[21 June 2013]
Based on a novel by Howard Swiggett, The Power and the Prize enters the 50s trend for corporate soapers in the world of the executive suites and amalgamated conglomerates, a glossy milieu targeted then (and now) for melodramas of men struggling for their soul against the corrupting machiavellian principles of power. Robert Taylor plays that guy, Cliff Barton, poised to take over from his avuncular yet ruthless chairman, George Salt (the excellent Burl Ives, a Big Daddy of the boardroom), and also marry the man’s niece. The personal is usually thus conflated with the professional, such that one is the same as the other.
Cliff’s business trip to the old world (England in particular, Europe in general) touches a moralistic nerve in him because the people he meets are so noble and patrician, so clearly of the right class. A British executive (Cedric Hardwicke) in charge of a West African mine project thinks England has “blundered away half an empire” and wants to show the world that if they’ve done some things badly, they can learn. I say, what a decent chap. Cliff struggles against the crass order to manipulate the man’s project out from under him (as the Africans themselves would be short-changed?) at the same time as he romances a touchy and angular Austrian pianist (Elisabeth Mueller) who spent the war in a concentration camp and may be a commie.
Her name is Miriam. Nobody mentions whether she’s Jewish, but in any case she’d be marrying a Presbyterian minister’s son, so presumably she’d be properly annexed into just the right vector of highbrow art and consumerism—both embodied in her new grand piano as Cliff lays siege and relentlessly conquers her anti-American-millionaire ways. And so we don’t think capitalism is doomed to be heartless, soulless, and senseless, the sinister Salt is counter-balanced in the last act by another bloated old fuddy-duddy (Charles Coburn) who’s a kind of exec-ex-machina. In case you had any doubts, we’re reassured that the lady’s no Red, even though Cliff apparently wouldn’t have cared.
This is the kind of “serious” drama that’s driven not only by dialogue but alternating monologues, as everyone delivers the kind of fleetly modulated arias we no longer get this side of Aaron Sorkin. Aside from the presence of all the old pro’s (including Mary Astor as Ives’ wife, who sobs that Cliff is the only person Salt ever loved), the primary pleasures are visual, as George J. Folsey’s brilliantly sharp black and white Cinemascope photography shows off the sleek and snazzy production design. It looks very good on this print, available on demand from Warner Archive.
So it’s a film that looks and sometimes sounds smart, or at least enough to pass while ultimately reassuring us of happy endings among the capitalist fatcats. Although the trailer and the cover image proclaim it a “challenging drama of today’s changing morals”, its function is to reaffirm the (illusory) morals of yesterday. Screenwriter Robert Ardrey, also a famous anthropologist who specialized in theories of evolutionary aggression and territoriality, provides a subtle touch in Ives’ genial kiss-off, when he predicts to Cliff that the cycle of corporate metamorphosis must inevitably continue until Cliff turns into another Salt—and falls against another Cliff. The movie hastens past that moment, but it’s there.