Reportedly a major influence on Orson Welles when making Citizen Kane, this was Preston Sturges debut film script which was apparently loosely based on the life of C. W. Post, his second wife’s grandfather, though their careers were very different as Post founded a cereal company which became General Foods, whereas the fictional Tom Garner (Spencer Tracey) works his way up to become the president of the railroad.
It’s often described as only a drama but that does it a disservice, as there’s a good few scenes which are fairly comedic, especially early on in the film which shouldn’t come as a shock given that Sturges wrote it. The film is at its best in these early scenes too, even though chronologically it leaps all over the place, as we learn about the friendship between Tom and his lifelong friend Henry (Ralph Morgan), and how they met is rather sweet as Henry couldn’t swim and Tom teaches him while also defending him from a local bully.
Henry’s wife (who remains nameless, but was played by Sarah Padden) has nothing good to say about Tom however, and suggests it was a good thing that he eventually killed himself. A discourse between Henry and his wife occurs every so often with the wife always complaining about Tom, with Henry defending him each and every time. Some of these scenes really aren’t needed, especially towards the end where they threaten to become repetitive, but it does help make clear how many people objected to the way Tom treated them and that only Henry seems to have a good word about the man.
During one of these sequences when Henry talks about how amazing Tom was, and how unlike any other man, he suggests “You can’t judge him by ordinary standards. It wouldn’t fit him”, but the film’s main problem is that we never really see any examples of that. As a kid he might’ve been full of moxie but the twenty year old Tom seems quite the dope, happy to watch life slide by and becoming tongue tied around his future wife Sally (Colleen Moore), in a nicely amusing scene he takes up her a mountain to propose but can’t get the words out until they’re at the very top and completely exhausted.
As the domineering president of the railroad he’s certainly a confident and persuasive individual, but again nowhere near the titan of a man that Henry makes him out to be. In the first half it’s not so much of an issue but it really is when we reach the second half of the movie which is far less entertaining as Tom falls for another woman which leads Sally to commit suicide, and becomes involved in a company wide strike which ends with the deaths of over four hundred men when they start a fire and the police become involved, and it’s extremely difficult to understand why Henry keeps on defending his friend.
A fairly short movie at 75 minutes, if we had been given even just a couple of examples of why Tom was supposed to be such a great man it might have made the film more effective, but as it is it’s the tale of a man who was fairly decent, became obsessed with power and became a bit of a shit, and that’s all really. Sturges script definitely saves it from not being worth watching, and Henry’s narration has some amusing lines, while when Tom is seducing either Sally or Eve it’s at its most amusing, but the second half unfortunately descends in to melodrama, especially when Sally kills herself and the scenes where so many others die and the aftermath of such an event is glossed over far too quickly.
The (for the time) unusual structure works to its benefit, as the older Tom is rarely enjoyable enough to spend time with but least we often flit back to the twentysomething one, even if Spencer Tracey doesn’t make for a particularly convincing 20 year old even though he was aged just 33 at the time of filming, and is far more convincing as an older man. Otherwise the performances are largely strong thankfully, with Colleen Moore particularly effective when she hears that Tom is no longer in love with her.
It’s one of those films which you can see why it was so heavily praised at the time, and Sturges’ script makes it a great deal more palatable than it could have been in less skilled hands. But not enough evidence is provided to suggest that Tom Garner truly deserved to have his life story told in such a way, and there are large chunks of his tale concerning how he went from uneducated slacker to a powerful businessman whose absence is glaring.