Saturday, November 08, 2014

A Man of the People

"Now, shut up! Shut up, all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you're hicks, too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I'm going to fool somebody. I'm going to stay in this race. I'm on my own and I'm out for blood."

Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford)

Robert Penn Warren's novel "All the King's Men" was published and the movie that was based on it (which premiered 65 years ago today) hit America's movie screens long before I was born — but my guess is that everyone knew it was inspired by the life of Huey Long — just as everyone probably knew that "Citizen Kane" told a fictionalized account of William Randolph Hearst's life.

I remember the first time I watched it on TV. I don't remember how old I was, only that I saw it in the TV listings, and I asked my mother if I could watch it. She said I could.

I don't recall anyone telling me that it was based on Huey Long. I just knew. I don't recall reading it anywhere, either. However old I was, I knew enough about American history and Huey Long to recognize his character as it was portrayed by Broderick Crawford.

Some people will tell you life is part of some divine plan, that things are meant to be. I don't know if that is true all the time, but I do believe it is true some of the time and with some people. Crawford, I believe, was born to play Willie Stark. I know that Sean Penn played the role in a remake half a century later, and I respect many of the performances I have seen Penn give, but he wasn't Willie Stark. Broderick Crawford was Willie Stark. The words Willie spoke seemed very natural coming from Crawford's mouth. Sometimes they seemed forced coming from Penn's.

"Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption."

Willie Stark

Stark considered himself a hick, and all the people who voted for him were hicks in his eyes as well. He spoke disparagingly of the hicks. It wasn't complimentary; it was almost a sneering kind of way, derisive. Stark knew the hicks very well — or he thought he did — and didn't have a high regard for them, but he did want to elevate them all (especially himself) above their station in life.

That — being a hick — definitely was not part of Willie Stark's plan. He was meant for grander things. That was Huey Long's belief about himself as well. And it was his undoing. Same with Willie Stark.

Huey Long lived before my time, but in my studies of American history I have read several accounts of his life. He was a professional politician, a cynic, the kind of guy who plays real hardball and plays it well, both in his private life and in the public arena. Willie Stark was that way, too.

I once heard a story about Huey Long that shows how manipulative he was.

In Louisiana, most people are Catholic or Baptist. During a campaign, Long was speaking to a predominantly Catholic audience, and he told a story of getting up early on Sunday mornings to hitch the family mule to the family wagon to go pick up his Catholic grandparents and take them to Mass.

Then, in another speech during the same campaign, Long was speaking to a predominantly Baptist audience, and he told a story of hitching the mule to the wagon on Sunday mornings to take his Baptist grandparents to church service.

One of the reporters who was covering Long's campaign approached Long and said admiringly, "Huey, you've been holding out on us. I didn't know you had Catholic grandparents on one side and Baptist grandparents on the other."

"Hell," Long replied, "we didn't even have a mule."

"You wanna know what my platform is? Here it is. I'm gonna soak the fat boys and spread it out thin."

Willie Stark

That was a story that was worthy of Willie Stark.

"All the King's Men" was nominated for seven Oscars and won three — Best Picture, Best Actor (Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge).