With campaign season in full force, we can’t help but think about movies that delve into politics. One of the best, and most depressing, is ALL THE KING’S MEN, the 1949 classic and Oscar-winning Best Picture, based on the Pulitzer novel by Robert Penn Warren. It’s filled with some great slap scenes too.
Broderick Crawford plays Willie Stark, the honest idealist, champion for the “Everyman,” turned power-hungry politician. You know Willie is going to turn out to be the ultimate jerk when his wife sweetly says “I love you,” and he snarls, “Get me some coffee.” And that’s when he’s still playing the good guy.
I wish the film would take a longer and more thoughtful road for us to travel with Willie as he leaves behind his principles and succumbs to the power of political position and his own narcissism, but director Robert Rossen is dealing with a long story here. The pace is as frenetic and choppy as the staccato, quick-fire delivery of the lines. But the lines are sometimes oh so good.
Broderick, who won Best Actor in this role, shines when he’s on the stump spitting out rallying cries like, “Listen to me, you hicks. Nobody ever helped a hick but a hick.” And later, “You wanna know what my platform is? Here it is. I’m gonna soak the fat boys and spread it out thin.” Gotta love language like that on a campaign trail.
But once he’s done flailing about as the sincere guy that “Everyman” can count on, and he’s decided that playing politics means playing rough, Willie is no longer that interesting as a character. Mercedes McCambridge’s role as his campaign confidante, Sadie Burke, carries the day. I get tired of Broderick’s bluster in this film, but I can’t wait for McCambridge, who won Best Supporting Actress in this role, to appear on screen, especially when she’s in slap scenes like this with co-star John Ireland:
One of the creepiest moments in the film is Willie showing his father-in-law how to use the new police radio he’s bought him. When they hear the dispatcher say, “Tom Jones is beating his wife again,” both Willie and his father-in-law share a big laugh. These are not good people. In fact, Stark’s driving belief is that good can only come out of evil, and it’s an unsettling philosophy that leaves one pondering a bit about the dark side of human behavior. Everyone here, in one way or another, caves in to something, be it to power, greed, booze, lust, envy, and all those other deadly sins.
As a perfect antidote to the ugliness and cynicism in ALL THE KING’S MEN, cue up the Capra classic, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), starring an ever-principled James Stewart. You’ll feel a lot better about the human spirit.