Sunday, 26 September 2010

Huey Long, a socialist in a country which loathes socialists. He was gunned down at 42, though there's no suggestion the two are somehow linked

Over these past few days, I have watched, virtually back to back, both film versions of All The Kings Men. The first, written and directed by Robert Rossen in 1949 and starring Broderick Crawford, is usually described as ‘a masterpiece’. Well, it’s certainly very good and very entertaining but, in my view, it isn’t ‘a masterpiece’. Incidentally, believe it or not before Crawford was cast, John Wayne was approached to portray the demagogic Louisiana governor Willie Stark. What Wayne would have made of the role, I really don’t know. For one thing it required acting and as far as I’m concerned acting wasn’t in Wayne’s repertoire of abilities.

The second version, written and directed by Stephen Zaillian, was released in 2006 and starred Sean Penn (below)
and Jude Law. This was not hailed as a masterpiece, but, instead, universally panned by the critics. My view is again contrary. It has its faults, but I don’t at all think it was as bad as it was made out to be. Yes, Sean Penn has a tendency to chew the carpet, but he does it so well, that I would prefer to see him chewing the carpet any day. (Other great roles he has played were the coke-up, paranoid shyster lawyer in Carlito’s Way and the rapist/murderer in Dead Man Walking.) The second is not a remake of the first, as is so often – and inexplicably – claimed, and in many ways they are different films. The

1949 version with Broderick Crawford (above) concentrates more on the rise and increasing corruption of Willie Stark, whereas the later film seems to concentrate more on the Jack Burden character, the idealist turned cynic beholden to the bottle who does Stark’s dirty work for him. Jude Law – this is again my view – does a good job. (A lot of people seem to have it in for Law. I don’t know why.) Both fall down in that motivation is never fully explored and analysed.

Why did Stark become such a monster, especially in the first film? And exactly why was Jack Burden (in both films) so disillusioned that nothing seems to have been too dirty for him? What was the back story of Anne and Adam Stanton? They are more ciphers than characters.

Huey Long on the stump

Robert Penn Warren, who wrote the original novel All The Kings Men, admitted he had based the character of Willie Stark on Huey P Long, the populist politician and governor, like Stark, was gunned down in the Lousiana senate building. I had previously heard of Long as one scavenges information here and their and files it away and seemed to remember he was a wrong ’un, a man in league with the Devil who was nothing better than a crook. But out of interest, and in preparation for watching the two film versions, I looked up a potted bio of the man. And boy was I wrong.

Granted that there can be many versions of a man’s life and granted almost all of us are apt to believe what we want to believe, the worst that can be said of Huey Long – the worst – was that he behaved like a great many of his fellow politicians and gave jobs to his supporters. And what cannot be doubted was that Long did a lot of good, a lot more than many other politicians. But Long came unstuck because he was, in all but name, a socialist, a man who believed that those who had a great deal should share their great deal with those who had next to nothing and even nothing. And if there is one thing the U.S. apparently hates above all things, it is ‘a socialist’. Long taxed big business in order to pay for the hospitals, schools, roads and bridges he built and he was outspoken in his criticism of FDR’s reforms. He did not think they went far enough.

Long was an exceptionally gifted man (and should not be mistaken with the quasi crook created by Robert Penn Warren). He completed his three-year law course in eight months and was called to the bar. He had ambitions to the presidency and he most certainly had the drive to achieve it. He would undoubtedly have had the support of the nation’s underdog on whose behalf he worked. But he was assassinated in 1935 a few months after he had announced his candidacy for the presidency in the following year’s election. He was still only 42.

The story is that in order to discredit a political opponent, he had two of the man’s daughters dismissed from their teaching jobs and threatened to spread a rumour, already in circulation, that the man’s family had ‘coffee blood’. His opponent’s son-in-law was upset by the suggestion that his wife had Afro-American blood, went to the state capital and shot Long. At first Long’s wounds from a bullet in the abdomen and in the spine did not seem fatal. But his doctors had missed a bullet he had taken in one of his kidneys, and by the time this was discovered, Long was too weak to survive more surgery.

There is also a theory that the son-in-law didn't have a gun at the time of the shooting. Long was waiting in the senate building waiting to see whether a certain bill would be passed and he was approached by the son-on-law, a Dr Carl Weiss, about some matter or other. Long is said to have brushed Weiss off, saying he was too busy to talk. After the third brush-off by Long, Weiss is said to have got angry and punched Long on the mouth. Immediately, his bodyguards opened fire on Weiss and several bullets are said to have ricoched off marble pillars and struck Long. In order to cover-up the death, the gun Weiss kept in his car was planted on his corpse. He was shot 60 times.

As you can imagine there are several conspiracy theories. In the months leading up to his death, Long often alleged that there were plots to kill him. He and his family were the victims of a drive-by shooting at his New Orleans home, although no one was hurt. It was as a result of his fears of being assassinated that Long surrounded himself with bodyguards.

The whackiest conspiracy theory I have found on the net is by an anti-semitic group called Jew Watch (no link provided - if you're really interested, you can find it for yourself. I don't want to put traffic the way of those cruds). The website alleges that Dr Carl Jacob Weiss - they spell it Karl Jakob Weiss - was a Mossad agent paid to kill Long. The major flaw in that particular piece of nonsense is that Mossad wasn't founded until at least 13 years later when the state of Israel was established. That detail notwithstanding, it otherwise makes perfect sense and I'm surprised it has been adopted in all official histories of Lousianna, Huey Long and political assassinations.

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