#512) All the King’s Men (1949)
OR “Stark Complexion”
Directed & Written by Robert Rossen. Based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren.
Class of 2001
The Plot: Newspaper reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) is assigned to write about Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a small town political hopeful with an anti-corruption platform. Jack sees Willie as a man who speaks the truth on behalf of the people, and joins his campaign. Aided by his ruthless campaign manager Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), Stark rallies the citizens of his state behind him and gets elected governor. As Stark gains power, he becomes just as corrupt as his predecessors, and everyone around him becomes equally amoral. It’s a tale of power and money, and may or may not be based on Louisiana political powerhouse Huey Long.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of plot and Oscar wins, with the only commentary being that director Robert Rossen “injects a note of ambiguity” into the characterization of Willie Stark.
But Does It Really?: As happens from time to time on this blog, my viewing of “All the King’s Men” set off my sixth sense that something was amiss. Typically this is either the film’s production woes or some meddling with the source material. Turns out that for “All the King’s Men”, it’s both. While not a bad movie by any stretch, “King’s” suffers from its deletions, be they elements from the original novel or scenes from the final film. The result is a bit muddled and confusing, but you see the remnants of good work throughout, especially by Crawford and McCambridge. I’m still on the fence regarding this film’s NFR standing, but “All the King’s Men” has enough political bite to warrant a viewing 70 years later.
Wow, That’s Dated: Mostly the more dated aspects of politics, such as whistle stop train tours, and corruption being viewed as an anomaly rather than the status quo.
Title Track: The title, of course, is derived from “Humpty Dumpty” (who, like Willie Stark, had a great fall). The title is also likely a reference to Huey Long’s “Every Man a King” slogan, as well as his nickname “The Kingfisher”.
Seriously, Oscars?: “All the King’s Men” entered the Oscar race with seven nominations, one behind that year’s leader, “The Heiress“. While the awards were pretty evenly handed out amongst “The Heiress”, “Twelve O’Clock High” and “A Letter to Three Wives”, “King’s” managed three big wins: Actor for Crawford, Supporting Actress for McCambridge, and Best Picture. “King’s” is one of the rare Best Picture recipients to not win for its director or screenplay.
- “All the King’s Men” novelist Robert Penn Warren was open about Willie Stark being largely based on Louisiana Governor (later Senator) Huey Long. Both Long and Stark began as small town lawyers, lost their first major political race, won a later race by highlighting class divisions, and were assassinated on the steps of their State Capitol. Warren did, however, refuse to declare his book either a praise or condemnation of Long, stating, “For better or worse, Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie was only himself.”
- This movie was filmed partially in my hometown of Stockton, California. Willie’s victory speech is given at the landmark Hotel Stockton, and the Stockton Courthouse was used for the final scene. It’s always nice to be able to mention one of Stockton’s more positive claims to fame rather than, ya know, all the other stuff.
- Because of political neutrality in films during the Production Code era, there is no specific mention of Stark’s political party, nor the state he becomes governor of. I’ll go ahead and say he’s from West Dakota, running as part of the Donner Party. Every Man an Entrée!
- There are a lot of political moments in this film that ring true in a modern viewing (Check the publication date on this post: you’ll see where I’m coming from). “King’s” is further proof that the problems regarding American politics are eternal, and that one candidate can go a long way based on how loudly they speak and how much they can whip their followers into a frenzy. Side note: no matter how enthusiastic you are for your candidate, torches are never a good look for a crowd.
- I liked Mercedes McCambridge a lot in this film. Primarily a radio actor, McCambridge is making her film debut here, playing a rarity in 1949: a woman driven more by her career than any man in her life. Although Sadie doesn’t have a lot of screentime, McCambridge is always compelling to watch whenever she pops up.
- As with any film adaptation of a novel, “King’s” has its share of alterations. The main one is the focus away from Jack Burke and more towards Willie Stark (Jack himself even states “I’m not the hero of this piece”). Also missing is most of the seedier aspects of the novel, either deleted outright or alluded to with characters talking in half sentences. “Are you saying he was a…”
- My suspicion that these montages are comprised of deleted scenes was correct. Robert Rossen’s original cut was over four hours long! Rossen instructed editors Al Clark and Robert Parrish to find the pivotal moment of each scene, and cut 100 feet from either side (roughly 2 minutes of film). This brought the final cut down to 110 minutes, and explains why there are so many quick, jarring cuts throughout the movie. If this film was made today I’m sure there’d be petitions to release the Extended Director’s Cut.
- Willie Stark puts his name on all of his buildings, and is eventually acquitted from an impeachment. He’s not entirely a Trump metaphor, but damn if he’s not close.
- Clearly I am not a student of history, as the assassination ending took me by surprise. We get a bit of chaos in the immediate aftermath, followed by Stark’s dying words and a quick fade to black. This ending combines my two frequent notes “What is happening?” and “Wait, that’s it?”
- “All the King’s Men” has received a few remakes over the years, most notably a 2006 film version with Sean Penn that, despite an A-list roster of talent, failed to make an impact with critics and audiences. As Rotten Tomatoes put it “these Men give Oscar bait a bad name.”
- Director Robert Rossen continued to make movies, except when he was briefly blacklisted by HUAC after pleading the fifth, though he did eventually name names. Rossen would go on to make fellow NFR entry “The Hustler“, but retired from filmmaking shortly before his death in 1966.
- Broderick Crawford became a Columbia contract player following his success in “King’s Men”, and the next year played a similar heavy role in “Born Yesterday“. Crawford spent the next 30 years playing various tough guys on film and TV, most notably on “Highway Patrol”.
- And of course, Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein would evoke this film’s title with their book (and future NFR movie) “All the President’s Men“.
Listen to This: Huey Long’s 1935 “Every Man a King” speech was added to the National Recording Registry in 2003. There’s also an essay by special guest writer Christopher H. Sterling.