In the final best picture of the 1940s, All the King’s Men tells the tale of Willie Stark, a man in a rural county in an unspecified state. Willie is fed up with corrupt politicians and runs for county commissioner with his heart set on changing things. Time and again he loses but he never gives up. He even goes to law school just so he can stand up for the little guy.
When the slick politicians and corrupt media need someone to split “the hick vote” in the race for governor they talk Willie into running. Eventually he figures out their scheme and turns the tables beating them at their own game. He wins the election and in the process undergoes a radical transformation into a charismatic and extraordinarily powerful governor.
As the story unfolds it becomes more or less Citizen Kane light. But that’s not really a criticism. Like Charles Foster Kane, and in some ways like a forerunner of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, Willie succumbs to the kind of unchecked power that leads to paranoia and corruption.
He comes to embrace the exact double-dealing he once fought as he builds an enormous political machine. He makes numerous political enemies along the way but never loses his popularity with the common man. He is a fiery populist and the people love him.
But in some of his most challenging personal struggles he discovers that not everyone can be intimidated, threatened or bought off. Push comes to shove and the tension escalates.
“You throw money around like it was money.” – Jack Burden
Willie Stark is a complex man and his life is full of complex relationships. At the center of it all is Jack Burden (John Ireland), the journalist who was first sent to cover the newsworthy story of an honest politician. Jack serves as the narrator for the film and we meet and experience Willie Stark from start to finish through his eyes. Jack is loyal, conflicted and an optimist. But it becomes even more than Jack can bear.
Stark’s campaign assistant, Sadie Burke, played marvelously by Mercedes McCambridge, loves Stark and wants him to leave his wife, Lucy. But Willie likes to wander and ends up taking Jack’s girlfriend, Anne Stanton, as his mistress. This unique love quadrangle* makes for interesting character development and plotlines.
The film is smartly written. I suspect the Pulitzer Prize winning book has a lot to do with that. Just when you think it’s going to get bogged down in predictability and clichés it does something original and clever.
The third act does start off a little maudlin and melodramatic and begins heading toward a muddled finale. But before too long it sharpens the axe and gets back to work.
With about 10 minutes to go the “wow factor” kicks into high gear and steadily seethes to a volatile finish.
At the 22nd Academy Awards the film was nominated for 7 Oscars. Both Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge won for actor and supporting actress respectively.
This was the role of a lifetime for Crawford and there are probably few in the history of cinema that could have pulled it off.
In 2006 Steven Zaillian wrote and directed a remake of All the King’s Men with about as robust an all-star cast as you could muster.
Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini. I told you it was all-star.
But even two-time best actor winner Sean Penn couldn’t bring the same life and energy that Broderick Crawford did and the film, shall we say, fell flat**. There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of a film with that many huge stars in it.
When TV came along in the mid-50s Broderick Crawford transitioned almost completely out of films, most notably as Chief Dan Matthews on the series Highway Patrol from 1955-59. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his film work and one for his television career.
Mercedes McCambridge is fantastic in her supporting Oscar-winning performance as Sadie Burke. This was her first film. Let me repeat that. Mercedes McCambridge won an Oscar for her very first film.
Orson Welles once called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.” Not only did she win for this film, she would be nominated again as best supporting actress for Giant in 1956.
This was the last year in which all the best picture nominees were black and white films and All the King’s Men is currently the last best picture winner based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The 1940s produced some exceptional best pictures. It wasn’t quite so cut and dry ranking them. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Here is my ranking of the BEST PICTURE WINNERS OF THE 1940s.
*also known as a square
**11% on Rotten Tomatoes. $55MM budget and only $7MM box office.