Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "All the King's Men" (1949)

Scene from All the King's Men
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

All the King's Men
Release Date: January ?, 1949
Director: Robert Rossen
Written By: Robert Penn Warren (Novel), Robert Rossen (Screenplay)
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 110 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Actor (Broderick Crawford)
-Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge)

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Director
-Best Screenplay
-Best Supporting Actor (John Ireland)
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Heiress
-A Letter to Three Wives
-Twelve O'Clock High

And the winner is...

The story of corrupt politics have long been a popular theme in pop culture. As much as the American Dream has been about the underdog succeeding, films have enjoyed depicting the evils of the corporate bigwig. However, there are few films that did so as effectively and with such impressive gravitas as that of director Robert Rossen's All the King's Men. With the corrupt politician Willie Stark at the center of the story, the film follows the campaign trail of a man who's probably not right for the job. With impressive editing and plenty of nods to film noir, the film itself is a great commentary on politics while being a compelling and thorough depiction of America's mindset in the late 40's as cultural ideals shifted. Even if there's been more corrupt politicians in film, there are few titles that are as riveting and exciting as this one.

The story begins in 1946. Writer Robert Penn Warren had written the book "All the King's Men," which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. When Rossen was made aware of this, he immediately bought the rights for the book,but insisted on making a few changes. The most noteworthy came in switching the protagonist from Jack Burden (played by John Ireland) to Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford). This allowed Colombia to agree to make the movie. Among the actors who were pursued for the film was John Wayne, who was defiantly against making the film. Seeing as Wayne was known as the American Patriot of actors, he took offense to the film's elaborate depiction of corruptness. He would make hostile comments (including to shove the script up his derriere) towards Rossen regarding the script as well, sealing the deal on his more than vocal rejection.

However, the treatment of the script wasn't much different following this. After Rossen had the cast lined up, he began shooting in various locations around California. Despite this, the details of Stark's nature were kept secret. The film never mentions his political party or where he's campaigning. Even then, Rossen decided to use extras in order to get a more natural feel. He would record their rehearsals in order to get a rawer sense of their performances. The actors didn't have it much better, as it was said that Rossen kept the script from the actors. He would only give it to them one time for initial read through before shooting a scene. It was meant as a tactic to keep the actors focused on their work.

Among the film's most popular attributes was the innovative editing technique. It came practically by necessity. When a cut was seen by studio head Harry Cohn, the film ran 250 minutes (over four hours). Editor Robert Parrish didn't know how else to cut the film down, insisting that it be released as is. It was Rossen who came up with the ingenious idea of how to cut the film practically in half. Rossen claimed that Parrish needed to find the central point of the film and cut 100 feet of film on either side, regardless of it cutting into coherent dialogue. This resulted in a 109 minute running time that was far more accessible and enjoyable for audiences. It also helped to revolutionize such techniques that would be used in transitions and montages as a narrative device. Parrish would get credit, even though it was Rossen's idea.

Its run at The Oscars that year were rather complacent. With seven nominations, it was the 36th film to receive more than six nominations. Wayne, who turned down the role, competed against Crawford, in the Best Acting category and lost (Wayne starred in Sands of Iwo Jima). The film was also one of the first featuring an anti-hero protagonist to win Best Picture as well as one of the first to show the corrupt nature of politics. While the 1940's were best known for their "message" movies like Mrs. Miniver and The Lost Weekend, All the King's Men was possibly one of the most scathing thanks to its rather dark ending. It wouldn't be the first film noir title to win (Casablanca), but it remains one of very few in the genre to achieve this honor. Considering how infrequently the actors saw the script, it's humorous to think that it was actually up for a nomination during this year.

The film has had a rather consistent legacy in setting the bar for corrupt politician movies. Thanks to historians like Spencer Selby, the film has later been assessed as having film noir tropes and shares its dark heart in its ending. Beyond this, Warren's book has been adapted a few times, including an adaptation in the U.S.S.R. several decades later. One of the most noteworthy adaptations came in 2006 and featured an Oscar-studded cast directed by Steve Zaillian and starring Sean Penn in the lead role. Despite its credibility, the film was considered a failure and didn't live up to the expectations of the Rossen classic. Beyond its political themes, the film helped to popularize cross-cutting techniques in montages that would show conversations without entire context. As a whole, the film remains a classic that many films have taken from. Even great films like All the President's Men is a play on the film's title and various themes.

All the King's Men is one of the best films about politics to come out of the 40's despite its controversially Un-American world view. With stellar performances and kinetic editing, the film is a tribute to craft and ability to tell a story with relentless passion. Even if it feels too familiar to modern audiences who know films that were inspired by it, there's still credit to be found in its ability to itself be a fascinating and unique portrait. Even if it's the most dour film in a decade of Best Picture winners that were sincerely dour, it still manages to paint a lot of hopeful things for the future of film and editing in the decades to come. Rossen's techniques of shooting it may be a little abstract by today's standards, but they definitely resulted in something very special.

No comments:

Post a Comment