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MGM's The Power and the Prize is yet another of the mid-1950s 'Organization Man' movies that sought to criticize (or champion) the dynamics of postwar big business. The shows Patterns, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Executive Suite dramatized the struggles of ambitious men in workplaces where ruthlessness seems to prevail over human values. In two of the films, the opening acts are devoted to exposing the corporate structure as demanding and heartless, a place where hard men keep their spots at the top by raising the pressure on those below. Deadwood is swept aside, and the
These being American movies, we instead become witnesses to the ascension of a new executive dynamo, who will seize power but use it for the betterment of the company. What all the movies share in common is a concluding position statement, usually delivered from between clenched teeth, where the New Leader condemns 'business as usual' and vows to bring the company back in line. Thus the American way is reinforced.
The Power and the Prize displays all of these qualities. It's a pared-down MGM production, at a time when Robert Taylor got all the roles because he was the last male star still on Leo's payroll. It's a young man's role and Taylor looks pretty old for his forty-five years. But he comes off very well just the same.
From its corporate offices high in the skyscraper jungle, Amalgamated's board chairman George Salt (Burl Ives) hatches a sharp business deal with Carew Steel Ltd. in London. Salt dispatches his prize V.P., 'golden boy' Cliff Barton (Robert Taylor) with orders to stall the signing of a co-production deal on a quarry in West Africa, until the time is perfect to insist that Amalgamated not only finance, but take an ownership role. To go abroad, Cliff must postpone his marriage to Joanie Salt (Nicola Michaels), George's ward. He's surprised when Joanie doesn't object. In London, Cliff immediately takes a liking to Mr. Carew (Cedric Hardwicke) and resents setting him up for a fall, just so Salt can claim bragging rights on an international swindle. Cliff pays a visit to the run-down offices of The Artists Refugee Organization, a charity run from afar by Mrs. Salt (Mary Astor). He is immediately taken by Mrs. Miriam Linka (Elisabeth Mueller), a survivor of a concentration camp and the widow of a resistance fighter. Although the office is meant to help refugee musicians find work, Linka expresses her rage that rumors have circulated that it is a place where men can pick up attractive women that can be easily seduced and corrupted. Cliff eventually calms Miriam's objections and the two begin dating. In just a few days, he's decided he wants to marry her. Salt pressures Cliff, reminding him that pulling off the deal will win him the captaincy of Amalgamated. Cliff rejects Salt's "unprincipled strategy" and spells out the deal to Carewe for what it is. Defying George Salt will put Cliff's career in jeopardy, and also his relationship with Miriam: Carewe's man Chutwell (Ben Wright) denounces her as a prostitute... and a communist.
The Power and the Prize is the work of screenwriter Robert Ardrey, who wrote the play Thunder Rock and whose name adorns special favorite The Wonderful Country. The story here is a tightly constructed power struggle that would seem to bear out theories in Ardrey's influential nonfiction book The Territorial Imperative: man is essentially aggressive, a first strike hunter. George Salt is determined to make all of Cliff's decisions for him, including choosing whom he should marry. Salt wants Cliff as his heir, but having him double-cross Carewe Ltd. Is more than a trial of worthiness. Salt wants Cliff Barton compromised, so he can be controlled.
As an alternative to Cliff, the script presents a less respected member of the Amalgamated team, Lester Everett (Richard Erdman of Cry, Danger!). Erdman is considered unfit for promotion because his big-mouthed, hard drinking wife Elia (Mary Scott) would be a definite liability, social grace-wise. She accuses Lester of going to London to cat about with women, which is absolutely right -- the man's so depressed by Elia that that's exactly what he wants to do.
The script endorses the idea of finding salvation through the right marriage. Miriam's rebelliousness provides Cliff with the inspiration to fight back. She's a fighter, having struggled to keep predators like the Englishmen Chutwell, and John Banner's fat visitor from preying on her inexperienced refugees. Cliff has so far ignored the advice of his father, the Reverend (Cameron Prud'Homme), who senses that the callow Joanie is not a good match for him. Miriam's 'rebelliousness' is a bit overdone. She has a short temper and shouts her distaste for Americans that think they can get anything by writing a check. When Cliff sends her flowers, she takes offense. Yet, after establishing Miriam as an independent thinker, The Power and the Prize reduces her to just another mixed-up woman that doesn't know what she wants. A struggling refugee, Miriam nevertheless has a number of perfect outfits ready for fancy dates with Cliff, motoring around in a chauffeured auto. Her dream is to have a piano of her own (she works off tension by playing Mozart), which Cliff can provide. Miriam's social commitment falls by the wayside as well. She criticizes Cliff's capitalist values, yet quite easily decides that being his rich American wife is a great idea.
The most interesting, and somewhat subversive angle in this MGM picture is the business with Miriam being accused of being a Red. Cliff's federal immigration contact doesn't even want the association mentioned out loud, "Washington being what it is." The fact that Miriam's dead husband fought the Nazis is a bad thing, because he could very well have been a communist. George Salt seizes on this commie rumor as a wedge to force Cliff out of Amalgamated. A competing steel company executive accosts Cliff in a restaurant to gloat over his "scandal" in public. Mrs. Salt, Miriam's former employer, entreats her to convince Cliff to resign, as the accusation has the effect of a conviction. Fortunately for Cliff, Miriam is made of tougher stuff. Cliff has found his perfect mate, a fighter with principles to match his own. 1
The real conspiracy in The Power and the Prize is the story of the financially imploding MGM studio. MGM still maintained a studio in England, but this show was filmed reasonably cheaply on the Culver City back lot. Production head Dore Schary's tenure was almost up; he green-lit the same year's Forbidden Planet practically on his way out the door. Nicholas Nayfack produced both movies and more or less exited with Schary. Nayfack was the nephew of the legendary film executive Joseph M. Schenck. Young starlet Nicola Michaels, who plays Cliff Barton's fianceé, married actor Helmut Dantine and changed her name to Nikki Dantine for subsequent pictures. Her birth name, however, was Nicola Schenck -- she's producer Nicholas Nayfack's cousin. Another Nayfack director, Fred McLeod Wilcox, was the brother of a woman who married a Schenck as well. As MGM's staff dwindled, all of these family connections must have become more obvious.
Elisabeth Mueller (actually, M&muml;ller) was a Swiss stage actress of noted talent, who made a German film for G.W. Pabst in 1954 and was 'discovered' for American audiences. She does rather well considering how inconsistent the Miriam Linka character is. She stays resolutely faithful to her man, but the movie ignores the fact that she bails out of that ratty London charity office without even looking back. What will prevent the rotten Chutwells from corrupting all of those helpless refugee beauties?
The Power and the Prize has a big part for ex- folk singer Burl Ives, who had already done fine work in East of Eden. For most of the film's running time we wonder what the elderly, somewhat frail-looking Charles Coburn is doing in the picture. He appears in only one or two shots up front, and says almost nothing. Sure enough, his character surfaces in the final act to help pull Cliff's corporate neck out of the noose. Pretty Nicola Michaels initially comes off as a potential Grace Kelly type, but does a lot of staring at her feet in her two brief appearances later in the picture. The welcome Mary Astor also isn't around long enough to make a big impression. Among the smaller supporting characters, it's amusing to see favorite Richard Deacon start sweating when the word "Reds" becomes a serious issue. Future John Cassavetes actor Tol Avery is excellent as the slimy NY executive trying to bait Cliff.
Robert Taylor's authoritative presence pretty much holds this forgotten MGM picture together. We like him, we believe he's an ethical nice guy, and his steamroller technique of overcoming Miriam's romantic objections is applied with too much sincerity to complain about. The movie isn't all that deep -- Rod Serling's Patterns is more intense and Robert Wise's Executive Suite is more suspenseful. It also seems false when The Power and the Prize implies that, once a certain bad-apple executive has been elbowed out, Manhattan's skyscrapers will once again be clear of unprincipled business practices. And forget about the truth hidden two or three levels further down -- between the Brits and the Yanks, those Africans where the steel comes from have no say in anything. The model of an ugly strip mine has a little American flag on it. That's par for '50s entertainment fantasy. The show instead delivers a feeling of satisfaction, when Cliff re-enters his swank apartment and finds that Miriam is all the stronger for being falsely accused.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Power and the Prize is a solid, flawless enhanced transfer of this B&W CinemaScope production. An original trailer is included, that touts a particularly mysterious ad tagline: "Challenging Drama of Today's Changing Morals." Huh?
A couple of shots in the first reel threw me entirely. First, a projected background in a taxi scene seemed flopped (reversed left-to-right). The moment passed, I wasn't sure I'd seen things correctly and I didn't back up to check. Then an establishing shot of a London square with its double-decker busses pops up, and all the lettering on the busses is reversed! Was the entire reel accidentally printed flopped? Or was the bus scene alone flopped to eliminate a legal problem stemming from some advertising or signage on the bus? Or was it just a mistake and nobody wanted to pay the $200 to re-roll the optical?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Power and the Prize rates:
1. It wouldn't be reasonable to connect the film's politics with that of its star Robert Taylor. And it is of course a wise policy to check the backgrounds of immigrants to make sure none are agents of a foreign power. What's very unusual is The Power and the Prize's emphasis on what is clearly a big-scale ongoing purge of political undesirables, all across American life. George Salt gleefully smears Miriam as a "stateless, placeless, nameless refugee, with radical foreign ideas antagonistic to both the company and the country's interests." Salt doesn't care about commies; he simply uses the issue to neutralize Cliff Barton. That's how many people found themselves blacklisted -- it was a convenient way to eliminate competition, or take personal revenge.
As it is, Cliff's commitment to Miriam is never really put to the test. Would he continue to back her up if her F.B.I. file was tainted?
2. A note from Dick Dinman, June 19, 2013:
Glenn, interesting review of The Power & The Prize and must admit that Elisabeth Mueller really gets on my nerves to the point wherein Taylor's ardor totally mystifies me. (Talk about an upcoming marriage made in hell.) Audiences at the time were totally confused by the three "P&P" titles released within weeks of each other: The Power & The Prize, The Proud & The Profane, and The Pride & The Passion. All tanked. -- D.D.
3. A note from Kevin Deany , June 19, 2013:
Hi Glenn. In the days before the TCM cable channel, TNT cable used to be the place to go for old movies, even with commercials, thanks to Ted Turner owning large chunks of the Warners/M-G-M library. They had some very creative programming back then. I remember one evening they showed George Hamilton in The Power followed by Paul Newman in The Prize and ending the evening with Robert Taylor in The Power and the Prize. -- Kevin Deany
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