[12 October 2006]
A feature film rendering of Robert Penn Warren’s classic political novel, All the King’s Men proved both an artistic and popular success when it was released in 1949 . Time has done little to diminish the work that earned it three Oscars for best picture, best actor and best supporting actress. Broderick Crawford proves a compelling leading man and renders Willie Stark, the films’ protagonist, both likeable and flawed as he climbs to power from modest roots and idealistic principles.
While the movie maintains a solid pace, and the writing and acting keep you engaged, the story it tells offers few surprises; idealist seeks to redress wrongs upon his impoverished fellows, his rabble rousing makes him a threat tot hose in power, and after vanquishing those elites, he adopts their corrupt ways as his own . It’s a story as old as time (or at least politics) and a deftly told one.
Unfortunately, there is more at stake here. Willie Stark, we are reminded by the DVD box, was inspired by Louisiana’s Depression-era kingfish, Huey Long. And in much the same way that England’s Richard III has been buried beneath Shakespeare’s play, Louisiana governor and US Senator Huey Pierce Long runs the risk of being lost amongst fictional representations like this one. And this is both a pity and a genuine loss to history.
All the King’s Men should be praised for getting the outline correct and using it to compellingly tell a useful if didactic fable about how power corrupts. But films like this and the 1953 feature, A Lion is in the Streets (starring a histrionic James Cagney as a faux Kingpin) lock arms with conservative writers and anti-Long journalists cum historians to distort and minimize the career and achievements of Huey Long for ideological reasons. Economist and journalist Greg Palast uses Huey as a hero who rebuilt a flooded New Orleans (sound familiar?) over the protest of reactionary foes in his recent book, Armed Madhouse, and supports that characterization with facts, something Hollywood films aren’t required to do, regardless of quality. There is more to Huey Long than the yokel turned strutting demagogue All the King’s Men shows us and, while one can’t necessarily fault director-producer Robert Rossen with omitting them (he was a film-maker, not a historian), those omissions ought not be overlooked.
Rossen’s film never once mentions the New Deal, for example, while Palast’s book overstates the influence Long had on FDR’s program for rebuilding Depression-ravaged America, New Deal Brain Trust member Raymond Moley unflattering credits Long with inspiring Roosevelt’s leftish Second New Deal of 1935-1936. In his 1949 study of the New Deal era characters, 27 Masters of Politics, Moley writes:
“It cannot entirely be coincidence that the whole direction and philosophy of the New Deal changed at about the time when Long went to his gaudy grave. …Roosevelt, Wallace, Hopkins, and others had become Kingfish disciples to a degree that they probably never realized. ….(T)he Second New Deal, which arose in 1935, differed in principle for the first. [It] sought political power by a simple process of redistributing existing wealth under the guise of social justice…”(pgs. 229-230)
Although All the King’s Men shares Moley’s ideological predispositions and tends to treat Willie Stark’s programs as blandishments for the yokels, the reality of Long’s programs in Louisiana was more substantial. While the giant Standard Oil trust was the state’s most precious natural resource, which incidentally, paid little in exchange for this profitable privilege, Long urged that the people of Louisiana should be remunerated for the use of their resources. First as railroad commissioner and later as public service commissioner, Long lobbied the legislature to impose an extraction tax of a modest three percent on all oil pumped out of Louisiana. Standard Oil howled and accused Long of socialism, but the measure’s passage meant that Governor John M. Parker could not only retire the debt he had inherited from this predecessors, but also inaugurate a highway program, open a school for the learning disabled in Alexandria, and begin building a modern campus for LSU. All these programs (and many others) Long expanded when he succeeded Parker as governor – on Standard Oil’s dime and a dozen years before the New Deal.
Given that Sean Penn has just released a big-budget remake of All the King’s Men staring Anthony Hopkins and James Gandolfini, one should expect a number of press accounts about Huey P. Long’s colorful career, from struggling attorney to US senator to his assassination at the hands of an arch-conservative doctor in 1936. One should beware of the conventional wisdom about Huey Long, however, and look further into his real legacy. In 1927, a deeply conservative GOP federal government was confronted by the sight of 750,000 people left homeless by a flood in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast. When President Coolidge’s personal ambassador to the tragedy, commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, announced the administration’s plan to fight the crisis – such as giving farmers who lost their crops several million cabbage plants – Huey Long was on hand to give Hoover and Coolidge some bad news. Long rejoined that any plan to “turn Louisiana into a cabbage patch” was a insulting waste. Within two years, Long had himself begun to rebuilding the Gulf Coast as governor and it was the GOP that found itself homeless – turned out of the house: the White House and both houses of congress. This story remains untold in Rosser’s film. Hopefully, the remake with Sean Penn will tell more of the story.
Extras include the theatrical trailer for the original film and a preview and interviews with cast of the newly-released Sean Penn-directed remake.