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Along with my list of films to see in 2018 as part of the Cinema Shame challenge, I’m going to try to do some of their monthly prompts. For February, we are tasked with seeing and blogging about an Oscar winner for best picture that we haven’t seen before. Given that only a few noirish pictures even got nominations let alone wins, this challenge takes me away from my usual subject. By choosing All the King’s Men, Best Picture winner of 1949, I didn’t stray far. The underside of politics, including lying, cheating, and crime — plus a bleak ending in which no one comes out whole: there are certainly claims to noirishness in this story based on the rise and fall of Louisiana politician Huey Long.

Rather than giving a summary, which anyone can easily find online, I’d rather write my experience of the film and a bit about the performances of the central cast, especially Oscar winners Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge.

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It wasn’t easy to put myself in the mindset of someone for whom this film was a powerful eye-opener. We live today in such a cynical America, with a President who is as of this date busily denying paying off a porn star to keep their affair of past secret while demanding a military parade for no other reason than to celebrate himself and considering whether it might be a good idea to shut the government down if he doesn’t get what he wants — mainly to “build a wall” between the US and Mexico. Today as always, corrupt politicians who claim to be looking out for the “little guy” are a dime a dozen, and only a few ever meant what they said. If we have pity for Willie Stark (Crawford), it is only because there may once have been a glimmer of honesty and idealism in him. But we don’t really, nor any other main character in the film. It’s not the good vs. the bad, it’s the bad and the worse. Maybe its punch relates to audiences of the post-WWII era facing the darkness within the human soul. It had only been a few years since newsreels exploded with images of the dead in death camps across Poland and the horrors wrought by the atom bomb. Or maybe I’m wrong altogether, and audiences nodded solemnly at the familiar story of hubris, experiencing catharsis like ancient Greeks. For me, I’m glad to have seen it, but it didn’t bowl me over. I prefer All About Eve or Casablanca.

This extends to Broderick Crawford, who was excellent in the lead role, but to be honest I enjoyed him even more in Born Yesterday (1950) … and I’m honestly not sure I can tell the difference between the two characters. Both are big, loud, and broadly played. Both men are arrogant and ignorant and doomed to be taken down. And perhaps it was playing Willie Stark that made playing Harry Brock possible the next year for Crawford. Because the later film is a comedy, the blowhard gets his comeuppance in the form of patriotic speeches by a journalist and his girlfriend and a likely prison sentence. By contrast, the dark drama of All the King’s Men demands a more dramatic solution, which Stark definitely faces. I’m sure it’s because I saw and loved Born Yesterday long before I experienced All the King’s Men that I can’t say I thought Crawford was better than good in this. But he was good.

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Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men
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Broderick Crawford as Harry Brock in Born Yesterday (1950)

Mercedes McCambridge, by contrast, was amazing. I’m not a fan of her acting, not style nor voice nor look. I found her hilarious in the campy Johnny Guitar (1954), but I don’t think she was aiming for camp. She was ok in The Scarf (1951) — also opposite John Ireland — but not much more than ok. Her role in All the King’s Men, however, gives her a role that really suits her style: brash, determined, and ultimately defeated. She seems to put her whole heart into the role and has several great scenes. I’m glad she got the Supporting Actress Oscar for this.

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Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke in All the Kings Men

John Ireland (as Jack Burden) got an Oscar nomination for the film, and Robert Rossen got two nods, for director and /writing screenplay. Ireland’s character doesn’t lack interest, but he’s more compelling in concept than in the scenes and lines he gets to deliver. We’re told he’s not man enough by the girlfriend (Joanne Dru) who dumps him for the raw power of Willie Stark, but he never comes off as either wimpy or aimless. He is swept up in it all, to be sure, as is the girlfriend, but I never really have a grasp on who Jack Burden is. I can’t help but compare him to other journalist characters in film (noir) to find him lacking. I get that he’s awed by the wealthy folks in his hometown that he wants to live up to, and he does believe in Willie at first, but then he’s carried by the tide and stops developing as a character. Maybe it’s just not an ideal role for Ireland, or the fact that he is determined to make things right at the end…but that felt like a cop out for the audience to avoid a totally bleak ending. Not sure why this was his one Oscar-nominated role. Of course, it’s swell that he fell for and married Joanne Dru after the film, though that marriage ended in a divorce in less than a decade.

With that, this post is getting as depressing as the movie, so I’ll end it with a happy photo of the happy couple!

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