In The Hucksters, Jack Conway’s gloriously nasty 1947 adaptation of Frederic Wakeman’s ad-world exposé, Clark Gable stars as a man without a past. In that respect, he’d resemble the protagonist of Mad Men even if he weren’t an adman and World War II veteran played by Gable, the endlessly handsome, charming Don Draper of the ’30s and ’40s. Like Mad Men’s equally charming antihero, his existential identity is as a huckster. His gift is the art of the sale: He is one of the field’s uncontested masters.
Gable returns from World War II with just over 50 bucks in his pocket, plenty of savvy and guile, and aspirations to rise to the top of the advertising world in a hurry. Gable’s moxie and hustle quickly win over his alternately dyspeptic and boozy boss (Adolphe Menjou) and the imposing Sydney Greenstreet. As the corpulent, demanding, exquisitely vulgar head of a powerful client, Greenstreet is less a flesh-and-blood human being than the sentient black heart of capitalism (think Ned Beatty in Network). Can Gable win over the Jabba The Hutt-like Greenstreet without losing the affections of classy war widow Deborah Kerr? Or will success spoil this charming cad?
Though toned down from the novel, which was based on a magazine article about entertainment powerhouse MCA’s near-monopoly over much of the ad and entertainment business, The Hucksters is nevertheless surprisingly racy and cynical for its time. Gable’s bedroom eyes are a flagrant rebuke to the puritanical dictates of the rigid Hays Code, while Ava Gardner radiates sex, sass, and smarts in equal measure as one of the only women in the world who can make Deborah Kerr seem less attractive and glamorous by comparison. But The Hucksters belongs to Gable, who is so innately charming that he doesn’t have to open his mouth to seduce; he can convey the obscene and sensual via a playful wink, a lascivious stare, and rakish body language. Commercially, The Hucksters can only benefit from its obvious parallels to Mad Men, but a film this funny, charming, and smart sells itself.
Key features: A trailer.