|The Boss (1956)
Run time: 89 min | Drama
Director: Byron Haskin
Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Ben Perry
Stars: John Payne, William Bishop, Gloria McGehee
Political corruption is vividly depicted as a ruthless, power-hungry politician takes almost complete control of a state with the help of a crooked lawyer. Payne as “The Boss” gives perhaps the best performance of his career.
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While Dalton Trumbo’s political and professional travails certainly affected his outlook, I believe he looked more to conventional history in scripting "The Boss".
Trumbo certainly used the corrupt Democratic political machine of Tom Pendergast as the template for his script. Small wonder. The Pendergast machine was one of the most enduring municipal fiefs of the mid-twentieth century.
The crook that Payne is forced to make deals with in "The Boss" appears to be based on the real-life overlord of Kansas City prohibition-era crime, Johnny Lazia. The gunfight sequence at the train station is directly drawn from the famous ‘Kansas City Massacre’ of 1933 when ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, Adam Richetti and Verne Miller mowed down several F.B.I. agents and also killed the crook they were trying to rescue, Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash.
Another interesting parallel between the film and actual history is that Harry S. Truman was sponsored by Tom Pendergast and managed to keep himself personally clean and advance his political career while remaining loyal to the Machine. Truman is portrayed down to his glasses in "The Boss" by Joe Flynn, subsequently known to many as "Captain Binghamton in "McHale’s Navy".
One little known historical fact that was left out is that Truman’s first official act upon becoming President after F.D.R. died in 1945 was to fire the U.S. Attorney for Missouri who successfully prosecuted Tom Pendergast for tax evasion and sent him to prison in 1939.
Truman was loyal to Pendergast to the very end.
Based on the story of Boss Tom Pendergast of Kansas City who ruled the roost there succeeding brother Jim from World War I until the outbreak of World War II, John Payne delivers a riveting portrayal of a political boss back in the day when these guys were at their heights running our nation's cities. Mostly, but not all were Democrats who rounded up and registered the foreign ethnic populations and got them to vote for the party slate. In the days before social welfare became a responsibility of government, these bosses while they enriched themselves also fed a lot of hungry people, giving them food and fuel for a winter. Tom Pendergast was no exception there.
When talking about some of the facts of the Pendergast machine operation, the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo under the pseudonym Ben L. Parry sticks pretty close to the facts. In fact Pendergast did do the things described in the film to a country club that high hatted him. The romantic angle however of Payne being in love with Doe Avedon who married best friend William Bishop and then marrying plain Jane Gloria McGehee in a moment of drunken weakness is a complete fabrication. In fact Pendergast's private life as far as we know was a model of probity and he and his wife raised several children, unlike here where he's shown to be a man alone even keeping his wife at room's length away.
The character of Joe Flynn, later Captain Binghamton on McHale's Navy is Harry Truman who was a county judge (commissioner) for Jackson County, Missouri and later United States Senator. Truman himself was honest, but he also winked and nodded at the corruption of others and some of the cronies he put into office as president embarrassed him no end.
Ward Boss Roy Roberts, Payne's brother is James Pendergast and it is true he ran a good chunk of Kansas City from his saloon. It's also quite true that Pendergast did make a deal with organized crime there who did open speakeasies in Kansas City like every place else in the USA. The famous Kansas City massacre did have a bad effect on his public image although not as immediately influential in bringing him down as shown in The Boss.
The Boss is a no frills uncompromising look at the soft underbelly of corruption in America back in the day. It's a well acted drama with John Payne in one of his best dramatic performances.
In trying to jumpstart itself, this movie is somewhat heavy handed at the beginning, taking one notably big and questionable dramatic risk, but gains power slowly and turns into something of a monumental mini-epic with John Payne's changes of hair coloring registering his slow and merciless journey toward a godless end…what a performance, but it's not as good as Gloria McGehee's as the unwanted wife Lorry – which is about as good as you'll ever see from an actress on screen, period. Also great is Robin Morse as Johnny the Organization Man, a wonderful low key performance…where has this movie been all our lives? It's powerful, at times difficult to watch, brutal, and worth the ride.
The Boss, filmed from a script by the blacklisted and hence uncredited Dalton Trumbo, starts in 1919 and ends somewhere in the Great Depression. It’s about the corruption of a municipal machine that focuses on demobbed doughboy John Payne who, when his older brother dies, inherits his political clout.
On the night of his return he godrunk and married a stranger he comes to scorn (Gloria McGhee, whomakes you yearn for more of her). His only unwavering loyalty lies withan old wartime buddy (William Bishop), who has married the girl Payne loved. So all his passion goes into strengthening his hold over the city, including forging an unholy alliance with the (unnamed) Mafia.
Despite a precisely staged shootout in the train depot (did Brian De Palma borrow from this as well as from The Battleship Potemkin, for The Untouchables?), The Boss is really a somewhat Kane-ish look at the rise and fall of a lone wolf; Payne’s tough yet touching performance lends an almost tragic tinge. The result is an involving period piece that dwells on the late fringes of film noir.
(One topical note: the men’s costumes were by Dick Cheney.)