Thursday, December 9, 2010

ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949): The One and Only Kingfish

I’ve held such a high opinion of the movie, All the King’s Men, that I’m almost shocked when I see its flaws.  Moviemakers, or even famous philosophers, are not always the best chroniclers of history.  When writing On History: Advice to a Journalist, Voltaire – with a reputation of open-mindedness – voiced his own conjectures on historical writing and interpretation.  On the topic of Alexander the Great, Voltaire felt that any historian accusing Alexander of being mad was guilty of bias.  On the other hand, any historian who agreed with Voltaire that Alexander was a “majestic” man was impartial.  If instead we chose to create an historical study on Huey P. Long and we used the descriptive term “autocratic” rather than “majestic,” you would get the gist of Robert P. Warren’s own impartiality regarding the man.  Since the time that the novel, All the King’s Men, was written in 1946, Warren’s portrayal of the Kingfish has been so taken for granted that no one thinks twice that Warren may have had a bias of his own.
The movie, All the King’s Men, produced and directed by Robert Rossen (who also directed the phenomenal Body and Soul and The Hustler), was originally filmed in 1949 and starred the majestic Broderick Crawford (the italics are mine) as Willie Stark, a fictional Huey Long.  From someone who grew up slopping the hogs on his father’s farm, Stark, through the assistance of his wife, Lucy (Anne Seymour), became self-educated and eventually admitted to the bar of the fictional southern state in which he resided.  At first a sap for the state’s political machinery, Stark bored his listeners when calling for political reform by throwing around a lot of facts and figures.  However, through the advice of an out-of-work journalist named Jack Burden (John Ireland), who always admired Stark’s message, and a feisty political insider named Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge), Stark took to the campaign trail through the use of demagoguery aimed directly at the ignorant “common folk.”  By reminding his listeners that everyman was a hick and a king at the same time, he said that he would provide them exactly what they wanted without telling them at the same time how this would be accomplished.  Big business would treat the farmer fairly, government would insure that children could read, and hospitals would be built that would treat the sick.  Stark said that he would do this by being a hick, by being a bumpkin, just like his supporters, and understand exactly what the people wanted.  Eventually, this resulted in Stark being elected as governor.
Stark then made deals with constituents to build bridges, schools and hospitals with the very people who were opposed to his reform.  What eventually occurred, however, was that Stark kept a black book of the vices of his opponents, and would delve into that book whenever the opposition became too strident.  Those who he made deals with were eventually wholeheartedly expected to endorse his proposals or face blackmail and intimidation.  Other things also happened along the way.  Stark, a loyal and temperance abiding family man, gradually changed into a hard drinking and womanizing debaucher.  When a political opponent threatened to expose Stark’s own indiscretions, he was forced to through threats to tow the line.  Those who did not give in to pressure conveniently disappeared.  Stark’s adopted son, Tom (John Derek), was involved in a drunken driving accident that killed a young girl.  When the girl’s father threatened to expose what really happened, the father disappeared – only later to turn up dead.  This caused a small bit of consternation upon the elected representatives in the state, but Willie was able to stem the tide by appealing directly to his constituency who practically demanded that Willie cleared of this offense.  Naturally, as the movie painstakingly makes clear, the electorate was too ignorant to understand what was really going on.  They were just taken up with Willie Stark’s rhetoric.
One family, in particular was torn between loyalty to Stark and to doing the right thing.  The father was an influential judge by the name of Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf) that was offered the position of attorney general for the state.  The son, Adam Stanton (Shepperd Studwick) was a talented doctor who was offered a position running the newly created hospital that was one of the biggest medical facilities in the world.  The attractive and politically naïve daughter, Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), falls irresistibly in love with Stark and can’t help revealing all of the family secrets to him.  The journalist, Jack Burden, who helped jumpstart Stark’s political career, by the way, is madly in love with Anne, also.  Burden along the way finds some damning information about Anne’s father, but he refuses to turn it over to Stark.  He does, however, make the incredibly stupid move of providing the documentation concerning her father’s sins to Anne.  Anne, of course, can’t resist Stark’s advances nor resist giving the documentation directly to him.  When Stark puts pressure on the judge with the newfound knowledge of the judge’s misdeeds, Judge Stanton then commits suicide.  This prompts the son, Adam, the great and talented doctor, to then become an assassin.  Stark, after avoiding impeachment and now looking forward to a run for the White House, is gunned down by Adam in the State House.  Adam is then shot dead by Stark’s bodyguard approximately sixty times. Jack and Anne, now recognizing what dupes they have been, promise each other that they will live-up to the ideals of the Adam or else face knowing that everything the assassin had done will be in vain.
Warren failed to fool anyone when he later claimed that Willie Stark was not based on Huey Long.  If Willie Stark was not truly Huey Long, it was only because Warren was using the character to defame the late governor.  Who else could Willie Stark have been?  A populist of a southern state who was at first defeated and later elected as governor; a southern politician who had ambitions towards the White House; an officeholder who faced impeachment and was later assassinated by a relative of a political opponent?  Warren only changed the chronology and certain facts to show the politician in the worst possible light.  Long did declare martial law at one point, for example, but only after an organization called The Square Deal Association tried to take over the state government by force.  This is not brought out in the movie.  (The Square Deal Association, by the way, modeled their selves after a racist organization called the White League who engaged in an armed rebellion at the time of Reconstruction.)  And Warren was not beyond personal assassination.  The teetotaler and devoted family man, Willie Stark, turns into a drunkard and an adulterer who sanctioned murder.
Please keep in mind that Huey Long was at his peak politically during the Great Depression.   A political machine was already in play in the state of Louisiana before Long was ever to come to power.  Long simply destroyed that machine and replaced it with another machine.  Long’s campaign slogan was: “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.”  Quaint though the slogan was, Long at least delivered on some of his promises.  Education and medical care advanced under his tutelage.  Without his brand of radical populism, that Warren so out of hand condemns, Louisiana may forever have remained the state that resisted change.  The old regulars from New Orleans may have remained in charge, the poll tax to prevent the poor from voting may never have been removed, and wholesale illiteracy (aggravated by the fact that the poor could not afford to buy the textbooks required for their children to attend school) may never have vanished.
So what about the rest of what Robert Penn Warren was trying to say?  Warren, through the acting of Crawford, made the case that Willie Stark (as Huey Long) was so compellingly evil that we almost come to accept that this is the entire story concerning Huey Long.  Warren also comes near to proclaiming that the citizens of the state were too poor, stupid and desperate to appreciate that Stark was using them for his own gains.   (Warren’s harsh and imperious judgment of the voter almost sanctified what Huey Long always said: his opponents were the ones who monopolized the wealth in order to marginalize the needy.)  In the academic community, Warren’s assessment of Huey Long has been pretty much accepted for the past 60 years (despite Warren’s views being anything but progressive).  (Of course, judging by the continued political success of Long’s brothers and son after his own death, not everyone has accepted this judgment.  One of his brothers was later to serve in Congress for five years.  Another brother served three times as governor of Louisiana.  And his son was a United States Senator for almost forty years.)
Warren may not have been appalled by Huey Long’s methods so much as he was by his message.  Warren, at least in his younger years, was extremely conservative in his political thinking and extremely rigid in his attitude towards social change.  (It would be another twenty years before Warren recanted concerning his support of segregation.)  Huey Long, on the other hand, was so left leaning in his thinking that he criticized the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration for not going far enough.  (Roosevelt, in fact, had the IRS investigate Long for tax irregularities that were never proven, and he also cut off federal funding to the state of Louisiana.)  In deed, though Long tried to distance himself from socialism, he was frequently cited as having socialist leanings.  Still, whether one agrees with Long’s point of view is not the point.  What is the point is that Warren took him on by slandering the messenger rather than refuting the message in his novel.  Warren goes so far in this as to suggest that the assassination of Willie Stark was an act that was just.
Nevertheless, in spite of everything I have just said, this movie, All the King’s Men, is probably the greatest of all political movies.  Remember that every story has a bias.  This is particularly true when were dealing with a story based on quasi-historical fact.  It is my opinion that Robert Penn Warren was guilty of the same demagoguery for which he accused Willie Stark.  He played fast and loose with the facts as well, and for this he won the Pulitzer Prize - which has as much meaning to me as what movie wins the Oscar for Best Picture.  But it’s the staying power rather than the prizes awarded that give a particular work its substance.  It was this movie that made the novel popular.  The original movie is still greatly appreciated today, which is particularly surprising since attempts to remake it have completely failed.  (As I understand it, the most recent remake starring Sean Penn, takes us back to the 1950s rather than the 1930s.  Why a director would change up the novel in this manner is impossible to understand.  The 1950s was a decade of social convention, whereas the 1930s was a decade of desolation that would have made possible the career of a politician such as Willie Stark or Huey P. Long.)  Robert Penn Warren, to his credit, penned a compelling if slanted story.  And Broderick Crawford made his role in the movie memorable.
As in most movies filmed before 1950, the acting in All the King’s Men can at times be wooden.  Even Broderick Crawford plays his role by hamming it up now and then, but nobody ever plays the bully, the cynic or the corrupt politician better than him – all components of Willie Stark’s personality.  At certain times Crawford’s acting takes over the entire movie.  Indeed, in scenes like where he’s browbeating the judge into submission, he’s practically carrying the other characters.  Crawford doesn’t just read his lines.  He talks down to the other characters in the movie as if his own money and reputation were at stake.  Crawford’s acting makes this movie convincing, and it was that acting that makes me prefer it to its contemporary movie, Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles was an excellent actor and director, and he knew how to photograph a scene.  However, Welles was an amateur compared to Crawford in actually living a part.  It is because of Crawford that the since overused theme of destruction by greed and ambition is portrayed so convincingly in this movie.
Of course the story is a remarkable farce - but then so was the career of Governor Long.
June 20, 2007 
© Robert S. Miller 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment