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 The Power and the Prize

The Power and the Prize

Director Henry Koster had a unique technical achievement on his resume. Not only did he direct the first feature-length movie in CinemaScope (The Robe, 1953), but three years later he directed the first feature-length movie in black-and-white CinemaScope - The Power and the Prize (1956). Often beautiful to behold, black-and-white 'Scope is also a relatively uncommon format. The whole idea of 'Scope, after all, was to lure audiences from their new TVs by giving them grand spectacle, and usually color was part of the equation. Some observers at the time found the format an odd choice for an intimate story like The Power and the Prize. The trade paper Variety declared, "while some of the scenes lend themselves to the widescreen treatment, others cry out either for color or for a smaller screen. This film will raise some questions whether if there are no tint effects, it's worthwhile using CinemaScope. In this case, it certainly didn't add much." Variety turned out to be wrong, as many films lay in the future which would use 'Scope and black-and-white perfectly well together.

The Power and the Prize casts Burl Ives as the ruthless head of a large corporation who has picked one of his executives (Robert Taylor) as his successor. Before handing over the reins, however, Ives wants to make sure that Taylor is willing to act unethically, as Ives has. As a test, he sends Taylor to London to negotiate a shady deal that would give Ives control over a British mining outfit. Once in England, Taylor finds he can't go through with it and falls in love with a German refugee (Elisabeth Mueller). Ives then turns against him. Though widely praising the good cast (which also includes Mary Astor and Charles Coburn), critics were lukewarm: "The Power and the Prize is something of a message picture," said one, "and there are those who may resent the sugarcoating. On the other hand, it says what it has to say well and the romantic angle gets the proper play."

While he's no household name today, in 1956 Henry Koster was certainly an experienced and respected director known for his excellent work with actors. (He directed six of them to Oscar nominations.) Born in Berlin as Hermann Kosterlitz, Koster was a German Jew who by the time of Hitler's rise to power had just started to transition from a successful writing career to directing. One day in 1932, Koster lost his temper at an SS officer in a Berlin bank and punched him out cold. Realizing what the consequences would be, Koster immediately left for the train station and fled to Paris on the next train. (It didn't matter that he was still in the middle of making a movie.) Soon he was directing pictures in Hungary for his friend, producer Joe Pasternak. When Pasternak went to Hollywood in 1936 he took Koster with him, and the two saved Universal from bankruptcy by making a number of hugely popular Deanna Durbin vehicles, starting with Three Smart Girls (1936). Koster received an Oscar® nomination for The Bishop's Wife (1947), a Samuel Goldwyn production, and also directed Harvey (1950), perhaps his best-known film. After a stint at MGM, Koster wound up at Twentieth Century-Fox, where he remained until his retirement in 1965. There were various loanouts along the way, however, including one back to MGM to direct The Power and the Prize.

In an interview years later, Koster recalled his casting of Elisabeth Mueller, a beautiful Swiss actress who had appeared in a handful of German movies and was making her Hollywood debut. "Her character was running an office of Jewish refugees in London," said Koster. "I was interested in that because I had gone through that, and experienced quite a bit of the consequences of Hitler's dictatorship in Europe.

"We didn't have a girl to play the part. I saw a photograph in a magazine of a girl named Elisabeth Mueller, who was on the stage in Switzerland. [The studio] said to me, 'Why don't you call her? You can at least speak German to her.' The studio was very happy if you found a new star. They always wanted to find a new Garbo or Hedy Lamarr. I got her phone number somehow. I told her my name and that I was making a picture, and asked if she could come and make a test. She asked, 'Where are you calling from? Zurich?' I said, 'No, from Hollywood.' And she almost fainted. Hollywood to all European actors means heaven."

Mueller made a strong impression ("she should be rated as a 'comer,'" announced Variety), but after the movie she returned to Zurich to work on the stage and make a few more European films. In 1959 she would star in one more Hollywood production, The Angry Hills opposite Robert Mitchum, before retiring from the screen.

Producer: Nicholas Nayfack
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Robert Ardrey, Howard Swigett (novel)
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Hans Peters
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Robert Taylor (Cliff Barton), Elisabeth Muller (Miriam Linka), Burl Ives (George Salt), Charles Coburn (Guy Eliot), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Carew), Mary Astor (Mrs. George Salt).
BW-99m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold



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