The Great Man Votes (1939)

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The Great Man Acts

The Great Man Votes is a humble little picture which packs a lot into it; offering a slice of Americana, taking place in “An American City, 1923”  (well the film tells us it isn’t Boston at least). The movie has a similar set up to 1931’s The Champ about a man and a single father who has fallen from grace, a loser to the rest of the world but is adored by his children who know him for what he is and help take care of him. Gregory Vance (John Barrymore) sums up this relationship he has with his children with an elegance that John Barrymore does best; “I believe the devil took you two squirts up on a mountain and offered you the whole world before your eyes, you’d come running back to your old man”. Like Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe from Twentieth Century, Vance is a man who is who is always making references to history and literature in his speech.

The character of Gregory Vance is a representation of Barrymore at the time with his declining career brought on (at least in part) from his dependence on alcohol. Vance’s alcoholism is prophetic on Barrymore’s demise as the man would die just a few years later from the bottle. However one thing was still for sure, he was still a great actor. One interesting side note is that Luis Alberni who played a drug addict alongside Barrymore in The Mad Genius in which Barrymore’s character sold him drugs, in The Great Man Votes Alberni plays the reverse as a milkman who deals alcohol to Vance during prohibition.

The two children in The Great Man Votes played by Virginia Wielder and Peter Holden manage to hold their own against Barrymore which is no easy task. They are two mature, intelligent kids who even know how the political machine works but when they have to fend for their own and look after their drunk father, they have no choice but to be this way. Virginia Wielder is the movie’s real scene stealer. Like in The Philadelphia Story, she robs any scene she inhabits and is even the victim to a punch in the face in one of the film’s more shocking moments.

Gregory Vance is the only registered voter in his key precinct during the mayor’s re-election. It’s not explained how this manages to be the case but it’s a charming political fantasy in which a corrupt politician is at the mercy of a single John Doe to be elected to office; a case in which one person’s vote truly matters. There is no identification of who the parties are in the film but I do appreciate the scene in which a speaker talks about how voters are slaves to tradition, voting for the traditional party choice over and over again; how true. The Great Man Votes also notably showcases America as the melting pot of cultures as seen during the multi-ethnic pledge of allegiance given in the children’s school.

The movie has a number of nice filmmaking touches to it such as the shot of the two kids walking to school in which we only see their feet as they talk, to an innovative, ahead of its time edit in which the teacher (Katharine Alexander) asks Vance in regard to the wellbeing of his missing children, “But what about Joan and Donald?”, instantly cutting to Donald in another house saying “we’re doing pretty well”.

The villain of The Great Man Votes is the politician Iron Hat McCarthy; not a guy who appears to be in politics to spread any virtue nor does it help he shares the same last name as one of the most vilified figures in 20th-century politics. He is introduced giving candy to children because “they’ll all be voting the straight ticket one fine day”, he says in an unsavory tone; indoctrinate them while they’re young. These traits are carried over to his douche bag son which is visualised in an early example of an ass gag in which he falls into wet cement and creates an imprint of his rear end, a constructing worker looks down at it and utters “spitting image of his old man” and the camera cuts to the ass imprint in the cement.

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