Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 1944. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti. Cinematography by Leon Shamroy, Ernest Palmer. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Music by Alfred Newman. Production Design by James Basevi, Wiard Ihnen. Costume Design by Rene Hubert. Film Editing by Barbara McLean. Academy Awards 1944. Golden Globe Awards 1944.
Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck really put his back into the studio’s prestige picture of 1944 with this polished and respectable hagiography of the 28th American president, applying the technological power (Technicolor cinematography, giant sets) usually reserved for big-budget musicals. The film begins with Woodrow Wilson’s days as president of Princeton University, running the school on pure principles with wife and three grown daughters at his side, when he (played by a remarkably stiff Alexander Knox) is approached to run for governor of New Jersey. It’s not long after that he is encouraged to go for the democratic nomination and eventually makes his way to the White House, his suits stiff and high and his voice measured and calm the entire way up. His first wife dies before his first term is up and he falls in love with Geraldine Fitzgerald‘s Edith Bolling, their blessed union taking them into his second term as the world breaks out into the Great War and he is reluctant to join. The eventual participation of Americans in World War I inspires Wilson to create the League of Nations, the last great battle of his presidency, a project well in line with his career-long obsession with eradicating unfair privileges and cronyism and making the country a place where all citizens have access to the American dream. Made at the height of American participation in World War II, this film is the kind of propaganda that the country needed to see, sort of the American version of Olivier’s Henry V film adaptation: the scene where Wilson upbraids the German delegate for his nation’s inability to play well with others would have gone over superbly with the audience of the time, as would the film’s most touching sequence, when the Wilsons sling coffee and soup to the boys about to go overseas into battle. Lamar Trotti’s intelligent screenplay emphasizes pristine dialogue and avoids mawkish sentimentality, but it’s so determined to present a spotless image of the man in question that it comes off a bit bloodless as a result. Wilson’s unbending nature is presented as the righteous quest of a man whose surrounding world isn’t mature enough to appreciate him, while his flawed record with issues of race is completely ignored (he mainly believed in equality for all white Americans, though this being ignored in a Hollywood movie from the forties is not all that surprising). Every shot is so carefully composed that it all feels stuffy even though it actually isn’t boring, and with Knox performing the entire time as if he’s at a pulpit no matter what the scene (Fitzgerald, to be honest, hardly fares better in a chilly performance) the whole thing is a respectable, accomplished and flavorless affair.