Populism and Politics in Robert Penn Warren and Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (Web Exclusive)
by Brian Neve
With the Trump Presidency exposing the vulnerabilities of liberal democratic politics, All the King’s Men, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, is as timely today as it was in 1949. Robert Rossen’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel invites reassessment from its roots—Huey Long’s gubernatorial record in Louisiana, from the late 1920s until his assassination in 1935, and Warren’s treatment of Long in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Winn Parish, where Long grew up, was a small farming town that had been a stronghold of the People’s Party during that populist movement’s heyday in the 1890s. In his second, successful campaign for governor, in 1928, Long campaigned on the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.” With a series of progressive social programs he set about transforming a state known for its backwardness and poverty, and his accomplishments included the construction of roads, hospitals, and bridges, improvements in mental health, free school textbooks, and a new university. He survived an impeachment trial in 1929, and, although he won a Senate seat in 1930, he left Louisiana for Washington only two years later, retaining a firm grip (in part through a compliant governor) on the politics of the state. He became a master of publicity, taking his case directly to his rural and small-town base and using his own partisan newspaper, and radio, to strengthen his rhetorical identification with the popular will. (He also pioneered loudspeaker trucks.) Renowned political scientist V. O. Key referred to Long’s unparalleled record of extortion and bribery, but argued that he “kept his faith with his people and they with him” and that he could not be described as fascist or communist. Journalist H. L. Mencken described Long as a backwoods demagogue, but historian Alan Brinkley and biographer T. Harry Williams presented a subtler picture, balancing his achievements and strong popular support with his ruthless political maneuvering.
Neither novel nor film deals directly with national politics. After supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932, Long later attacked him, calling for a more radical extension of New Deal policies and a redistribution of wealth as part of his national Share Our Wealth movement, founded in 1934. That campaign helped to push the president to the left in 1935, and Roosevelt feared Long as a potential third-party candidate in the following year’s election. In September 1935, as he maintained a tight grip on Louisiana politics but faced passionate opposition, “The Kingfish,” as he called himself, was assassinated at the state capitol by a young Baton Rouge physician, Carl Austin Weiss, who was the son-in-law of a local judge who had opposed the Long machine.
Long’s rise and shocking fall inspired writers and filmmakers. With its story of Buzz Windrip, candidate and dictatorial president, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, created a much more obviously “fascist” variant of the case. Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on Long, which aired in 1985, presents plenty of interviews with supportive rural folk while also highlighting the growth of local anti-Long forces, both conservative and liberal. Among commentators on Long’s national ambitions featured in Burns’s film, radical journalist I. F. Stone remembers fearing the emergence of an American dictator.
Poet, novelist, critic, and academic Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989) gave literary stature to the Long story. He observed Louisiana state politics firsthand while working at the State University from 1933 to 1942, and in 1939, while on a scholarship visit to Mussolini’s Rome, wrote a play about the subject. In 1943, he began what would become the 600-page novel that presents the rise and fall of a Southern politician called Willie Stark, although its focus is as much on philosophical as political issues. In the novel, Warren spends less time on Stark than on his key aide and associate, Jack Burden, who becomes a kind of fellow traveller, but also muses on intellectual and historical issues, from the relationship between good and evil in politics to the extent that individuals are responsible for their actions. Burden narrates throughout and the novel includes substantial sections on his early experiences as well as a chapter on his life, and ruminations, after Stark’s assassination.
Born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in New York, Robert Rossen moved to Hollywood in 1936, and for eight years as a contract screenwriter with Warner Bros. specialized in the social problem and gangster genres. Ruthlessly ambitious district attorneys and prosecutors are the subjects of the first two films he co-wrote, They Won’t Forget and Marked Woman (both 1937). The first, based on the Leo Frank case of 1915, deals with racism and injustice in the Deep South, while the second (adapted from court transcripts) explores the lives of Mary Dwight (Bette Davis) and a group of “hostesses” who are exploited by a New York gangster. As war approached, Rossen dealt indirectly with fascism with his adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (1941) and Out of the Fog (1941), a watered-down version of Irwin Shaw’s 1939 Group Theatre fable. While at Warners he was a member of the Communist Party in Hollywood (in its Popular Front phase and during the war) and also chaired the Hollywood Writers Mobilization. He left the studio in 1944. Among his subsequent writing credits, before he turned to directing in 1947, was The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), another story involving issues of class and political corruption, and a district attorney (Kirk Douglas) with ambitions to become governor.
Impatient with what he saw as Hollywood’s continuing preference for “Cinderella stories,” Rossen directed an elegant, tough crime story, Johnny O’Clock (1947), at Columbia Pictures, before being invited by Roberts Productions (in part because of his left-wing politics) to direct Abraham Polonsky’s politically resonant boxing story Body and Soul at the newly established Enterprise Studio. (Rossen recruited the black actor Canada Lee, who had starred in Orson Welles’s 1941 Broadway production of Native Son, to play the boxer Ben Chaplin.) That same year brought the first hearings on communism in Hollywood by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), with Rossen one of nineteen “unfriendly” witnesses subpoenaed by the Committee. (Along with seven others, he was not called to testify when the hearings were suspended.) The success of Body and Soul (his fourth film with John Garfield) led directly to Rossen signing a three-year contract with Harry Cohn at Columbia that allowed him to have real autonomy as writer, director, and producer. Although Rossen was briefly interested in other properties, including Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, he decided early on to adapt Warren’s well-received novel as his first personal project.
The scale of Warren’s book raised immediate questions. The director used other writers, and consulted Warren, but finally began filming with a screenplay that shifted the focus to Willie Stark while covering most of the novel’s plot and characters. Cohn respected Rossen’s autonomy, although he overruled the use of a flashback structure that began and ended with Stark’s impeachment. Another early decision was to shoot mainly on location, and to use nonprofessional actors in many small roles, as with the small but significant speaking part of Stark’s father. The film was to focus on the protagonist’s political arc, the rise and fall of Willie Stark, and although key passages of Burden’s narration were retained, that character is no longer center stage. Philadelphia-born Broderick Crawford was entrusted with the role of Stark, despite his limited Hollywood experience, while John Ireland was recruited to portray Jack Burden. While the new focus brought Huey Long immediately to mind, the effect of the semidocumentary approach, and shooting in small towns in North California, was to universalize Warren’s story and move further away from the specifics of Louisiana (the state is never mentioned by name in the film), or indeed the South. Filming took place from late November 1948 to early January 1949, followed by a prolonged period of editing, with successive versions being previewed before the film’s premiere in November 1949.
Early on, Rossen had Don Siegel in mind for what he saw as the important role of second-unit director. Siegel had already begun work as a director but was still known for his numerous montages for Warner Bros. The semi-documentary approach was then well known in Hollywood, particularly given Louis de Rochemont’s work at Twentieth Century-Fox (e.g., Elia Kazan’s Boomerang in 1947) but here Rossen attempted a more freewheeling, “off-the-cuff” approach. The use of montages, usually linked to Burden’s narration of events, allows inclusion of more of Warren’s plot. Although this practice was a standard Hollywood technique, often using stock footage, this form of storytelling was enhanced here by the use of material from scenes that were shot but subsequently discarded. The director worked closely with Robert Parrish and various editors (notably Al Clark) to get maximum use of this material, while delivering a shorter and more coherent final cut.
Stark’s rise to the governorship is the focus, and montages, periodic first-person narration, and “crossing the river” shots (used on four occasions as Burden returns to his ancestral home) provide the structure. We are introduced to a “high society” circle at Burden’s Landing—Burden’s mother and stepfather, his girlfriend Anne (Joanne Dru), her surgeon brother Adam Stanton (Shepperd Strudwick), and their uncle, Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf). A key turning point in the film comes when Burden is asked by Governor Stark to discover some “dirt” on the judge, who resigns from the administration and becomes a key opponent, encouraging the move toward impeachment. In Warren’s book, this role is played by a separate figure, Judge Irwin, who turns out to be Burden’s father. The omission of this and Burden’s backstory reduce the weight of the sometime narrator’s moral dilemmas, and simplifies the role played by the Stanton characters, particularly Anne Stanton, who has an affair with Stark. (Despite updating the period to the 1950s, Steve Zallian’s version of Warren’s novel, released in 2006 and starring Sean Penn as Willie Stark, hews much closer to its source, although it had much less impact on its release.)
The early scenes of All the King’s Men show Burden discovering Stark as a shambling, ineffectual candidate for county treasurer, manipulated by local politicians. (“They say he’s an honest man,” says the newspaper editor who assigns him to follow Stark’s first campaign.) But the alienated Burden (“I’m too rich to work”) sees potential in Stark, who, after earning a law degree, emerges as an angry and powerful contender for Governor. Pitching himself to the wealthy folks of Burden’s Landing, Stark admits that he will make a “deal with the devil” to achieve his goals. The most effective elements of Stark’s “rise” are powerfully sketched, beginning with his key speech in a losing campaign at a barbecue in Upton. Cosseted by Burden, candidate Stark—angered upon learning he has been cynically used by the local political machine—is seen perching on a child’s swing at the fairground, drinking coffee laced with liquor, while shooing away two small girls. Stark finds his true voice at this event, and begins his pact with the “hicks” from the small towns and farms. After a four-year hiatus, Stark and Burden are reunited, this time in a successful gubernatorial campaign. Stark is portrayed by Crawford—who won an Academy Award for his performance—as a figure with more animal energy than political guile, but with perfect pitch in addressing the poor and disempowered. (His audiences do not contain black Americans, something that reflects the reality of Long’s campaign, which was relatively moderate on the issue of race at a time when blacks were disenfranchised at elections.)
Stark has now learned how to win, and a montage shows the potency of his campaign. We see his campaign’s huge signs and banners that sketch Stark’s populist mantra, central to his new and this-time winning gubernatorial campaign, including “The People’s Will Should Be the Law of the State,” and (the principle for the new National Health Service in Britain in 1948) “Free Medicine for all the People Not as a Charity but as a Right.” The same montage, however, also indicates the other side of Stark—specifically, the rumors that he has been making “strange deals” to fund his campaign war chest. In a night-time speech from the state capitol, Governor Stark renews his populist vows to his public, speaking beneath a huge portrait suggesting scenes from Citizen Kane or the massive street banners of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today.
Rossen captures the “us against the world” energy of an outsider’s campaign. Alongside the cerebral Burden, the “researcher,” is another key staffer, Sadie Burke, played by radio actress Mercedes McCambridge in her first, Oscar-winning screen role. Dressed regularly in mannish clothes (at one point a kind of dinner jacket and bow tie), Burke is a highly professional member of Stark’s staff. But she is at times insecure, not only because of Stark’s affair with Anne (a more likely president’s wife, as she tells Burden, looking at herself in the mirror), but also someone insufficiently valued for the job she does. She needs the work (she lived in a “shack”), and can’t afford Burden’s sense of existential self-regard and potential rebelliousness. While her character is underdeveloped, the interplay between the campaign team’s members is dramatically charged, and McCambridge uses her vocal range and sometimes idiosyncratic delivery to suggest her character’s sparky independence, albeit remaining one of the king’s “men.”
The explicitness of Stark’s betrayal of his wife Lucy with Sadie Burke and then Anne Stanton suggests an erosion of Hollywood censorship. Joseph Breen had told Harry Cohn (in December 1948)¹ that the phrase ‘two-timing’ was unacceptable because of the “unmistakable implication of an illicit sex affair between Sadie and Willie,” but the phrase, and the implication, nevertheless survives in the film. Regarding the “high-toned” Anne Stanton (Burke’s description), the motivation for her (off-screen) affair with the Governor is left unclear. Dru hardly plays her as a femme fatale, although structurally that is her role, as her relationship with a man that her brother holds in contempt prompts Adam’s sudden emergence as an assassin. In the novel, Anne tells Jack that Adam “wouldn’t be paid pimp to his sister’s whore,” but the nearest the film gets to this is Burden’s sarcastic but less revealing line to her that, “There is no God but Willie Stark. I’m his prophet and you’re his—”
Rossen wanted to counteract the impression that Stark’s supporters are completely passive. He created a scene, for example, where one of his firm believers, workingman Richard Hale, refuses to be bribed to cover up the role of a drunken Tom Stark (the Governor’s adopted son, played by John Derek) in the serious injury and subsequent death of his daughter in a car crash. The ending is also new to the film, as Burden, following the fatal shooting of Stark, tells Anne Stanton that, “We’ve got to go on living so that Adam’s death has meaning, so that it wasn’t wasted.” He adds that Stark’s followers must be persuaded to “see Willie as Adam always saw him,” a line that almost seems to endorse political assassination, and certainly provides no long-term solution to the problems that Stark (with all his faults) addressed, but the Burden’s Landing social set did not.
The documentarist and left critic Paul Rotha wrote of the film’s “flair and gusto,” but saw the ending as “defeatist,” as failing to show how democratic action could have worked. (Rossen might reply that he was a “realist” and had followed the novel, and, indeed, actual events in Louisiana; after all, he had fought Polonsky’s ending for Body and Soul, arguing that “in reality” the Garfield character, on defying his manager in the boxing ring, would have ended up dead.)
Other reviewers drew attention to problems of characterization while accepting the film’s undeniable visual impact. Parker Tyler saw the cuts to the novel as coarsening and simplifying the film, while Richard Winnington wrote of a “choppily contrived script” and a too-literal representation of the novel. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote of the film’s “quality, turbulence and vitality,” and the way, with “superb pictorialism,” it “looks on extreme provincialism with a candid and pessimistic eye.” To the reviewer for Time magazine, this was “the best of recent Hollywood attempts to fuse studio and documentary styles,” with Rossen borrowing from “the modern Italian directors” to give the film “vitality and power.” Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) had been shown in the United States in 1946 and his Paisan (Paisà, 1946) in 1948. The democratic socialist Irving Howe in Partisan Review was unconvinced by Jack Burden’s apparent moral problem, although he felt that this criticism could to a degree also be applied to the novel. He felt that the film became “highly charged when the camera is permitted to watch Stark’s rise to power.” He also employed a term that was increasingly used at the time in suggesting that Burden’s supposedly moral dilemma, in his attachment to Stark, was better seen as “a problem in the psychology of totalitarian affiliation.”
The postwar years in America had seen a weakening of the left and the emergence of new foreign policy concerns. Warren’s novel was perhaps influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s thoughts on original sin, while George Orwell had popularized the notion of totalitarianism that Arthur Schlesinger, key anticommunist liberal of the postwar years (and a participant, with Niebuhr, in the new, liberal, anticommunist organization, Americans for Democratic Action), recalled as being increasingly “in the air” at that time. A few years later, in 1952, the historian J. L. Talmon further promoted the notion, linking it to what he saw as the plebiscitary dangers of a notion of democracy derived from Rousseau’s notion of the general will.
In the film, Burden and Adam Stanton briefly debate Stark’s politics. In reply to Burden’s view that the people of the state don’t think that Stark is evil, Adam asks, “How would they know?” adding that the “first thing Stark did was to take over the newspapers and the radio stations.” This line seems to have been added by Rossen and perhaps reflects postwar concerns about the dangers of a monopoly of mass communications, one of the strands of the totalitarian model. The film is not entirely consistent here, since the use of montages of newspaper headlines (in the Warner Bros. manner) suggests an active media role in challenging Stark’s power. (Given Huey Long’s conflicts with outposts of federal power in his state, a notion of his “total” power was never very persuasive.) Headlines report the resigning Attorney General’s charges against the Governor, while a radio announcement (during a “photo op” at Stark’s rural homestead) reports on the discovery of the body of Richard Hale, apparently beaten to death. In this respect, the film echoes Long’s obsession with his failure, for all his speeches, handbills, and his personal newspaper, to eradicate growing anti-Long public sentiment in Louisiana and beyond. Even the clearest indication of Stark’s national ambitions, the March of Time-type newsreel he watches with Burden, seems relatively balanced. In another nod to Welles, the newsreel refers to the state as “filled with his accomplishments,” and concludes by questioning whether he is “Messiah or Dictator.” Louis de Rochemont’s actual March of Time segment on Long, in April 1935, was much more critical of the Louisiana “dictator.”
The political reception to All the King’s Men was particularly interesting. The important context was Rossen’s association with the Hollywood left over many years and the circumstances of his final break with the party. Hollywood Ten members Ring Lardner Jr. and Edward Dmytryk recalled a meeting, probably in late 1949 after the film’s release, at which key party figures, notably John Howard Lawson, criticized All the King’s Men. The result, apparently, was to hasten Rossen’s departure from the Communist Party. Something of the left’s critique is indicated by Jose Yglesias’s contemporaneous review (November 9, 1949) in the Communist Party’s New York-based Daily Worker, a newspaper that had referred to Long himself, before his death, as “Louisiana’s Hitler” (March 12, 1935). Yglesias thought the film was exciting to watch, capturing something of the “fever pitch excitement of big time politics,” yet he felt there was little in the story to show who profited by Stark’s reign or “what function he serves in a system of class rule.”
When called before HUAC again in 1951, at the beginning of the Committee’s second wave of hearings, Rossen took the Fifth Amendment when asked about fellow members, but testified that he was not presently a party member. Only in 1953, after two years on the blacklist, and some time in both Europe and Mexico, did he reluctantly appear again before HUAC and name names. He talked of Earl Browder’s 1945 exit as party leader, and related changes in the party line. Most of all, as he later told actor Mickey Knox, he “had to work.” Alan Casty has revealed that in 1953 Rossen wrote a letter,² intended for The New York Times, but never sent, in which he recalled that some of his Communist Party critics had compared the figure of Stark and his political machine to Stalin and the Soviet apparatus. Perhaps Rossen, who in November 1949 described his film’s theme in terms of the danger of what happens “when a man sets himself up above people and decides only he knows what is good for them,” had, like others in a period of political crisis and change, several cases on his mind.
The Hollywood right had its own take. John Wayne took an immediate dislike to the script, which had been sent to him when he was apparently being considered for the Willie Stark role. In October 1948, Wayne wrote to his agent, Charlie Feldman, rejecting the role and characterizing the screenplay as one of unlikable characters, and as hostile to the American way of life. Wayne, who was installed as president of the four-year-old Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in March 1949, later expressed similar hostility to Carl Foreman’s screenplay for High Noon (1952). Wayne continued to hold these views, attacking Rossen (who died in 1966) in an interview with Playboy magazine in May 1971. In terms of late Forties debates about mass entertainment, the 1949 film, with its heavy dose of cynicism and lack of conventional heroes or heroines, was evidence to some in Hollywood of the way a new generation of filmmakers were at odds with traditional Hollywood nostrums. William Wilkerson, the conservative founder and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, declared this preference for “pure entertainment,” and associated the 1947 House Committee hearings with what he saw as a rightful purge of “realist” writers and directors who wanted to depart from this model and present a grimmer world of struggle and message.
All the King’s Men has not usually been regarded as a film noir, but it does have thematic elements and motifs suggestive of noir as a general tradition in various artistic forms. Warren, for example, plumbs Burden’s loneliness, along with his lack (for a time) of moral responsibility, something he links to the “moral neutrality of history,” and the “Great Twitch.” When Burden speeds down a highway, the novelist notes that there “is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain.” Rossen doesn’t use this, and indeed cuts most of Burden’s meditations, but cinematographer Burnett Guffey (who worked the same year on Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment) makes expressive use of a series of night-time scenes, and in daylight shots uses available light to show shadows cast on walls and faces. But most of all, it is the tone that suggests the noir tradition, including the repetition of Stark’s line, later repeated by Burden, that good comes out of bad. The central device is of Burden as an investigator, finding evidence he doesn’t want to find and increasingly trapped in a relationship with Stark from which only the governor’s death releases him. Even without the debatable case of Anne Stanton as a femme fatale, all this echoes the stylistic features that French critics were discovering at the time.
For all this darkness, and the clear sense of Stark’s misuse of his popular mandate, Rossen’s adaptation stresses the need for progressive political change. As Burden says at one point, “tradition needed trampling on.” (Warren would have known about this, having begun to recant his paternalistic view of race in the South, expressed in his 1930 essay for the Southern Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand.) With the use of short scenes and montages, the emphasis is on the visceral experience of Stark’s rise to power. What was also new was the film’s sense of the modern nature of campaigning, of “opposition research,” black books, photo opportunities, hard drinking, and fractious, alienated relationships between the candidate and key staff. (Joe Klein’s anonymously penned 1996 novel Primary Colors and Mike Nichols’s 1998 adaptation offer several references to All the King’s Men, notably in the use of the name Stanton for the central protagonist.)
There is also a prescient depiction of a leader’s ardent, latterly uncritical, support base. Rossen adds some references to fascism (the torch-lit rallies and leather-jacketed troopers) but his is an American template, going beyond the agenda of “good neighborliness” in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941). Whether his vision offers relevant commentary about another era and context, and a contemporary populist politician who skipped being Governor on his way to the White House, is for the viewer to decide.
¹ Joseph Breen to Harry Cohn, December 3, 1948, All the King’s Men (1949) PCA file, PCA/MPAA collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.
² Rossen’s unsent letter of January 31, 1953, is cited in Alan Casty, Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013, p. 172).
A full list of references is available from the author at B.P.Neve@bath.ac.uk
All the King’s Men is available for viewing on Amazon Video and a Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment DVD.
Brian Neve has written books and articles on film history, most recently The Many Lives of Cy Endfield (2015). He is an associate of the University of Bath, U.K.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2