The Great Man (1956) – A Movie Review

Jose Ferrer directs and stars in this drama about the manufactured quality of mass media celebrity.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Jose Ferrer plays Joe Harris, a reporter who covers the entertainment beat for a local New York City newspaper, radio and television network.  When Herb Fuller, the network’s leading broadcaster dies in an automobile accident Harris is dragged into the story to provide a reverential eulogy of the beloved broadcaster during the extended network coverage of his funeral.

Dean Jagger plays Philip Carleton the head of the network.  Carleton dangles Fuller’s vacant network shows in front of Harris as an incentive for him to dazzle the audience with a masterful hagiography of “the great man.”  Sid Moore (played by Keenan Wynn) was Fuller’s producer and he’s responsible for lining up Fuller’s associates for Harris to interview in the few days left before the broadcast.  But aware that Harris is being groomed for Fuller’s old spot Moore is suspicious of Harris’s motives, surly toward him and quickly berates Harris for overstepping his place in the network hierarchy.

As Harris begins interviewing people, he realizes that there is an inverse relationship between how well people knew Fuller and how well they liked him.  People who only knew him from his broadcasts revered him as a good man and as almost a member of the family.  But the people who knew him most intimately revealed him to be an awful human being.  He was an abusive alcoholic.  His wife only stayed married to him to avoid scandal.  He was an indiscriminate womanizer who tossed away girls as soon as he became tired of them but expected them to always be available to him if he was bored or lonely.

His first job in radio was for a small radio station in Worcester Massachusetts owned by a religious man named Paul Beaseley (played by Ed Wynn) who was hoodwinked by Fuller’s incredible eloquence about his supposed spirituality.  Eventually he revealed himself to Beasley as a completely phony opportunist who preyed on people’s better natures.  But Harris also discovers that Fuller was a powerfully gifted writer and actor whose powers of persuasion and charm could win over any audience that didn’t happen to know him personally.

In one of the most powerful scenes Harris listens to one of Fuller’s most masterful broadcasts.  Ostensibly Fuller was in a forward line battleground at the German front in World War II and he was reporting on the American soldiers wounded and dying.  And he was describing an American soldier on a rude operating table in a barn having his leg amputated.  Fuller is describing the need for blood for these wounded men and starts berating, practically shouting at the American public for not immediately beating a path to their local hospital to donate blood for the cause.

Harris is powerfully moved by this recording and thinks he finally sees a humanity in Fuller.  But later on, Moore tells him the truth.  Fuller never got out to the battlefields.  He spent the trip in a drunken debauch in Paris where he was arrested in a brothel.  Moore went himself to the front to get the recordings and Fuller merely recorded his monologue over that background later on.

While this is going on Carleton reveals to Harris that there is corporate intrigue that involves forcing Moore away from the future of the shows that Harris may be given.  Harris is disgusted with both Carleton and Moore and almost everyone else he’s come in contact with on this story.

Finally, the night of the broadcast Harris is preparing to give the eulogy along with all the glowing tributes he’s recorded from those that didn’t really know Fuller or who would benefit from maintaining the myth about him.  But he stops.  Unable to stomach the lies, he tells the audience the truth.  He begins to relate the facts that he has discovered about the real Herb Fuller.  Back in the executive office Moore and Carleton are listening to the broadcast.  When Harris begins spilling the beans, Moore calls up the control room to cut Harris off.  But Carleton stops him.  Harris is about to become a symbol of crusading integrity and the network can utilize that to jumpstart their new star reporter’s career.  Carleton knows that advertising time can be sold with Fuller as either a sinner or a saint.  The story will come out.

I had never seen this movie before.  I’m glad I have.  This is a very well-made drama.  Jose Ferrer is a very good actor.  It seems he’s a pretty good director too.  The story is intriguing and the cast is full of good performances.  The one that stands out for me is Ed Wynn as the New England radio station owner.  His small-town sincerity is such a contrast to the cynicism and phoniness of the New York media crowd that it is almost shocking.  When we read the first broadcast that Fuller wrote for him and measure it against the values that are on display from the rest of the characters, we can feel Harris’s embarrassment at having treated this good-hearted man with faint mockery at his provincial manner.  Like him, maybe we feel a twinge of remorse that our lives have become coarsened too.  We feel a sadness that the world is really more Fuller’s world and not the better place it should be.

Anyway, I recommend this movie.  It has a good story to tell and it does it well.