Classic Movies · Where's That Been?

Where’s That Been? – The Power and the Glory (1933)


The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?”  Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here.  Enjoy! 

Industrialist Thomas Garner (Spencer Tracy) is dead. A man who rose from a life of hardscrabble poverty (he didn’t learn to read and write until the age of twenty) to become president of one of the country’s largest railroad lines, Garner was not thought of highly by many folks…including an elevator operator at the building that houses the company’s base of operations, who makes rather disparaging remarks about Tom to Garner’s longtime secretary Henry (Ralph Morgan). Henry gives the employee a sharp rebuke.

Later at home, Henry’s wife (Sarah Padden) expresses similar disapproval, which prompts Henry to reminisce about Garner’s life. The two men were chums in boyhood, and while Henry pursued the road to higher education, Tom was content to become a “track walker” for the railroad. Tom’s marriage to a schoolteacher, Sally (Colleen Moore), would be the catalyst for his rise in the business world. Sally persuades him to better himself (agreeing to take over his track walking job while he attends school) and Tom eventually climbs the ladder of success.

Colleen Moore and Spencer Tracy in The Power and the Glory (1933)

But as the Bible tells us: “For what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Garner’s ascendancy to the corporate peak does not come without setbacks: his son, Tom, Jr. (Philip Trent), is a spoiled wastrel expelled from college (for excessive partying) and forced to work as a bookkeeper in his father’s firm at $16 a week. Later in life, Tom falls in love with a younger woman, Eve Borden (Helen Vinson)—an event which results in the suicide of first wife Sally. Garner’s life doesn’t get happier after marring Eve (it is hinted that an assignation with Tom, Jr. produced a son Tom, Sr. believes is his) and eventually this leads to his tragic death.

The Power and the Glory (1933) was the first screenplay by future director Preston Sturges, who came to Hollywood (working on several films contributing dialogue) on the strength of his stage success with Strictly Dishonorable in 1930. He pitched the idea to producer Jesse L. Lasky, who liked it enough to ask Sturges for a rough treatment and was completely bowled over when the young writer turned in a full shooting script. Preston was paid $17,500 and a small percentage of the profits—a deal that was quite unusual at the time but is now common practice in the motion picture industry.

poster2Interesting parallels between The Power and the Glory and the celebrated Citizen Kane (1941) have not gone unnoticed by movie critics over the years. Sturges admitted the inspiration for Power’s Thomas Garner came in the form of C.W. Post, the founder of the Postum Cereal Company (later to become General Foods) and Preston’s second wife’s grandfather. (The character of Charles Foster Kane in Kane was modeled after newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, of course.) Sturges maintained that except for the fact that Post lived a rags-to-riches story which led to his suicide in the end, Post was nothing like the fictional Thomas Garner.

The narrative structures of both Power and Kane are quite similar, in that the life of both its protagonists is told in non-linear flashback. Power’s use of this device was quite innovative in its day; Fox even promoted his use of montage and narration as “narratage.” (The term didn’t catch on.) Orson Welles claimed to have never seen The Power and the Glory (and considering its poor take at the box office, it’s easy to take him at face value) but Herman J. Mankiewicz was a close friend of Preston Sturges,’ so it would require quite a suspension of disbelief to discount that the movie didn’t have at least a minimal effect on Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane. 

Critic Pauline Kael insisted in her seminal New Yorker essay “Raising Kane,” that not only was The Power and the Glory a major influence on Citizen Kane but she identified Power as a “lost film,” scolding the movie industry for not doing more to preserve it. (Technically, she was right: the negative and master lavender of Power were both destroyed in the infamous 1937 studio fire that robbed movie lovers of so many treasures.) The motion picture ultimately resurfaced when a print was discovered in France, allowing critics to see that Kael slightly overstated the case for Power as classic cinema.

Tracy and Moore in later years in the film

The movie’s brief running time (76 minutes) works to the film’s detriment: the audience can’t get a complete picture of how Thomas Garner’s character is ultimately corrupted by power. It’s stated that with the passage of time, wife Sally became a complete harridan, yet apart from the scene in which she pushes her husband to better himself, we’re never shown the shrew of Henry’s reminisces (truth be told, Sally comes off as a tragic figure). Tom, Jr.’s situation in life also gets short shrift: sure, he appears to have squandered the ample opportunities he’s received as the son of a great and powerful man, but was this the result of being ignored by Tom, Sr. in his father’s ruthless pursuit of ambition? It’s up to us to fill in the blanks.

The use of several narrators in Citizen Kane proves more beneficial to that film’s theme of the rise and fall of its protagonist, whereas The Power and the Glory is presented through the eyes of one man (Henry) only, who understandably has an unshakable loyalty to the individual he considers his best friend. In one scene, Thomas Garner confronts striking railroad workers and threatens to bring in the state militia if they don’t back down from their demands. The skirmish between the militia and the strikers results in the deaths of nearly 400 men, and it is this event (among many) that Henry’s wife cites in her condemnation of Garner. Henry’s feeble response is that he can’t be certain if Tom was responsible. (The union boss is stereotypically portrayed in the way most union leaders are in Hollywood films at that time.)

Helen Vinson and Spence

Critics were most laudatory of Spencer Tracy’s performance in The Power and the Glory, and it represents some of the actor’s best early film work, even if the makeup man threatened to sabotage Tracy by presenting his character in later years in a get-up befitting a high school play. I was much more impressed by Colleen Moore, who was returning to films since her “retirement” in 1929 (she and Helen Vinson were loaned out to Fox by MGM) and demonstrates that had Power performed better at the box office the star of such films as Ella Cinders (1926) and Why Be Good? (1929) might have enjoyed greater success in the talkies. (Moore hung it up for good after 1934’s The Scarlet Letter.)

The direction on The Power and the Glory by the underrated William K. Howard is most assured, with one of the film’s major strengths being its first-rate cinematography from James Wong Howe. The movie’s disappointing box office performance temporarily slowed screenwriter Preston Sturges’ ambition to be a director, but by 1940, there would be no stopping one of the true masters of screwball comedy as he would helm any number of classics like The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). In 2014, The Power and the Glory received its long critical due when it was selected to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

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