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Jack Burden is a newspaper reporter who first hears of Willie Stark when his editor sends him to Kanoma County to cover the man. What's special about this nobody running for county treasurer? He's supposedly an honest man. Burden discovers this to be true when he sees Stark delivering a speech and having his son pass out handbills, while the local politicians do their best to intimidate him. Willie Stark is honest and brave. He's also a know-nothing hick whose schoolteacher wife has given him what little education he has. Stark loses the race for treasurer, but later makes his way through law school, becoming an idealistic attorney who fights for what is good. Someone in the governor's employ remembers Stark when the governor needs a patsy to run against him and split the vote of his rival. The fat cats underestimate Stark; but Jack Burden, Stark's biggest supporter, overestimates the man's idealism. To get where he wants to go, Willie Stark is willing to crack a few eggs - which ... Written by
Broderick Crawford always said that the greatest thing about winning the Oscar and the acclaim that goes with it for his performance of Willie Stark was that it broadened his casting potential. For a dozen years or so he played nothing but dumb henchmen and sidekicks to various star. He was quoted as saying he was not the world's greatest wit, but he hated always playing half a one. Though he eventually returned back to the ranks of featured performers, the Oscar for Best Actor in 1949 assured him better roles the rest of his life.
Of course Crawford's Oscar was not the only one that the film got. It was also the Best Picture of 1949 and in her screen debut, Mercedes McCambridge got the Best Supporting Actress nod. McCambridge was maybe the toughest woman ever portrayed on film so far, a hard nosed political operative who's carrying an empress size torch for Crawford who can't see her in that way at all.
As I said before All the King's Men though suggested by the life of Huey Long is not that life at all. Willie Stark is his own unique character. For one thing the unnamed state that All the King's Men took place in is not necessarily the American south. If it were you might see a black face or two in the film. Huey Long in his rise to power in Louisiana used economic populism in his rise to power. He did not like the race issue, felt it was not the future for the south. In that he was far seeing, but if he had to, Long could race bait with the best.
Do you remember in Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams has Stanley Kowalski reference Huey Long by telling Stella and Blanche in no uncertain terms like Huey Long says, he's king in his own castle. Streetcar is set in New Orleans and Williams well knew the power of the Long name in Louisiana.
Secondly, Stark's family consists of his wife, adopted son, and father who lives with them. Or rather lives on the old homestead as Stark decides that plain Jane Anne Seymour ain't quite what he needs for a first lady of the state. Although Huey Long was not a model husband to Rose McConnell Long, he never would have thought of divorcing her and leaving her with their three children for a nano-second.
Long's family also consisted of a lot of brothers, eight in fact. Huey's brother Earl was three times Governor of Louisiana and his life story is told in the film Blaze with Paul Newman and Lolita Davidovitch. Huey's son Russell unlike being a crippled football hero as John Derek is here was elected at the age of 30 to the United States Senate in 1948 after World War II service with admittedly not any qualifications other than his name. But that name in Louisiana is to this day mighty potent and Russell Long had a distinguished career in the U.S. Senate for over 40 years. In fact when Huey was assassinated in 1935 and Rose McConnell Long received a temporary appointment to fill his seat, the Long family established a unique record of father, mother, and child to serve in the U.S. Senate. And a bunch of Long brothers and other relatives held various elective posts in Louisiana for generations.
Like Long however Stark is a self made man with an all consuming passion to get ahead in life. He was born in the most humble of circumstances to a piney woods sharecropper family and lifted himself up to be Governor of his state with national ambitions. And like Long, Stark establishes a political machine in his state that bordered on fascism.
Which is why the novel by Robert Penn Warren sold so well in 1947. Maybe it took a war with fascism to educate the American public as to exactly what Huey Long might have represented in the Thirties. Didn't matter in Louisiana though because Earl Long was elected in 1948 to one of his terms as governor as was Russell to the Senate.
All the King's Men entertains us with a fascination for the characters created by Warren and brought to the screen so vividly by Director Robert Rossen. The whole film is narrated and seen through the eyes of John Ireland who as a reporter discovered Stark running for local office in his backwoods county. Ireland was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in what was probably his career role, but lost to Dean Jagger for Twelve O'Clock High.
At the time he was married to Joanne Dru who is also in the film and she was grateful to not be doing another western. She plays Ireland's love who later falls for Stark. As Henry Kissinger said about his romantic success, "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" and I think Rossen was trying to prove it here. She got her career role here as did her brother Sheppard Strudwick who alone sees Stark for what he is.
It will be interesting to see if the new version of All the King's Men measures up to this one.
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