The Power and the Glory (1933) has been called the earliest American fiction film to make extensive use of narration. Directed by William K. Howard and scripted by Preston Sturges, the film predates many of the techniques that would later be used by Orson Welles for his famous and widely acclaimed debut feature, Citizen Kane, released almost a decade later.
Thomas Farner (Spencer Tracy), a railroad tycoon unable to cope with feelings of guilt for betraying his own family, kills himself. His best friend of many years, Henry (Ralph Morgan), returns home from his burial. As soon as he does, his wife starts to speak ill of the deceased. Henry immediately takes Farners’ side and begins to tell the man’s story.
Heavily promoted by the Twentieth-Century Fox publicity department as the first film to make use of the “narratage” technique, a word by them invented, The Power and the Glory is structured via achronological flashbacks and makes extensive use of voice-over, with the narrator, Henry, delineating the story and often speaking the characters’ dialogue. Allegedly, Howard stuck very closely to Sturges’ script. The screenwriter explained in a letter to his father that The Power and the Glory was “neither a silent film nor a talking film but rather a combination. It embodies the action of a silent picture, the reality of voice and the storytelling economy and richness of characterization.”
Indeed, the story itself, about a man rising the ranks from simple and illiterate railroad worker to tycoon, largely thanks to the help and support of his wife Sally (Colleen Moore), and eventually letting his power get to his head, leading him on a path to self-destruction, was not particularly original. What was unique about the film was precisely the structure and approach used to tell the story: the multiple-viewpoint, while exposing Farner’s selfishness and antisocial behaviour, also does a lot to exculpate him.
In a sense, The Power and the Glory could be seen as representing a type of cinema that is an “empathy machine,” as Mark Cousins might say, providing one with the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Ultimately, however, it is up to the individual spectator to make up their minds about their feelings on this tycoon.
Yet, there may be another aspect that is often overlooked: Farner’s story is told by a man to his wife; by exculpating him, he may be communicating to her his own repressed emotions. This also speaks volumes about one’s appropriation of another man’s life story for his own personal needs, particularly haunting when we consider that this is the story of a man who has recently tragically died.
While simpler than Citizen Kane, The Power and the Glory provides a compelling and surprisingly interactive portrayal of an antihero. Despite this, Welles denied ever having seen the film, though he may have been aware of it. Nonetheless, the film was a box office disappointment for Fox, in spite of the heavy promotion and being warmly received by the critics. It was also lost for many years, which may partially explain why it less known than it should be to this day. – ★★★★
THE POWER AND THE GLORY | 1933, USA | Drama | Directed by – William K. Howard / Produced by – Jesse L. Lasky / Written by – Preston Sturges / Cinematography – James Wong Howe / Edited by – Paul Weatherwax / Starring – Spencer Tracy, Colleen Moore, Ralph Morgan | Running time: 76 mins.