Director Robert Rossen’s film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men was a big winner at the Oscars in 1950.
With seven nominations and three wins, All the King’s Men just trailed behind William Wyler’s The Heiress (an adaptation of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square), which had eight nominations and four wins.
At the 22nd Academy Awards, All the King’s Men was nominated for Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Supporting Actor (John Ireland), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Best Screenplay (Robert Rossen), and Best Film Editing (Robert Parrish and Al Clark).
It took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actor for Crawford, and Best Supporting Actress for McCambridge.
These were huge wins for both actors. Broderick Crawford had appeared in a lot of movies, but probably hadn’t made a big impression on the movie-going public. Prior to All the King’s Men his biggest acting success had been playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men on Broadway, but when the film version was made in 1939, he was passed up for the role and Lon Chaney, Jr., was cast instead.
Mercedes McCambridge was an accomplished radio performer who did a lot of work on the air with Orson Welles, but this was her first appearance in a film. Not too shabby!
Rossen did a lot of work as a screenwriter before making All the King’s Men, but it was only the third film he directed. The first two films he directed were Johnny O’Clock (1947), which not very many people saw, and Body and Soul (1947), which was a hit with both critics and audiences.
All the King’s Men was an even bigger success than Body and Soul. In the 1950s, Rossen had trouble with HUAC, eventually “named names,” and continued directing films, but it would be a long time before he would make another widely acclaimed film (The Hustler, with Paul Newman, in 1961).
Just as Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, All the King’s Men is a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of Louisiana politician Huey Long.
Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and a U.S. Senator from 1932 until his death in 1935. He was a political operator who could turn wild dreams into massive public projects, he was a passionate advocate of wealth redistribution, and he was a divisive figure.
The film twists and amplifies Long’s legacy for dramatic effect, but enough of the details are close enough that speaking the name “Huey Long” was forbidden on the set.
As Willie Stark, Broderick Crawford doesn’t attempt a Southern drawl, but it’s probably better that way. I didn’t even think about the way Crawford was speaking while I was watching the movie. His performance is raw and powerful, and is the perfect mix of bonhomie, sincerity, menace, and naked ambition. Through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) we see Willie Stark transform from an honest but inexperienced politician to a canny operator in charge of an enormous political machine.
Unlike Citizen Kane, which is one of the most highly stylized films ever made, Rossen and his cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, shot All the King’s Men in a naturalistic fashion. It’s mostly shot in real locations (which are occasionally very drab) and employs a lot of non-actors (a.k.a. “real people”) in small parts. The only really over-the-top visuals occur at Willie Stark’s political rallies, which often take place at night and are full of torches and rows of jackbooted police officers, which makes the rallies resemble the Nuremberg Rally.
I especially liked some of the casting choices. Dark-haired pretty boy John Derek plays Willie Stark’s son, college football star Tom Stark. He is oddly mirrored by Walter Burke as “Sugar Boy,” Willie Stark’s nefarious bodyguard. Derek and Burke have similar bone structure and coloring, but while Derek is handsome and charming, Burke is reptilian and creepy.
All the King’s Men is far from being a docudrama about American politics, but its over-the-top tale of ambition perverted by corruption is still relevant.