Monday, April 14, 2008


This little-seen movie is known by film buffs primarily as an inspiration for the narrative structure of Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE; its "unstuck in time" chronology keeps things interesting, and the cinematography by James Wong Howe is always fine, but the movie has nowhere near the fully fleshed-out characters or thematic and emotional force of KANE, though both do seem to be stories of how a man becomes rich and powerful, then unmoored and miserable. We begin at the funeral of rich and powerful railroad magnate Spencer Tracy, but the narrative unfolds as a long flashback conversation between Ralph Morgan, Tracy's loyal friend and business partner, and Morgan's wife (Sara Padden) who seems not terribly unhappy that Tracy is dead. The anecdotes play out along two chronological levels: The first story level is of Tracy growing up from a backwoods boy to an illiterate railroad "track walker" to become an educated and ambitious engineer, a husband and father, and soon head of a railroad. This story keeps getting interrupted by a second one, which follows Tracy's fall from his peak after his company becomes a conglomerate. His son is kicked out of college and Tracy reluctantly gives him a junior bookkeeping position at the railroad. Tracy begins a long-term affair with Helen Vinson, the daughter of another railroad owner, and he has to deal with a nasty strike during which hundreds of workers are killed. The clincher comes in a superbly done scene in which Tracy discovers that Vinson has been having an affair with his son, and that her baby may well be the son's and not Tracy's.

At 75 minutes, this doesn't have the time to develop its characters or situations as well as it needs to. Tracy is quite believable as both the illiterate but happy bumpkin and the powerful but unhappy businessman. Silent movie star Colleen Moore is fine as the schoolteacher who inspires Tracy to better himself and who winds up marrying him, but Vinson outshines her as the scheming mistress. Morgan, never a favorite of mine, is fairly weak, but as his role is that of a passive observer, he doesn't hurt the film too much. The non-linear narrative structure is never confusing--if everyone looks young and poor, it's storyline 1, and if they look older and put-upon, it's storyline 2. Contemporary reviews of the film mention a device called "narratage," in which Morgan, the off-camera narrator, speaks the lines that the characters we see are supposed to be saying, but I only noticed this once, in a cute scene involving Tracy nervously proposing to Moore. Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay; in the hands of a more creative director, the movie might have been more effective, but William K. Howard directs in a rather journeyman fashion--though as I noted earlier, Howe's camerawork is often striking. [FMC]

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