THE GREAT MAN drew good reviews when it came out in 1956 but hardly anyone other than critics and the cast seemed to bother to go see it: there’s zip mention of any box office and the rare TV airings have left it sadly unknown, unjustly forgotten. José Ferrer directed, co-wrote (with Al Morgan, from his novel) and starred in the obit-biodrama, not exactly based on, but certainly suggested by the hugely popular radio & TV star Arthur Godfrey.
GINNY: “Feet of clay, huh?” JOE: “Right up to the knees, at least.”
When famed broadcaster ‘Herb Fuller’ dies in a car crash, the public mourns him like they’ve lost a beloved brother or uncle. Rising star ‘Joe Harris’ (Ferrer) is assigned by network bosses to do a memorial extravaganza on the gone icon, the carrot being Joe is slotted to take Fuller’s place, with ensuing perks of stardom. Cynical but honest, former investigator Joe finds out from almost everyone who knew Fuller that off-the-air he was a first-class s.o.b. Joe’s reporter’s instinct for the truth in a story is up against what’s expected from the callous network execs and the adoring man-on-the-street.
When the few reviews it does get do touch on this pocket-sized exposé, they often cite the looming deity of Citizen Kane as a template: that’s rather unfair to the straightforward, unadorned telling this employs, using simple backdrops and intimate interviews instead of set-pieces and grand gestures; no flashbacks, fancy camera angles or moody scoring. While not as flashy as the following year’s takedown of a phony public figure, A Face In The Crowd, its tart writing, quietly observed, excellently acted characters and poke at corporate blood-sport and entertainment hucksterism deserve an equal measure of respect and recognition.
Ferrer, relaxed and confident, doesn’t showboat in the lead, and generously lets the other actors shine in plum supporting vignettes. As network infighters, finely etched work comes from Keenan Wynn, Dean Jagger and Jim Backus. Best are the single scene segments with Julie London and Ed Wynn (Keenan’s father). As a jilted ex of the deceased, a once-vital singer turned self-pitying lush, London is superb. Doing the cast-off ‘Carol Larson’ as sensual and sly on the surface, shattered and lost beneath the veneer, the popular torch singer shows real skill as a dramatic actress: her ‘drunk scene’ manner is fully convincing. Earning high praise, probably the best in his career, Ed Wynn is surprisingly strong as the owner of a religious station, a decent man who gave the deceased his first break, only to be rewarded by awful behavior. Usually Wynn’s befuddled clowning modus doesn’t work for this reviewer: here, he drops that schtick and beautifully conveys sincerity, dignity and strength.
92 minutes, with Joanne Gilbert (pleasant persona as Joe’s valued secretary), Robert Foulk (a nice part for this consistently good, overlooked character actor), Russ Morgan, Edward C. Platt, Lyle Talbot, Vikki “The Back” Dougan and Barrie Chase (there for a touch of sex object humor, par for the era and fitting for the industry’s shark-pool venue: one of her 24 uncredited bit parts in the 50s). Novelist and co-scriptwriter Morgan does the voice of ‘The Great Man’.