she deceive and lie to in her quest? Both Ms. Baxter and Ms. Davis were nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role and may have split the vote.  This resulted in a win for Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday, a play which I had a minor role in high school!cinemateca_allabouteve01

Joseph L. Mankiewicz won both Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay, awards that I feel are well deserved. The script is intelligently written with more literary and theater references than I admit to fully comprehend, although the intent of the references is clear.

The strong cast includes George Sanders (Best Supporting Actor) who plays Addison DeWitt, a theater critic who wields power and influence and is despised by the theater community who are afraid not to include him in their activities for fear of reprisal.  Other standout performances are given Celeste Holm (Margo’s best friend Karen) and Thelma Ritter (Margo’s dresser/secretary Birdie until Eve usurps her position).

As one would expect in a film portraying the Broadway elite, the costuming is excellent and yielded Edith Head one of her eight Oscars for Best Costume Design. Nominated for record 14 awards at the 23rd Academy Awards (tied with Titanic (1997) and La La Land (2016)), the movie is enjoyable by those who like witty, fast-paced dialogue combined with backstage backstabbing and a few unexpected plot twists.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Based on the short story, “”The Wisdom of Eve”, written by Mary Orr , chronicles the story of a young super-fan’s immersion into a circle of theater friends.   Produced in 1950, All About Eve is our first film of the new decade.  The beginning of the proto-typical 1950’s suburban lives has become a reality across the country.  The threat of communism is spreading and the Korean War had started in June based on the China and Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea by the Northern communist regime.  The start of the conflict in Korea marks the first escalation of the Cold War following the power-struggle between the US, China, and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of WWII.  It was also during 1950, that the Red Channels pamphlet was published outing prominent members of the television, film, and radio committee as communist sympathizers.  Notable names listed in the pamphlet included Orson Welles, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Lena Horne, Edward R. Murrow and Artie Shaw.  During this time, Hollywood pivoted from some of the more controversial subjects like antisemitism covered in Gentleman’s Agreement just a few years earlier, and played it safer with subjects relating even indirectly to controversial political topics.   While there was a dark haze hanging both over Hollywood as well as the Kangaroo court of the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC), All About Eve emerged as the best film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1943’s Casablanca.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz won two Oscars for his directing and screenplay for his work on the film.  The screenplay is certainly deserving of the Oscar with some of the best dialogue that we’ve had in a movie thus far.  Bolstered by the amazing two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis (Jezebel and Dangerous), the star-studded cast brings Joseph L Mankewicz’s script to life.  Davis is joined in the film by Celeste Holm All-About-Eve-2(Best Supporting Actress from Gentleman’s Agreement), Hugh Marlowe, Anne Baxter, George Sanders (Best Supporting Actor win for All About Eve for his portrayal of play director Addison DeWitt and supporting character, Jack Favell, in the 1940 best picture winner, Rebecca)  and a very young unknown star at the time named Marilyn Monroe.   The film also marked Bette Davis’ comeback after a series of lackluster films at the end of her 18 year tenure at Warner Brothers.

While the film starts with Anne Baxter’s character, Eve, winning a significant theater prize, the film clearly shows the faces of a group of solemn faces gazing at the actress winning the award with a certain morose and dumbstruck expression.  Through flashback, we are taken to the group’s first encounter with Eve as a superfan who watches every single one of idol, Margo Channing’s (Bette Davis) performances from the standing room section of a theater in New York.  This dedication catches the attention of all-about-evethe kindly wife of the playwright, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), and leads to Mrs. Richards introducing Eve to her close friend Margo Channing.   At this chance encounter, we meet the rest of the morose group of faces in the actresses changing room: Actress Margo Channing, Playwright Lloyd Richards (Richard Marlowe), and Margo’s boyfriend director Bill Sampson (Garry Merrill).   The meeting gives Eve the first opportunity to act as she uses her sob story of growing up poor, losing her husband in WWII, and theater and fandom as her one true escape from her life’s woes, to encapsulate the attention of the group.   Eve Harrington’s story in particular charms Margo through her naivete and flattery, and soon becomes a tenant in the actress’ life.   Within a day, Margo has moved Eve into her flat in New York and put her to work as an assistant, accountant, and friend/companion.

While there is some foreshadowing, with Eve trying on Margo’s dress from the play, the transformation from doting assistant to conniving and plotting understudy is pronounced but slow.  Eve’s move to throw a birthday party for Margo’s boyfriend, Bill Sampson, marks her first deliberate move to interfere in Margo’s affairs.  The party plays on several of Margo’s insecurities such as a pretty young woman encroaching on her territory with her younger boyfriend, Bill.  all about eve - davis thelma ritter dressing roomAdditionally, as multiple pretty young actresses vie for parts with several of the older producers, directors, and playwrights present at the party, Margo is left feeling old and out of demand by the new crop of competition.  Davis’ portrayal of Margo in this moment is vivid and brilliant, and very well informed by her status in the industry 10 years after her Oscar-winning prime.  As the party continues into the night, Margo filled with many very dry martinis is left at one of her most vulnerable.  This is also the moment in the film, Eve uses her new standing in the theater society to ask the playwright’s wife, Karen Richards, for the opportunity to serve as understudy in Margo’s long-running play since Eve has seen every production.

The film’s commentary on celebrity, fandom, envy, and even ageism in Hollywood/the stage, is biting and relevant even in today’s climate.   Marilyn Monroe’s character, Miss Caswell arrives at a party and is sent to entertain a portly producer, Max Fabian portrayed by Gregory Rattoff with this biting line “Why must all producers look like All-About-Eve-splashunhappy rabbits?”  To which her companion the director, Addison DeWitt, replies “Now go make him a happy”.  This sexual innuendo certainly hints at something more than just a friendly conversation, and Fabian’s appearance looks eerily similar to Harvey Weinstein.   While the film doesn’t quite escalate the conversation to the #MeToo movement of today’s Hollywood landscape, the intimation of the metaphorical casting couch is quite scandalous in the post motion picture production code of that era of Hollywood.

Cut to a week after the party and not only has Eve received the role of understudy in Margo’s play, but she has also hidden her new role from Margo until a matinee in which our lead actress was unable to attend.  Eve’s performance of one scene garnered great reviews and caused Margo to go into a slight frenzy after realizing that her part in the play, which was written for a 24 year old, might better suit Eve than our aging starlet.   The shift is truly solidified by a “prank” that Karen plays on Margo where she drained the gasoline tank of a car on the return from a trip to the countryside.  MV5BYjRlNmU0NGUtOWM2MS00NjFhLWJkOWUtNDNlMzIyMGNmNzg2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjkxMjM5Nzc@._V1_The car’s depletion of gas limited its ability to make Margo’s train back to New York on time, and gave Eve the break she needed as she gave an entire play’s performance to a group of newspaper critics.  Not only does Margo’s absence allow Eve an opportunity to shine in front of critics, but it also is the opportunity Eve uses to make a pass at Margo’s boyfriend, Bill Sampson.

Bill fortunately turns down Eve’s advance, but this scene is viewed by critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) who uses Eve’s vulnerability for a date and perhaps more.  Addison posts a glowing review of Eve’s performance while disparaging Margo’s age and ability to play the part.  It is in this scene as well, Addison digs deeper into Eve’s tale and begins to reveal doubt on her sob story that so enchanted the original group in the changing room.  As Eve’s veneer begins to fade, and we see her true Machiavellian nature she begins to come from the shadows and act more forcefully to get what she wants.  MV5BOWU5Zjc3MWEtMzJiOS00Mzc0LTg2NjUtMzBjNGM2YTUxZDU2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjkxMjM5Nzc@._V1_She maneuvers her way into Lloyd Richards’ new play in a part originally intended for Margo.  This gamesmanship leads us to the fateful night where Eve stands before her group of “friends” to accept the award for his stolen role and part.

Overall the film touches on a myriad of tropes that are as timeless as this film, sexism, ageism, fandom, and the perpetual search for celebrity.   This film inspired even more sinister movies with similar plots of obsession and becoming the object of your obsession such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Single White Female, Black Swan and many more.  The screenplay of this movie was truly a work of art and the snappy and engaging dialogue is as timeless as the brilliant performances.  Of the films we have viewed throughout our journey, this was the first one that I had never seen to truly blow me away.   It is a classic in every right and a true masterpiece of 1950’s cinema.  If you have not had the pleasure of viewing this film, please spend the time to become acquainted with this masterpiece of cinematic achievement.



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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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