Power and Glory
William K. Howard
Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 14 April 2005
Source 35mm print
In 1932, an unemployed screenwriter named Preston Sturges hunkered down with his personal secretary to write what he hoped would become a blockbuster script. Having just been unceremoniously dumped by Universal Studios for failing to deliver an acceptable adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man, Sturges was a man with a lot to prove. Having only recently fled to the West Coast after a huge Broadway hit (followed by a string of similarly high-profile misses), he was still looking to gain a foothold in the notoriously competitive town.
In search of inspiration, he delved into his own past, or more accurately, that of his ex-wife. In 1930, Sturges had landed himself on the front page of The New York Times for eloping with breakfast foods heiress Eleanor Post Hutton against her parents’ wishes. While their marriage didn’t last, during their time together he absorbed many of the tales Eleanor recounted about her grandfather, C.W. Post, the founder of the General Foods Corporation.
Wealth and power had always fascinated Sturges, who had grown up around it but not immersed in it. Using Post’s tumultuous life as a jumping-off point, he fashioned a story of the rise and fall of a railroad tycoon named Tom Garner. While the themes of Sturges’ screenplay were hardly groundbreaking (self-made man works his way up to fame and fortune, alienating friends and family members along the way and ultimately paying the price), the manner in which he told it was.
The Power and the Glory, which was quickly snapped by Fox’s Jesse Lasky, who assigned William K. Howard to direct, opens with Garner’s funeral. From there, the action swiftly moves to Garner’s best friend, who sits down with his wife and begins to recount stories about the late man’s life. These stories shift back and forth through time, a non-chronological technique that has been widely acknowledged as a direct influence on Citizen Kane [Orson Welles himself is reported to have said he wore out a print of The Power and the Glory, taking careful note of its structure, before filming Kane]. Years later, in his autobiography, Sturges reflected on this decision, stating, “I chose the nonchronological structure of the screenplay because I noticed that when Eleanor would recount adventures, the lack of chronology interfered not at all with one’s pleasure in the stories, and that, in fact, its absence often sharpened the impact of the tale.”
This inventiveness is one of the chief reasons to welcome the recently restored print of the film. In addition, Sturges’ screenplay employed a device the studio publicity department would later dub “narratage,” that is, having the narrator speak the characters’ dialogue while the characters only moved their lips, giving certain scenes a silent-movie feel.
Other aspects of the script are less dazzling: while Spencer Tracy’s performance in the lead remains effective, the character of Tom is slightly inconsistent, with his youthful scenes exhibiting none of the drive and steely ambition that would mark scenes of his later years. In true Sturges fashion, however, the female characters are sharply etched, especially Tom’s wife, played with poignancy by silent-film star Colleen Moore.
Overall, it seem appropriate that The Power and the Glory is largely remembered in the context of Sturges’ career. Although he would go on to make a name for himself writing and directing side-splitting comedies, the movie, which was filmed exactly as written, showcases his oft-unacknowledged versatility as a screenwriter. Moreover, Sturges later wrote that the time he spent observing Howard on the set gave him “a tremendous yen to direct, coupled with the absolutely positive hunch that [he] could.” A milestone indeed.