All the King’s Men is an “old film,” according to most of my students, having been made in 1949 and shot in (oh, my) black-and-white. However, the near-documentary look, the stellar performances, and the themes (corruption in politics and politicians) makes this as current as Black Panther and Wonder Women.
The much-awarded film (Oscars for Best Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress, plus other nominations) tells the story of a local man running for county treasurer. His differentiating quality: he’s apparently an honest man. He loses, partly because of the dishonest political machinery around him. But he eventually makes his way up to the top state position, growing less and less honest along the way. He finally turns into something of a monster, and his loyal long-time followers have to consistently re-evaluate their thoughts and support. It’s a “power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely” take, but one that questions methods, people, and eventually, even the so-called “honest man” he once supposedly was. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the story is not so loosely based on the life and times of Louisiana governor Huey Long.
The style, and some of the acting, is a hybrid of Old Hollywood and the rougher, less florid, and tougher documentary style of the next couple of decades. It moves quickly, and some of the dialogue is reminiscent of the early ‘30’s Warner films and 1940’s His Girl Friday—fast and edgy.
The central performance is one for the ages. Broderick Crawford, not the traditional good-looking leading man, found his role of a lifetime, moving from the softer-voiced, apparently humble, younger Willy Stark to the bombastic autocrat who can still sway the masses. His character arc is something to watch.
Bounding into the film world in this film, and dominating nearly every scene she is in is Mercedes McCambridge as a touch, sometimes brutally honest Stark employee. Unfortunately, the actress is probably best known today for supplying the demon’s voice in The Exorcist, but her performance here is worth the viewing apart from the Oscar-winning lead’s. There’s not another character like hers in the film, or in most any other film. She’s not the tough-talking dame in the Eve Arden or Rosalind Russell category; she’s more wounded, much more severe, more acrid, more angry, and faster thinking than anyone around her. She threatens to take the film from Crawford at nearly every turn.
Also nominated was John Ireland, who gives a deeper, richer and sharper performance than his work in television or Westerns might have suggested; the film is clearly his “moment” (he was Oscar-nominated). He’s a great example of a good actor who rose to higher heights when the script, director, and fellow actors were at their highest level. Less fortunate for the film and the viewers is the performance of Joanne Dru, who co-starred with Ireland the previous year in Red River and divorced husband Dick Haymes and married Ireland in 1949. Dru gives a performance that, like the film, is an uneasy cross between old-time Hollywood studio work and the more straightforward acting styles to come. She swoons just a bit too much, and her old-time style doesn’t match the others. She seems a part of another film, especially when compared with McCambridge. Part of the problem is her character, who borders on the unbelievable. (Spoiler alert) She is supposed to be in love with Ireland’s character, which makes sense. Then she apparently falls for Stark, first politically and then much less believably, romantically. It’s resolved narratively, but it leaves something of a scar on the film.
From a film history perspective, All the King’s Men helped propel American film into a grittier and more realistic style. As a standalone film, it’s a joy to watch. It’s fast-paced for an “old film,” and the performances are as fresh as this year’s Oscar nominees. It’s also a springboard for great discussions on corruption in politics. Is Willy Stark early Clinton, early Trump, or someone else? Or is this what happens when political ambitions take hold on anyone?