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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
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Ben's Top Pick for April

The Great Man (1956) - April 23

A Face in the Crowd. Ace in the Hole. Citizen Kane.

Hollywood has been producing brilliant pictures exposing the power--and the myth--of mass media for decades. Jose Ferrer's The Great Man is certainly not as well known, but it's darn close to meeting the standards achieved by those other movies, and it's essential viewing for those gripped by the propagandist capabilities of skilled media manipulators.

Ferrer is also the star--he plays Joe Harris, as stereotypically hard-boiled as a reporter in the movies can get. He's cynical and bitter, but smart as a whip and fiercely loyal to those close to him. The Great Man opens with Harris, a radio reporter for a big network, getting an assignment that could alter his career trajectory (he's currently slumming it, doing frivolous entertainment interviews). Harris' task is to deliver an emotional hour exulting the life of a "great man," Herb Fuller, the network's star radio host who died suddenly in a car accident. Do the job right and Harris could step into Fuller's considerable shoes. Tell the ugly truth about Fuller and he'll be doing traffic in weather from 4-7 am in Binghamton (no offense to Binghamton, I'm sure it's lovely).

Like Harris, many of the characters in The Great Man could collapse easily into one-dimensional tropes: an alcoholic former mistress; an oily talent manager; and the devoutly Christian small town owner of a radio station. But they all surprise you; they're all flushed out. Credit for that goes to Ferrer, who co-wrote the clever script with Al Morgan, and to the actors Ferrer cast: Julie London plays Fuller's boozy former mistress, Keenan Wynn is the manager and his father, Ed Wynn, owns the radio station. Joanne Gilbert as Harris' secretary and Dean Jagger as the president of the network make notable impressions as well.

Ferrer and Morgan's script, based on Morgan's novel--a thinly veiled indictment of Arthur Godfrey--is similar in tone, pacing and acerbic humor to Sweet Smell of Success, another savage indictment of media power maintained by unscrupulous men. In her only scene, London welcomes Harris to her apartment. He has questions about Fuller. She makes a pass at him. They kiss. "Right now you wouldn't exactly find it a chore to make love to me, would you?" she asks.

"I wouldn't find it a chore at all," he replies.

"Well, we're not going to. You know why?" she asks, whereupon you'll say, "because it's 1956 and no one made love in any movie ever unless they were married and not even then." But it's still a bold scene for the mid-'50s in a movie full of surprises and ethical dilemmas faced by authentic characters. Jose Ferrer delivered a picture every bit as on point about the dangers of mass media manipulation as those great films from Kazan, Wilder and Welles.

by Ben Mankiewicz