Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Power and the Glory (Fox Film, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I got to watch one of the most beautiful, important and elusive movies ever made by classic Hollywood: The Power and the Glory, a 1933 film produced by Jesse Lasky at Fox (Lasky’s first film after being forced out of Paramount, a company he had helped found) and directed by William K. Howard from a script by Preston Sturges. The film tells the story of a railroad tycoon, Tom Garner (Spencer Tracy), who is dead at the start of the film and whose story is narrated in flashbacks by his faithful secretary, Henry (Ralph Morgan), to his wife (Sarah Padden), who is considerably less well disposed to Garner than her husband was. (In one scene Tom offers to cut Henry in on one of his stock deals, and Henry virtuously refuses — with the result that he and his wife are living in penury at the end of the film; though Tom Garner is hardly as malevolent as Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s a lot of Scrooge and Cratchit in the relationship between the two men.) The film anticipated Citizen Kane by eight years (Orson Welles claimed he never saw The Power and the Glory, but his writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, almost certainly did) and is a marvelous work in its own right, but it compares to Kane about the way the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon does to the classic 1941 remake with Huston and Bogart.

Oddly, for many years The Power and the Glory was referred to as a “lost” film even though I remember seeing it at a revival theatre in San Francisco in 1971 — and, as with A Man to Remember, which I saw at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1970 (and which, by bizarre coincidence, is also about a man who’s dead at the beginning of the film and whose life is told via flashbacks), the print of The Power and the Glory I saw then had no indication that its origins were non-American even though the currently circulating version was from a print discovered in France. (The extant version of A Man to Remember is from the Netherlands and has Dutch credits and subtitles, and I’m quite sure the version I saw in 1970 was from a U.S. or British print.) The Power and the Glory is often cited as a precursor of Citizen Kane, which it is and it isn’t; it’s a quite effective film in its own right but also a bit on the sentimental side (particularly the musical score, which Louis de Francesco assembled from stock tracks by one William Kernell), and at only 76 minutes it doesn’t have enough running time to get into the development — and degeneration — of the character of the tycoon. We’re told that Garner is a “track walker,” which I presume means someone who walks down railroad tracks looking for branches, wood planks or anything else that might derail a train, and he rises to become the president of a railroad — and in the film’s most viscerally exciting scene he confronts a union leader (a pretty Right-wing stereotype of a union boss, with a thick foreign accent that renders his speechmaking almost unintelligible) and comes off as less of a prototype of Charles Foster Kane and more the beta version of an Ayn Rand capitalist hero.

The closest aspect of this film to Kane is Tom Garner’s love life — as a young man who can’t read or write (his father, a farmer, didn’t think he needed those skills since he figured his son would just take over the farm) he attracts the attention of schoolteacher Sally (Colleen Moore, who had retired from the screen in 1929 to get married and returned after her divorce — she was mostly known as a “flapper” type in the silent era but her sound films, particularly this one and the 1934 version of The Scarlet Letter, are well honed and beautifully acted performances that suggest she actually got better when sound came in). They marry and have a son, but as Garner rises in the world she gets more and more uncomfortable with life as a rich woman, and she responds by spoiling her son (Clifford Jones, who for once looks enough like Spencer Tracy that we can believe them as father and son). Years later Garner buys a small railroad to add to his empire, and the president (Henry Kolker) tells his daughter Eve Borden (Helen Vinson in a typical “other woman” role for her) to seduce Garner in order to get him to let the elder Borden keep his job.

Garner falls head over heels for Eve and ultimately tells Sally he wants a divorce — and Sally, in an outrageously melodramatic plot twist Preston Sturges should have been ashamed of, responds by committing suicide by throwing herself under a streetcar. The strike breaks out right after Tom and Eve get married, and results in the deaths of 400 workers (that’s one of the bill of particulars Henry’s wife had against Garner in the framing sequences), and eventually Tom comes home from a board meeting early and overhears Eve telling someone on the phone that her son “looks just like you” — indicating that the child is not Tom’s (and the hint, though it remains just a hint, is that Eve has been having an affair with Tom’s son by Sally and he is the father of Eve’s child) — and there’s a confrontation that results in Tom’s suicide (off-camera, depicted by a sound effect only). I’ve been tempted to joke that The Power and the Glory reversed the writer-director genius-hack equation of Citizen KaneThe Power and the Glory was written by a genius, Preston Sturges, and directed by William K. Howard, while Citizen Kane was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and directed by a genius, Orson Welles — but that’s being unfair to Howard, who here as in the film he made a year later at MGM (the operetta The Cat and the Fiddle with Jeanette MacDonald and Ramon Novarro) turns in a quite stylish job.

Aided by the brilliant cinematography of James Wong Howe, which even in black-and-white has a beautiful, burnished quality strikingly different from the in-your-face high-contrast look of Kane, Howard stages Sturges’ script impeccably and gets vivid performances from Spencer Tracy (who rarely again acted this well, largely because he got all too few parts that challenged him as much as this one did) and Colleen Moore, who probably would have been on track for a major comeback if The Power and the Glory hadn’t flopped at the box office, largely because audiences were confused at the non-linear structure. (Eight years later audiences had the same complaint about Citizen Kane, suggesting that Kane might have flopped even if William Randolph Hearst hadn’t used his papers to wage war against it and against RKO for having made it.) Preston Sturges said he based the character of Garner on a real person, cereal magnate C. W. Post, whose life he knew well because he was married to Post’s granddaughter (and he said he got the idea of making his script non-linear from the way his wife had told him the stories of her grandfather out of sequence), though Sturges admitted that the only commonalities between Tom Garner and C. W. Post were that they rose from humble origins and ultimately committed suicide.

The Power and the Glory is a brilliant film but it’s not Citizen Kane, partly because Kane used more than one flashback narrator (when the film was new Orson Welles said he got the idea from the scenes in the Bible in which various people get together to testify about a man’s character!) but mainly because Sturges was interested only in telling a romantic melodrama with a money-can’t-buy-happiness message, while Welles was interested in a much broader critique of capitalism in general and the media in particular. It’s revealing that the two most famous works Welles was ever identified with — the 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane — are both about the media; while everyone else who made a film about a Gilded Age tycoon (including Silver Dollar, I Loved a Woman, and The Toast of New York) made it about an industrialist or a financier, Welles made his about a media baron because he thought that only someone who controlled a communications empire would have the kind of vast power to shape public opinion he intended his character to have.

It helps also that Citizen Kane is 44 minutes longer, and while one of the things I like about classic Hollywood is the narrative economy that enabled writers and directors to tell a lot of story in a relatively short time, The Power and the Glory could have used more running time to give us more of an insight into What Made Tom Run. A year after the release of Citizen Kane, Sturges — by then a successful writer-director at Paramount — did the film The Great Moment, a marvelous and underrated movie about the founder of anaesthesia that is also told in a series of flashbacks about a character who’s dead at the start of the film — and I suspect Sturges was pissed off about how Orson Welles was being hailed as a great innovator for making a movie told entirely in flashbacks, and he wanted to tap Hollywood’s collective consciousness on the shoulder and say, “Hey! I did it first!”