Wendell Willkie And "Wilson"
David Levering Lewis' new book, "The Improbable Wendell Willkie" led me to this 1944 film of the life of Woodrow Wilson. Willkie was the surprise Republican candidate for president in 1940. After losing the election to FDR, Willkie stayed in the public eye for the remaining four years of his life. In 1942, he was elected chairman of the board of Twentieth Century Fox Corporation and worked at the studio to pursue goals important to him in internationalism and civil rights. Levering describes Willkie's role in "Wilson" as follows:
"The idea of an ambitious life-and-times of Woodrow Wilson film seems to have occurred to Wendell immediately. Improbably, then, when Twentiety Century Fox released Wendell's pet technicolor film project to praise (positive and stilted) two years later, "Wilson" (directed by Daryl Zanuck) would gather ten nominations and win five Oscars. Race, it is true, was completely unaddressed in the film. International peace and solidarity were its premises." (Levering, 216))
I was unaware of this film or of Willkie's role in it. Primarily through my interest in Willkie and in Levering's book, I took the opportunity to watch "Wilson".
Produced by Daryl Zanuck directed by Henry King and written by Lamar Trotti, "Wilson" was a high-budget film with an all-star cast. Alexander Knox starred effectively as the title character while Geraldine Fitzgerald played Wilson's second wife, Edith, and Sir Cedrick Hardwicke gave an outstanding performance as Wilson's nemesis, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. The film covers Wilson's life from his presidency of Princeton University through the governorship of New Jersey, through his two terms as the 28th president, with the United States' involvement in WW I. The film ends with Wilson leaving the presidency and with the rejection of United States participation in the League of Nations. The film was for the most part a critical success but it flopped at the box office.
For the most part, I liked the film. Its characterizations of Wilson, Edith Gault, and Lodge are effective and it captures something of Wilson's personal relationships with his family. The movie also shows Wilson as a strong, idealistic, if rigid, internationalist who reluctantly took the United States into war and who worked ceaselessly for what he hoped would be lasting peace and international cooperation at the end of the war.
The trouble with the film is that it moves slowly and on its large issues is superficial. For the most part, "Wilson" is conclusory and brief on the political issue of war and peace that mattered to Wilson and on his domestic agenda. Watching the film only gives the bottom-line for Wilson's work and little of the specifics. It is not so much that the film is inaccurate but rather that it only skims the surface. In addition, while many of the scenes are small and lovely, the film as a whole is slow. The best and most informative part of the film is original grainy black-and-white footage of the American soldiers going off to war. These scenes actually capture more of the themes of "Wilson" than does the scripts. The film is good in depicting Wilson's relationship with his two wives and with the relationship between the president and his wife following his incapacitation. The movie also spends a great deal of time with the music and entertainment of the era. Much of this part of the film is fascinating in itself but it goes on too long and detracts from the focus of the movie on Wilson and his accomplishment
I enjoyed getting to know "Wilson"; but given the film's connection to Willkie, I am sorry I didn't enjoy it more. Still, this movie is historically significant in that it shows Hollywood's portrayal of an American president and his era during the time when the United States was engaged in the second great conflict of the twentieth century. Those interested in the portrayal of American history and of political themes on film will enjoy seeing "Wilson".