The Canterville Ghost (1944)

The Canterville Ghostcanterville ghost poster
Directed by Jules Dassin
Written by Edwin Blum from the story by Oscar Wilde
1944/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

Sir Simon de Canterville: Excuse me, I really must gibber at the oriole window.

A film with Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien can’t be too bad.  This wartime fantasy was a tad too predictable for my tastes though.

Oscar Wilde’s source material has clearly been heavily edited.  In the 16th Century, Sir Simon de Canterville pledges to duel on behalf of an injured kinsman then flees in terror when his opponent is changed.  Sir Simon’s heartless father bricks him up in the alcove where he takes refuge, cursing him to haunt the house until a kinsman will fight bravely on behalf of Sir Simon.  Through the years, all kinsmen have proved as cowardly as Simon himself.

During World War II, a platoon of American Rangers are billeted at the Canterville manse. The head of the Canterville clan at the moment is Lady Jessica (Margaret O’Brien), just six years old.  The ghost does his best to scare the wits out of the men but when challenged turns out to be just as cowardly as ever.

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The ghost and Lady Jessica get very chummy with GI Cuffy Williams (Robert Young).  Lady Jessica deduces that Cuffy is a long lost relative by a characteristic birthmark he bears.  Now it is up to Cuffy to break the curse so Sir Simon can at last rest in peace.  With Una O’Connor as a housekeeper, Reginald Owen as Lord Canterville, Peter Lawford as a kinsman, and Frank Faylen and Mike Mazurki as American soldiers.

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This was kind of a disappointment.  Laughton is fine but his relationship with O’Brien and O’Brien herself are somewhat syrupy.  The rest of the film contains no surprises, other than my puzzlement about why these soldiers were suddenly sent off to Germany and then returned to England.

Trailer

When Strangers Marry (1944)

When Strangers Marry (AKA “Betrayed”)when-strangers-marry-original
Directed by William Castle
Written by Philip Yordan and Dennis J. Cooper; story by George Moskov
1944/USA
King Brothers Productions
First viewing/for rent on YouTube

I’ve still got the same attitude I had when I started. I haven’t changed anything but my underwear. –Robert Mitchum

What a nifty little B noir from poverty row!  The King Brothers got their hands on a great cast early in their careers, including Robert Mitchum in his first leading role.

A face wearing a lion’s mask fills the screen.  It belongs to the very drunk Sam Prescott who aims to party all night long and is flashing around a wad of bills.  The bartender asks him if he would be willing to let a patron, whose back is facing us, use his room for the night as all the hotels are full up with a convention.

There is a change of scene and Mildred Baxter (Kim Hunter) takes a seat in the compartment of a married couple.  We find out she is a naive young newlywed traveling to New York to meet up with her husband, whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding day. She is unable to tell her traveling companions exactly what he does or much else about him because she went on exactly three dates with him before their marriage.

When Strangers Marry (1944

Mildred proceeds to the named hotel but her husband has not checked in.  She runs into an old boyfriend, Fred Graham (Mitchum), almost immediately.  He keeps her company through many hours during which she does not hear from the husband.  When she finally does, he does not come to the hotel but asks her to meet him in the seedy part of town. Graham, although he has been spurned for another man, keeps a watchful eye on Mildred.

When we finally meet Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger), he is living under an assumed name and wants to keep his wife strictly to himself.  There is an atmosphere of secrecy over everything he does and eventually Mildred catches him in a series of lies.  It would not be fair to continue describing the many twists and turns in the plot.

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I did not know quite what to expect from a film directed by schlock-master William Castle but I thought he did a great job.  He is a master of the shocker jump cut and it worked quite well with the story line of this shortish film. It is remarkably polished for a low-budget effort.  Mitchum was born to play these parts and is already a master at it this early in the game.  I enjoyed every minute and would recommend it as a fun minor noir gem.

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Dark Waters (1944)

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Directed by André de Toth
Written by Joan Harrison, Marian B. Cockerell, and Arthur T. Horman from an original story by Francis and Marian Cockerell
1944/USA
Benedict Bogeaus Productions
First viewing/You Tube

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt (You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life)

Is this a gothic thriller or a film noir?  Whatever, it kept me guessing until the end and I enjoyed it despite the subpar print available on YouTube.

We meet Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) recovering from a horrendous ordeal at sea in the hospital.  She was only one of four survivors when a German torpedo hit a freighter at sea and has been suffering terribly from PTSD.  The same sinking killed both her parents.  She seems to be recovering though and her doctor reaches out to her only relatives, an aunt and uncle she has never met.  The relatives welcome her, saying they are currently staying at an old family plantation in the bayou country of Louisiana.

No one is there to meet Leslie at the train station on her arrival, and the strain causes Leslie to faint.  Local doctor George Grover (Franchot Tone) takes her under his wing and rapidly develops a more than professional interest in her.  He takes her out to the plantation where she meets the tenant Mr. Sidney (Thomas Mitchell), her Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter) and Uncle Norbert (John Qualen), and Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr.)  the lecherous property overseer.

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It is soon made clear to us that something mighty peculiar is afoot but Leslie is in the dark somewhat longer.  Her relatives are very protective of her fragile health and discourage any contact with the outside world.  They also draw her out about the ship sinking, further upsetting her. Then Leslie starts seeing and hearing things.  Somehow in the midst of all of this a romance with the doctor blooms.   It would be criminal to further relate the plot.

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Well, I was sure something was wrong but not quite what it was until the third act. This alone recommends the film to me.  The performances are what one would expect from this fine group of character actors.  I cannot judge the cinematography due to the poor print quality and the YouTube video currently available contains disconcertingly unsynchronized sound that makes it kind of tough to watch.

Clip -Elisha Cook Jr. in quicksand (near the end and somewhat of a spoiler)

The Great Moment (1944)

The Great Momentthe-great-moment-preston-sturges-1944-L-Zp0Qih
Directed by Preston Sturges
Written by Preston Sturges based on a book by René Fülöp-Miller
1944/USA
Paramount Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Eben Frost: It was the night of September 30th. I was in excruciating pain.

A worthy try, but my beloved Preston Sturges doesn’t quite hit the mark with this biography.

This is the story of dentist W.T. Morton (Joel McCrea) who first used ether as an anesthetic and sought to popularize it more widely in surgery and dentistry.  The story is told in flashback as his wife and a friend reminisce after Morton’s death.  As the story begins, Morton boards in the home of Elizabeth (Betty Field) while a medical student at Harvard. His money runs out and he turns to dentistry, eventually marrying Elizabeth.

After starting his practice, Morton becomes obsessed with finding a way to relieve his patients’ pain.  One of his friends is beginning to experiment with nitrous oxide but its use on humans proves to be a disaster.  Morton approaches one of his medical professors and he suggests ether might be a possibility.

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Cautious after the nitrous oxide fiasco, Morton begins a series of experiments with ether, mostly on himself.  This is somewhat of a comedy of errors but in the end convinces him of the efficacy of the procedure.  The first patient on whom he works is Eben Frost (William Demerest).  Things don’t go well at first but after final success, Eben becomes the poster child and chief cheerleader for ether.  Later, Morton convinces famous surgeon John C. Warren (Harry Carey) to use ether during an operation.

Although the operation is a brilliant success, Warren is prohibited from using the anesthetic in the future because Morton refuses to reveal its composition.  Medical ethics prohibit doctors from prescribing any patent medicine the ingredients of which are unknown.  After harsh media criticism, Morton spills the beans.  In the end, he is unable to patent the procedure and is sued by several people who claim to have had the idea first.

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This movie must have more prat falls than any other dramatic biopic in history.  Problem is they don’t work too well in the absence of any snappy banter.  This apparently was a labor of love and intended to be a serious tribute to Morton.  It looks to me that if Sturges had got his way it could have been very good.  But the studio recut it to look more like a typical Sturges comedy (without the comedy).  As my faithful readers know, to me Joel McCrea can’t be bad and the film gets an extra star for his performance.

TV promo

Tomorrow, the World!

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Directed by Leslie Fenton
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Leopold Atlas from the play by James Gow and Arnaud d’Usseau
1944/USA
Lester Cowan Productions
First viewing/YouTube

He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future. — Adolf Hitler

This story about an American family that takes in an orphaned Hitler Youth has all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. I enjoyed it anyway.

Dr. Mike Frame (Fredric March), a widower, lives with his spinster sister Jessie (Agnes Moorehead) and daughter Pat.  He is in love with Pat’s progressive schoolteacher Leona Richards (Betty Field) and early on they get engaged.  Into their midst Mike brings nephew Emil Bruckner.  Bruckner’s father was killed in a concentration camp for his anti-Fascist views and Emil’s mother died thereafter.  Everyone, especially Pat, is excited by this new addition to the family.

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But Emil turns out to be a committed Nazi.  Leona is Jewish and he does every vile thing possible to sabotage her relationship with Mike.  He starts teaching his classmates sabotage and military techniques and to search for Mike’s top secret lab results. Added to that he is a violent thug without a shred of gratitude in his heart and a positive menace to all he encounters.

Mike and Leona try psychology on him to no avail.  When his rage leads him to attempted murder, Mike’s patience is at an end.

field-homeierThis movie in other hands would be terrible.  It is not, primarily due to some great performances.  Skip Homeier, as the boy, is over the top but truly scary.  March, Moorehead, and Field are all wonderful.  This seem to be the year in which Field would break out of her bad girl roles.  The story would be pulpy if it weren’t so intellectual but it is deliciously so.  Maybe this is the kind of thing it works best to heighten beyond all realism.

Mrs. Parkington (1944)

Mrs. Parkingtonmrs parkington poster
Directed by Tay Garnett
Written by Robert Thoeren and Polly James from a novel by Louis Bromfield
1944/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/iTunes rental

Susie ‘Sparrow’ Parkington: Why did you marry me?

Major Augustus Parkington: Life was too simple without you.

Despite some good MGM production values, I had a hard time caring about what happened to the characters in this look at the long life of a boarding house keeper’s daughter who made good.

Susie Parkington (Greer Garson) is presiding over the Christmas gathering of her selfish and querulous clan.  Son-in-law Amory Stilham (Edward Arnold) surprises her with a commissioned account of the history of the Parkington family.  She begins to read and we segue into flashback punctuated by present day developments.

Susie is working as a maid in her mother’s boarding house in a frontier mining town when mine owner Major Augustus Parkington comes looking for a room for a few days.  He is a flamboyant fellow and the workers staying at the boarding house resent him for cutting corners on mine safety.  The Major immediately starts flirting with the pretty Susie.  Then Susie’s mother is killed while delivering lunches to the men during a mine collapse, leaving her an orphan.  The Major, already pretty smitten, decides the decent thing to do is  to take her under his wing and this means marrying her.

On the couple’s arrival in New York, the Major must break the news to his French mistress, the Baroness Aspasia Conti (Agnes Moorehead.  All things considered, Aspasia takes this development in stride and agrees to groom the naive Susie into a shining socialite.  She even furnishes the house the Major has built as a surprise to his wife.  On the day the couple move in, Susie announces she is pregnant.

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The Major decides to throw a lavish ball in honor of the occasion.  But the “400” of New York society fail to attend the scrappy rough-hewn young millionaire’s party.  During the ruckus the Major rouses at the affair, Susie miscarries.  He blames society and systematically begins to financially ruin every invitee who failed to show up.  When Susie finally gets wind of this, she leaves him.  Their reconciliation marks the turning point in the marriage as the Major recognizes Susie as a real partner and equal.

The marriage has its ups and downs.  When they lose a son to a polo accident, Susie sinks into a deep depression and the Major heads off to England.  But rumors of his affair with a British aristocratic cause Susie to spring into action.

Interspersed within the life story are the present day developments in Susie’s granddaughter’s engagement to a mining engineer and a looming financial scandal. With Cecil Kellaway as the Prince of Wales, Gladys Cooper as the elderly Susie’s horrible daughter, and Dan Duryea as her grandson.

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By far the best thing about this film was Agnes Moorehead’s performance.  If her face were not so recognizable, she would have perfectly disappeared into the character of a French sophisticate complete with a tolerable accent.  Garson is not terribly convincing as an old lady.  Otherwise, this was an OK family saga but nothing terribly special.

Greer Garson was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and Agnes Moorhead received a nod as Best Supporting Actress.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankensteinhouse-of-frankenstein-movie-poster-1944-1020417455
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr. from a story by Curt Siodmak
1944/USA
Universal Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

[last lines] Dr. Gustav Niemann: Quicksand!

This all-Monster sequel to The Wolf Man Meets Frankenstein was only further proof that Universal had jumped the shark in its horror franchise.

The film more or less takes up with the situation at the Frankenstein castle as at the end of its predecessor.  Criminially insane Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) escapes with his assistant the hunchback Daniel (J. Carroll Naish) following a prison fire.  The doctor, who had been jailed for attempting to put a dog’s brain in the body of a man, is bent on revenge on the village authorities who locked him up.  On the road, the two run into a carny who is exhibiting the skeleton of Dracula.  Knowing that he need only remove the stake to revive the vampire, Niemann has Daniel murder the carny, revives the Count (John Carradine), and takes the show into town.

Niemann is determined to continue his experiments, this time with the brains of the village leaders.  He thinks he will receive instruction from Dr. Frankenstein’s records and goes to the castle to search for them.  There he finds Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) encased in ice.  He revives Talbot, who shows him to the documents in exchange for his promise to free him of the Wolf Man curse.  In the meantime, we get a love triangle between the hunchback, Talbot, and a gypsy girl (shades of The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Mayhem ensues.  With Lionel Atwill and Sig Rumann in their old roles as village fathers.

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I can just imagine the story conference at Universal.  Somebody said “why not throw in all our monsters?” We can promise the public five times the thrills!  But it just doesn’t work that way.  Instead we get a incoherent, confusing story with snippets of horror action.  Karloff is always effective but it was a mistake to put the Frankenstein monster in the same movie with his originator.  This just highlights the pathetic lameness of Glenn Strange’s creature.  Fortunately, he is only in the film for a very few minutes at the end.  Still an improvement over Lugosi in the same role in The Wolfman meets Frankenstein.

Trailer

Passage to Marseille (1944)

Passage to Marseillepassge to marseille poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt from a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
1944/USA
Warner Bros
First viewing/iTunes rental

Maj. Duval: Haven’t you been taught to stand in the presence of officials?

Jean Matrac: [Flatly] No.

Warner Brothers attempts to recapture the success of Casablanca with this story of Devil’s Islands escapees turned French freedom fighters. It can be forgiven for not reaching the heights of the former film.

Crusading journalist Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart) is accused of inciting a riot and sent off to Devil’s Island leaving his new wife (Michéle Morgan) behind.  Devil’s Island strips him of his ideals quickly.  Then a group of men who speak patriotically of France are approached by freed convict “Grandpere” (Vladimir Sokoloff) who has gathered a sum of money together and would like to take a group of men willing to fight for the Free French along with him on his escape.  The men point to Matrac as the natural leader of such an endeavor.  Matrac, however, is silent as the old man makes the escapees swear an oath to fight for France.

The band manages to leave the island and a passing French freighter rescues the nearly starving men after many days.  They concoct a story about having been miners in Venezuela but fellow passenger Major Duval (Sidney Greenstreet) sees right through them. They finally confide the truth to the other officer on board Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains).

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During the journey, everyone learns of the armistice between Marshall Petáin and the Nazis.  The ship’s captain and Freycinet decide to divert the ship from its course toward Marseille and take its cargo of vital nickel ore to England.  Duval insists that the freighter go on to France and persuades part of the crew to side with him.  A fight between the factions ensues, putting Matrac’s patriotism to the test.  With Peter Lorre, John Loder, and George Tobias as convicts.

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It was a treat to see Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre and Rains together again.  This is a pretty entertaining picture.  Why do they always have to kill off the youngest member of any company right after he makes a patriotic speech, though?

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

The Keys of the Kingdomkeys-of-the-kingdom-movie-poster-1944-1020746572
Directed by John M. Stahl
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson from the novel by A.J. Cronin
1944/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Films Corporation

First viewing/Netflix Instant

 

Father Francis Chisholm: Dear Lord, let me have patience and forbearance where now I have anger. Give me humility, Lord; after all, it was only thy merciful goodness and thy divine providence that saved the boy… but they *are* ungrateful and You know it!

I’ve been putting this off for awhile. It wasn’t my cup of tea exactly but I needn’t have worried.

Father Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck) is now an old man trying to enjoy some last peaceful years at the parish of his childhood home in Scotland.  The Bishop, an old childhood friend named Angus Mealey (Vincent Price), has had complaints about the priest due to his unorthodox views and wants him to retire.  He sends an emissary (Sir Cedrick Hardwicke) to assess the situation.  While staying the night, the monsignor chances on Father Chisholm’s diary.  We segue into flashback.

We follow Francis from his youth in a household of a Catholic father and Protestant mother.  The prejudiced townsfolk beat the father mercilessly and both father and mother drown in an accident as she is trying to get him home.  Francis is raised by a Catholic friend of the family.  His adoptive mother’s dearest wish is that Francis become a priest but he is more interested in marrying Nora.  But Nora, despairing that he will really come home to her from university, “goes bad”, becomes an unwed mother and dies before he can return to her.  Francis, who had lately been leaning toward the priesthood any way, is now easily convinced to enter the seminary by his mentor at school Father Hamish MacNabb (Edmund Gwynne).

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After his ordination, Father Francis tries his hand as a parish priest but is a “failure”.  His doctrine of universal brotherhood and love is something too unorthodox for local Catholics.  McNabb tells him to never change and sends him to do missionary work in China.

After his arrival at a rural village, Father Francis begins to despair of ever winning converts.  He refuses to supply people with rice in exchange for their conversion. Finally, a Christian Chinese named Joseph (Benson Fong) comes along to help.  The priest’s big break comes when he gets a shipment of medical supplies from his atheist friend Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell) at home.  He cures a local mandarin’s son and, while he refuses to allow the man to convert as a form of thanks, he does accept land and a church building from him.

We follow Father Chisholm’s 40 year stay in China as he builds a congregation and tries to defend it during the Civil War.  A subplot involves the aristocratic and dismissive Mother Superior who heads a group of nuns sent to help in the work.  With James Gleason and Anne Revere as Protestant missionaries.

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I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Gregory Peck, unfortunately.  He is less pedantic sounding than usual at this stage of his career, however.  The movie is long but fairly solid. I think viewers will react based on their feelings about the subject matter.  All the Chinese are played by Chinese-American actors instead of in yellow face, thank goodness.

Gregory Peck was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this, only his second screen appearance.  The Keys of the Kingdom was also nominated for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Alfred Newman).

Trailer

 

Wilson (1944)

WilsonWilson-1944
Directed by Henry King
Written by Lamar Trotti
1944/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Company
First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

Tagline: DRAMA AND SPECTACLE UNPARALLELED! ENTERTAINMENT UNDREAMED OF! 12,000 PLAYERS! 200 MIGHTY SCENES! TOLD TO THE TUNE OF 87 BELOVED SONGS!

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.

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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.

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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