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The Power and the Glory holds special interest for at least three reasons. First, the 1933 release is a fictional biopic that may have served as a model for Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, held by most critics to be among the best American movies ever made. Second, the screenplay was penned by Preston Sturges, several years before the string of superb comedies he wrote and directed for Paramount in the 1940s. And third, it's a critical take on American capitalism made during the depths of the Great Depression, when political matters like the legitimacy of labor unions and the right to strike were hot-button issues everywhere.
The Power and the Glory begins with the funeral of its main character, Tom Garner, and then goes back in time to tell about his life. He's a likable guy who grows up in the boondocks, so removed from middle-class privilege that he's still illiterate at age twenty. He meets his best friend, Henry, when they're scrappy boys splashing around in a local swimming hole. Henry is the one who first decides to make something of his life, going off to business college and studying hard, but it's Tom who achieves the most success, and the most unhappiness as well.
Tom's rise begins when a sympathetic teacher named Sally volunteers to help him read and write. His new skills don't raise his ambitions; he likes his low-level job as a railroad track inspector, and he's happy just fishing on his days off. But he's married to Sally by this time, and she starts thinking about what Tom could accomplish if he put his mind to it. So she works out an arrangement with his employer: she'll take over Tom's job as a track walker and send him through college with the money she earns.
Tom accepts the deal and does well at college. He returns to the railroad after graduation and works his way up to the presidency without a hitch, distinguishing himself as a hard worker and a hard bargainer. He and Sally have a son along the way, but things don't go quite so smoothly in that department. Tom Jr. is a slacker, and when he gets kicked out of school for excessive drinking, Tom Sr. puts him on the company payroll with the lowest possible salary.
In one of his many business deals, Tom buys the minor-league Reno and Santa Cara Railroad over the objections of his board members, who grudgingly give in because they know he'll do it anyway - in fact, he's already done it, before putting it to a vote. The man who sells him the small railway is Mr. Borden, a man Tom never liked. But it turns out that Mr. Borden has a daughter, Eve, who is sexy and stylish to a degree that makes sweet, aging Sally seem positively plain. Tom falls in love with Eve and breaks the news to Sally, who appears to be badly depressed anyway. She wanders off and kills herself, freeing Tom to marry his much younger girlfriend. Tom's happiness is shattered when he discovers that his new wife is having an affair with his very own son, and the story ends where it began, with Tom's death, which we now know was suicide committed in despair. Few movies from the studio era have a finale more melancholy than this one.
The Power and the Glory premiered eight years before Citizen Kane, and the parallels between the pictures are strong enough to suggest that Welles's classic was directly influenced by its more modest predecessor. Each presents a fictionalized version of a famous man's life and career: Tom Garner is based on C.W. Post, the breakfast-cereal tycoon, just as Charles Foster Kane is based on William Randolph Hurst, the powerful newspaper magnate. Even more to the point, each movie begins with the protagonist's death and then reveals his life in a chronologically scrambled way, leaping unpredictably among different stages of life so you have to piece the puzzle together in your own mind while you watch. Most surprisingly, director William K. Howard and cinematographer James Wong Howe use deep-focus staging in many scenes of The Power and the Glory, not nearly as brilliantly as director Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland do in Citizen Kane, but cleverly enough.
Sturges's screenplay has little of the verbal and visual wit that sparkles so dazzlingly in The Great McGinty (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Sullivan's Travels (1941), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948), to name just four gems from his Paramount period. It does have some of the experimental spirit you find in his later films, though. This shows most clearly in the jigsaw-puzzle structure of the story, which unfolds in a style that Fox called "narratage," crediting Sturges with the idea of jumbling up the time sequence and then gluing it together with extensive narration by a character (Henry) who often describes exactly what we're seeing on the screen and occasionally speaks the dialogue while characters lip-synch their lines. Narratage was a device without much of a future, but it lends a touch of avant-garde poetics to selected scenes, and reminds you that one of the most adventurous young minds in Hollywood was on the job.
Credit also goes to Sturges for delving into the dark side of American business during the Depression era. Tom is portrayed as a gifted but ruthless industrialist who confronts a strike with armed violence that kills literally hundreds of workers. On a personal level, he drives his first wife to depression and suicide, loses his self-centered second wife to his good-for-nothing son, and chooses to kill himself without trying to learn what went so horribly wrong with his once-promising life. The love affair between Eve and Tom Jr. probably couldn't have been filmed after the Production Code censors acquired greater powers in 1934, and it stirred up considerable trouble in 1933, sparking demands for trimming and reediting before eventually being approved. It's strong stuff for the time when it was made - the stepmom and stepson even have a baby together, letting poor Tom Sr. think the child is his - and it certainly spices up the drama.
The spice is badly needed, since The Power and the Glory is regrettably low on energy most of the time. Spencer Tracy puts little dash into his portrayal of Tom Sr., and the film's uncredited makeup artist makes the situation worse, not doing much beyond painting lines on his forehead when he's old and erasing them when he's young. Colleen Moore and Ralph Morgan are wan and wistful as Sally and Henry, respectively; only Helen Vinson makes much of an impression, playing Eve as a siren who oozes slinkiness from every pore. Sturges wouldn't create his truly unforgettable Eve until The Lady Eve in 1941, but you can sense her presence here, if only as a twinkle in Sturges's mischievous eye.
Director: William K. Howard
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Cinematographer: James Howe
Film Editing: Paul Weatherwax
Settings: Max Parker
Music: Lowell Mason, Sarah F. Adams
With: Spencer Tracy (Tom Garner), Colleen Moore (Sally Garner), Ralph Morgan (Henry), Helen Vinson (Eve Borden)
by David Sterritt