The Best Picture Winners: All the King’s Men (1949)

| October 21, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

If you take the long and winding journey of the films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture (this is my fourth trip) you don’t find many happy returns.  By that I mean that you won’t find a lot of laugh-filled whimsical escapism.  That’s not surprising considering that the Academy voter’s legendary preference of heavy drama over sweetness and light.

All the King’s Men may be the most unpleasant experience of them all.  Stories about the corruption of the soul make for great drama and give us an insight into the fallibility of this human condition.  Yes they were dark but – geez!All the King’s Men is a wading pool of misery.  I’ve had ingrown toenails that were more fun.

Based on the book by Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men is a pseudo-biographical retelling of the rise and fall of Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long – renamed here as Willie Stark.  The book delved into symbiotic biblical references to make its point and to help us understand the all-too-human qualities of our main character, but the movie doesn’t go that far.  It’s much more simple-minded.  We see the corruption of Willie Stark, a relatively decent man (and based on this film rather dull) who is pulled into the sewer of political corruption that destroys his very soul.

My first problem may be the performance of Broderick Crawford in the role of Willie Stark.  Crawford was a rather one-note actor who worked well in character roles that required him two speeds: Screaming terror and boiling hatred.  It worked well in a light comedy like Born Yesterday where he was the antagonist.  But here, we are supposed to feel something for Willie Stark and Crawford plays him as such a holy terror that you feel the urge to be anywhere else.

I am sure that the film has its defenders.  I know that a lot of people derive more from this movie than I did.  I guess for this kind of story, I need a place to gain a foothold.  The plot of All the King’s Men is, in some small way, similar to that of The Godfather, another story of the decimation of a man’s soul through the machinations of the system in which he lives.  But in that film we saw the goodness in Michael Corleone.  We watched turn to the dark side, so to speak.  Willie Stark seemingly begins at the dark side, so where’s the journey?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.