#224) The Power and the Glory (1933)

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#224) The Power and the Glory (1933)

OR “A Rosebud By Any Other Name”

Directed by William K. Howard

Written by Preston Sturges

Class of 2014

Wow, a historic first: I can’t find a single clip of this movie on YouTube. There’s a bunch on TCM’s website, but I like embedding something, so here’s a YouTube video that is the film’s Wikipedia article made audible for the visually impaired.

The Plot: Railroad magnate Tom Garner (Spencer Tracy) has died, and many speak ill of his life decisions. But Tom’s oldest friend Henry (Ralph Morgan) defends him by telling Tom’s life story with the help of some inventive flashback techniques. In no particular order we see Tom and Henry’s childhood meeting, Tom’s courtship with schoolteacher Sally (Colleen Moore), his rise to prominence in the railroad industry, his estranged relationship with Tom Jr. (Philip Trent), and the union dispute that almost ended his career. It’s a movie about the life of a cryptic tycoon told through flashback and other creative devices which, now that I think about it, sounds a lot like another, exponentially more famous movie on this list…

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a haunting tragedy” and cites the film’s main talking points: It was Preston Sturges’ first screenplay and it may or may not have influenced “Citizen Kane”. The essay by Fox expert Aubrey Solomon says more or less the same thing.

But Does It Really?: The Sturges and “Kane” connections are pretty much what this film has going for it. “The Power and the Glory” isn’t bad, it’s merely fine. The revolutionary use of flashback seems tame by today’s standards, and Spencer Tracy is good, but you’ve seen him (and Preston Sturges) do better. “The Power and the Glory” is essentially what “Citizen Kane” would have been with half the budget and no “Rosebud” mystery. I would be much more agreeable to this movie’s NFR inclusion if there was proof that Orson Welles was influenced by it, or heck, if he even saw it at all. If anything, this induction is more a point in favor of “Citizen Kane”, whose reputation is stringing “The Power and the Glory” along 80 years later.

Everybody Gets One: Technically, director William K. Howard has 1½ entries in the NFR. He directed this, and was the original director on “Knute Rockne, All American”, before being replaced following a disagreement with Warner Bros. His career never recovered and he directed B pictures for the rest of his life.

Wow, That’s Dated: Look no further than Henry’s narration during the first flashback: “When I was a kid, we didn’t have radio or moving pictures or automobiles and all those like the kids have today.”

Take a Shot: Ever the devout Catholic, Spencer Tracy says the title while reciting the Lord’s Prayer following the birth of his son.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations for “The Power and the Glory”. Fox’s main Oscar contender that year was “Cavalcade”, which consistently ranks among the least memorable Best Picture winners in Oscar history.

Other notes

  • “Power” is noteworthy as Preston Sturges’ first screenplay, but the deal Sturges made with the studio should also be mentioned. Rather than give Fox a treatment, Sturges went ahead and submitted a full screenplay. Producer Jesse L. Lasky called it “the most perfect script I’d ever seen” and offered Sturges a percentage of the grosses, rather than the flat-fee screenwriters traditionally got. It set a precedent going forward, and gave Sturges his start in Hollywood.
  • Like many films from Fox’s pre-merger days, the original print of “The Power and the Glory” was destroyed in the 1937 Fox fire. What survives is a print that appears to have been used for TV broadcasts in the ‘50s. The film was restored in 2015 using available materials, but the version I watched was this early print. I admit it made my viewing a bit difficult.
  • In addition to being the first president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ralph Morgan is the older brother of Frank Morgan, aka “The Wizard of Oz”.
  • This movie’s choice of flashback dissolve: Pan and zoom during a dissolve.
  • Billy O’Brien plays Tom as a child, and he is no actor. Not surprisingly, his film career didn’t last too long after this movie.
  • Spencer Tracy is one of the few actors who knows how to subtly play older. He doesn’t talk in a different voice or exaggerate any creakiness; he’s just a bit slower in those scenes.
  • These flashbacks are pretty sophisticated for the ‘30s. Forget Orson Welles, maybe Christopher Nolan was the one this movie influenced.
  • So unique was this film’s nonlinear storytelling that Fox coined a new word to describe it in press material: “narratage”. Didn’t stick.
  • Nope, that’s a real train way in the background outside of Sally’s window. Definitely not a model train a few feet from the window. I presume it’s going to the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
  • You can see flashes of brilliance in Sturges’ writing, and the germ of what would eventually become Struges’ trademark dialogue, but this is a screenplay where the structure outshines the words.
  • Colleen Moore’s quite good as Sally. It’s a nice change of pace from the ‘20s flapper girls she was most associated with (see “Ella Cinders”).
  • The Hays Office threw a fit at the implication that Tom Jr. was having an affair with his stepmother, and was alluded to be the father of her child. There were edits and reshoots, but it’s definitely still what’s going on between the lines.
  • “Blonde Angel”, wasn’t that a Jean Harlow movie?
  • We have yet another movie that just sorta ends. Henry finishes his flashback, his wife silently leaves the room, and that’s it. Cool story, bro.

Legacy

  • News on the March! “Citizen Kane”: a cinematic triumph with an influence so big it can never be catalogued or appraised. Championed by millions of Americans, hated by as many more. Famed in American legend is the origin of the “Kane” story. But where does “The Power and the Glory” play into the works of Welles and Mankiewicz? No man can say.

2020 Update: Just completed my “Citizen Kane” post. I have spent countless hours researching the film and reading a wide array of essays about it, and while some of the film’s contemporary reviews noted parallels between “Kane” and “The Power and the Glory”, I could not find ONE GODDAMN PIECE OF PROOF that “Kane” was directly influenced by “Power”. That’s one more point in favor of “Kane”, and one more point deducted from “Power” and its NFR standing.

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