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Every time I looked at the clock, there were at least eleven more hours left of this very dull biopic.
The story follows the life of Woodrow Wilson (Alexander Knox) in a linear fashion for 154 minutes. While he is President of Princeton University, one of the New Jersey bosses prevails on him to run for Governor of New Jersey. His lack of political experience is seen as an asset. The idea appeals to Wilson, a scholar of political science, as an opportunity to put his ideas of social equality into practice. After consulting his adoring wife Ellen and three daughters, he agrees to run on a reform platform. Wilson surprises his mentor by haranguing against the political machine.
After a successful stint as Governor, he is urged to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination. A split in votes between the two front runners, Jim Clark and William Jennings Bryan, leave Wilson as the nominee. The split in votes between the incumbent President William Howard Taft running on the Republican ticket and former President Theodore Roosevelt running as an Independent put Wilson in the White House. In spring of 1914, Wilson’s wife Ellen dies suddenly throwing him into a depression. Within months he is restored to his former vigor when he falls in love with and begins to court socialite Edith Gault (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Overcoming her initial reluctance, they marry in December 1915.
Despite urging by many prominent people, Wilson uses every effort to keep the U.S. out of World War I. He runs for re-election on a “he kept us out of war” platform and wins in a close race against Charles Evans Hughes. But German perfidy changes his mind in 1917. Still deeply committed to internationalism, Wilson labors at the Paris Peace Conference to put together a lasting peace guaranteed by a League of Nations that would mediate future disputes. But Wilson runs into serious opposition at home, and must engage in a grueling national tour to whip up public support for his idea. The strain of the trip leads to his collapse of a stroke which paralyzes his left side. Edith insulates him from the rigors of office and acts as a go-between during the remainder of his term. With a host of great character actors including Thomas Mitchell, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn and Sidney Blackmer and with Marcel Dalio as Premier Georges Clemenceau.
Something must have happened to Darryl F. Zanuck’s instincts during his stint in the Army. When he returned to the studio, he became consumed with making this movie, which cost more than Gone with the Wind. His enthusiasm for the subject seems to have blinded the normally savvy producer to the probable reaction of the public. Although the movie received good critical reviews, it was a colossal failure at the box office.
It is easy to see why. The Academy Award-winning screenplay is the heart of the problem. The characters do not converse. They either orate patriotically or convey expository information. And nothing really happens as we plod along the course of a life that should have been familiar to most Americans either from experience or history books. I found it absolutely deadly, though you certainly cannot really fault the actors or the production values.
Wilson won Academy Awards in the categories of: Best Writing, Original Screenplay; Best Cinematography, Color (Leon Shamroy); Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color; Best Sound, Recording, and Best Film Editing. It was nominated in the categories of: Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Director; Best Effects, Special Effects (????); and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Alfred Newman).
To see clips on TCM’s website go here