THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘All the King’s Men’ (1949)

In 1950, the 22nd Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1949 and December 31, 1949 the awards were held on March 23. For the third time in fours year, the venue of the ceremony was changed. This time, it was the biggest movie house in Hollywood, with a seating capacity of 2,812. After so much change, this would remain the venue for the next 11 years.

After the rise of Technicolor cinematography, the 1950 ceremony would stand as the final time all five Best Picture nominees were black-and-white films. Despite failing to win Best Picture, the year’s most nominated and awarded film was The Heiress, with eight nominations and four wins. It also delivered Olivia de Havilland her second Best Actress win in three years, but, sadly, her final nomination.

After consistently failing to be nominated for his work, Fred Astaire was awarded an honorary Academy Award for “his unique artistry and contributions to the technique of musical pictures.” It was presented to him by his long-time screen partner, Ginger Rogers.

The nominees:
All the King’s Men
Battleground
The Heiress
A Letter to Three Wives
Twelve O’Clock High

The winner:
All the King’s Men

Based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men is the tale of the rise of an ambitious and ruthless politician. Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a small-town man with big-city ambitions. Running for treasurer in his hometown, his campaign of honest politics draws the attention of journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland). But when his bid for office ends in failure, after the powerful men of his town destroy his chances with a smear campaign, Stark rises above, spending the next few years becoming a lawyer, and fighting for the downtrodden members of his community. When he’s cruelly used as a candidate for governor to simply split the opposition’s vote, he begins to understand the ruthless nature of politics. Biding his time, and recruiting Burden as his right-hand man, he returns four years later to run for governor again, this time with a stronger determination, and a biting public speaking persona. Running on a message of returning power to the people, he sails to victory. But it’s not long before the dirty business of politics begins to change Stark into one of the corrupt men he once fought so vehemently against, and he’ll soon do anything to retain his power.

Why did it win?
Released at a time when the unscrupulous activities of many of those with political power were coming to light, All the King’s Men struck a chord with many who began to question if honesty was still a trait to be found in government officials. There were rumblings of corruption in the Truman administration, and with the rise of the Soviet Union marking the beginning of the Cold War, the general public were beginning to grow weary of politicians and how they gained and held power. The timing for a film like All the King’s Men could not have been more perfect.

Taking heavy influence from the story of Huey Long, a Louisiana governor many either called a populist hero or a corrupt dictator, All the King’s Men highlighted how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and proved even those with the noblest of intentions can often fall to the weight of their own immense influence. But questioning the moral fabric of American politics was not a popular subject. Many in Hollywood wanted nothing to do with the production, finding its very existence horribly offensive. Director Robert Rossen originally offer the role of Willie Stark to John Wayne, who angrily rejected the film as “unpatriotic” and accused Rossen of a making a film which “threw acid on the American way of life.” In an ironic twist of fate, Wayne would ultimately lose Best Actor for his role in Sands of Iwo Jima to Broderick Crawford for the very role he turned down.

With a controversial topic once again capturing the audience’s attention, the film was a resounding success at the box-office, bringing in $2.4 million at the US box-office. It received rave reviews from the critics, with The New York Times calling it a “rip-roaring film” that is “remarkable for its brilliant parts.” Broderick’s performance was a key-factor to the film’s critical success, with Variety declaring it the “standout performance of the year.” With a relatively-light year, and no real competitors to compete with, All the King’s Men was able to easily capture Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
Viewing the film in a post-Trump 2017 context takes on a whole new level of relevance and rather disturbing accuracy. While its themes of government corruption and power manipulation ultimately had an unexpected connection to the Nixon administration, a few decades later, the story of the rise of an unexpected politician to unprecedented power seems eerily familiar right now. Even more recognisable is Stark’s booming and clamorous style of public speaking, and his penchant for working a crowd into a wild frenzy. In one particular scene, he encourages his supporters to “nail up anybody who stands in your way,” to which the crowd responses with loud chants of “Nail ’em up! Nail ’em up!” Sound familiar?

Early in the film, Stark stumbles in his first attempts at speaking to a rally, after losing the crowd’s interest by boring them with policy speeches. He soon realises he will have far greater success by simply stirring them up, and appealing to their anguish at feeling like big-city government has forgotten the small-town man. He promises them the world, without giving specific details on how he’s going to give it to them, and whips them into an uncontrolled frenzy. And those that do dare defy him? Well, he instructs his cronies to remove them from his rallies, by any means necessary. Again, does all this not sound hauntingly familiar?!

But for all his disturbing and unsettling qualities, those around Stark simply fall in line, and never question his outlandish behaviour. Jack Burden knows his new boss is a crook, and he knows he should be stopped from achieving unstoppable power. But, like most of us who see corruption and greed, he has no idea what to do, and thus, begrudgingly follows, unwavering in his support. This again speaks to the rise of Trump, with so many in the Republican party knowing how dangerous and irresponsible Trump’s campaign (and now administration) were becoming, and yet, were completely powerless to stop it. When someone captures a crowd and becomes the voice of the people, can they ever really be silenced?

Taking its connection to the modern-day out of the equation, the film simply speaks to the notion of how power can corrupt anyone, and the idea that compromise and manipulation, both legal and illegal, are perhaps the only way to ever really achieve one’s political agenda. It’s hard to believe anyone who rises to the top never stepped on anyone to get there, and if that person can achieve great things that benefit the masses, perhaps the ends may justify the means. It’s a moral dilemma the film doesn’t seek to answer, but it showcases how it can all spiral out of control, with devastating effects for the poor souls closest to those in power.

In terms of its cinematic qualities, the film is cemented by the powerful and compelling performance of Broderick, and the conflicted character journey of Burden, handled with perfect precision by Ireland. As awful as his character may be, Broderick is captivating to watch, and it stands as one of the greatest performances of this era. The film is shot and edited in a frenetic newsreel style, which at time can be quite jarring, but ultimately extremely effective. The middle of the film sags, but the climax is sensational.

With its narrative that remains as relevant and important today, as it did in 1949, the film is a gripping cautionary tale that proves we really haven’t learnt anything in the almost-70 years since its release. Powerful men are still twisting the public. Corruption is still rife in politics. And a loud-mouth non-politician can still sweep to power on the backs of small-town people. If a film still being incredibly relevant decades later isn’t the sign of a deserving Best Picture winner, I don’t know what is.