“The Power and the Prize” (1956) is playing on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, January 20 at 6:15 p.m.
The Power and the Prize is very much a movie of its time. Released in 1956, it reflects both the international situation of the mid fifties and the changing power structure at M-G-M.
Amalgamated World Metals is, on the surface, the perfect liberal paradigm for America. It is a huge international corporation run by unscrupulous men whose only interests are power and wealth. The Chairman, George Salt (of the earth? Burl Ives) is determined on destroying a small English metals company by forcing it into a disadvantageous deal. He sends Cliff Barton, the Vice-Chairman (Robert Taylor) to London negotiate the deal by pulling a fast one on the Brits.
Taylor, however, is to be the exception to the American-power-lust stereotype. When we meet him he seems pleasant but weak, going along with his boss’s plans, even planning to marry the boss’s niece. In London he meets a young woman (Elisabeth Mueller) who is administering a refugee agency for displaced artists. Since the agency is financed by Mrs. Salt, Barton is asked to verify its integrity while he is in London.
Mueller is emotional, almost hysterical, most of the time. She is artsy, hates Americans, hates businessmen, hates everything Barton stands for. Of course they fall in love. And, of course, Barton finds his true self by being exposed to her noble European sensibility. Within a week he turns his life around.
“Power and the Prize” was released in September 1956, two years after the notorious Army-McCarthy hearings into communism in America. The film satirizes the “red scare” culture of the times, with various people inquiring into Mrs. Linka’s (Mueller’s) possible “commie” background.
M-G-M was undergoing significant changes at this time. In 1951 Dore Schary had maneuvered the legendary Louis B. Mayer out of the company. Mayer’s last production was Quo Vadis, representing the grand vision of quality entertainment that he had pursued for decades. Schary, while not rejecting entertainment, believed that movies should have a message. His films were tougher, grittier and didn’t always have a happy ending. Schary himself left the studio in 1956.
Robert Taylor worked for M-G-M longer than any other top ranked player. He had a relationship with Mayer that was close to that of a father and son. Mayer looked after his protégé while exploiting him at the same time. Robert Taylor and Cliff Barton have similar histories—both men who worked loyally for a large company and prospered by doing so. While Taylor and Schary weren’t close, the studio continued to support him while it dropped many others. Barton and Taylor are also decent, honorable men who can, with a little nudging in Barton’s case, be counted on to do the right thing.
The anti-communism theme is also relevant to the actor. In October of 1947, Taylor testified, albeit under duress, before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He did not call anyone a communist but made his opposition to communism in general very clear. The film even refers specifically to testifying before a congressional committee.
“The Power and the Prize,” is, then, a movie with layers. It is well acted by all of the principals. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is particularly effective as the beleaguered head of the British company that Amalgamated tries to con. Burl Ives blusters and bullies with gusto. Mueller throws herself into her part and has good chemistry with Taylor. Taylor, as always, brings a combination of restraint, glamor and goodness to his character. The other characters bounce off him like waves on a rock.
For some reason the film was filmed in black and white and in Cinemascope, which seems a waste. It would have been better in color or not in Cinemascope since it is essentially an interior oriented drama. Nonetheless it is visually sumptuous with a sort of East coast “Dallas” ambiance. Well worth a look. Review by me for the IMDB.