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It may have won a 1946 Pulitzer Prize, but Robert Penn Warren's legendary political novel, All the King's Men, was in for a major overhaul when it was adapted for the screen by writer-director Robert Rossen. Rossen turned the story's focus away from Penn's reporter-narrator, Jack Burden, in favor of a sleazy politician named Willie Stark. When Rossen cast a little-known B-movie actor named Broderick Crawford in the role of Stark, the picture took on a boisterous life of its own. It ended up winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Crawford), and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), while almost eclipsing the novel in popularity.
In both the movie and the book, the character of Stark is obviously based on Huey P. Long, the faux-good ol' boy who ruled Louisiana politics in the 1930s...that is, until he was assassinated. Burden (John Ireland), traces Stark's no-holds-barred rise and fall, and it's not a pretty sight. Crawford is a powerhouse, in a towering performance that he would never again come close to equaling. It's fascinating to watch Stark evolve from an earnest hick who's being played for a fool by the powers that be into a bombastic demagogue who crushes anyone who gets in his way. Rossen's gift for montage, and Crawford's roaring oratorical style, paints a picture of a sincere person who slowly grows intoxicated by power. Viewers who endured Steven Zaillian's 2006 remake of the film, with its histrionic performance from Sean Penn, shouldn't be scared away from this masterpiece. This is one of the finest political films in the history of American cinema, and it still packs a punch. Pick through any current newspaper or Internet news site, and you're bound to find political situations that echo All the King's Men.To a certain degree, All the King's Men was one of those pictures that was saved in the editing. In his entertaining book, Growing Up in Hollywood, film editor Robert Parrish describes a post-production process that sounds more like a continuous crap game. Al Clark, who cut the initial version of the film, was having trouble wrangling the massive amount of footage that Rossen had shot into a coherent narrative, so Parrish was brought onboard by Rossen and Columbia Studios head, Harry Cohn, to see what he could do.
Unfortunately, Parrish couldn't do much, as Rossen had a tendency to cling for dear life to everything he shot. After several intense weeks of tinkering and cutting, the movie was still over 250 minutes long, and a weary Cohn was prepared to release it in this version after one more preview. This threw Rossen, who had argued with Cohn throughout shooting, into a panic, so he came up with a clever solution. Not that he knew it would work.
"I want you to go through the whole picture," Rossen said to Parrish. "Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the synch machine and wind down a hundred feet before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what's going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you're finished, we'll run the picture and see what we've got." Parrish did what Rossen suggested. When he was done, they were left with a 109-minute movie, and, lo and behold, it was a lot more compelling to watch.
"We ran it for Rossen and discovered his brainstorm had worked," Parrish wrote. "It all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way. We went back and added bits to three scenes. Then we dubbed it and took it to our final preview in Pasadena...and were relieved at the audience's enthusiastic reaction." Aside from a preview he and Rossen experienced when they collaborated on Body and Soul (1947), Parrish felt that the Pasadena screening of All the King's Men was the most successful of his career. "By now we were all so nervous about the whole operation that we decided not to touch it again. After the Pasadena preview we cut the negative with all the imperfections, the mismatched cuts, and the jumps in the soundtrack."
When All the King's Men won its Academy Award for Best Picture, Harry Cohn, who was arguing once again with Rossen, repeatedly gave Parrish credit for saving the film, even though he only did what Rossen told him to do! Either way, the editing gambit gives the film a memorably jagged urgency that's quite unique for a studio-era film. Sometimes when you roll the dice, you really do come out a winner.
Producer: Robert Rossen
Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Robert Rossen (based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren)
Editor: Al Clark, Robert Parrish
Art Direction: Sturges Carne
Costumes: Jean Louis
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Louis Gruenberg
Sound: Frank Goodwin
Cast: Broderick Crawford (Willie Stark), Joanne Dru (Anne Stanton), John Ireland (Jack Burden), John Derek (Tom Stark), Mercedes McCambridge (Sadie Burke), Shepperd Strudwick (Adam Stanton), Ralph Dumke (Tiny Duffy), Anne Seymour (Lucy Stark), Katherine Warren (Mrs. Burden), Raymond Greenleaf (Judge Stanton), Walter Burke (Sugar Boy), Will Wright (Dolph Pillsbury), Grandon Rhodes (Floyd McEvoy).
by Paul Tatara