"The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no consequence to us...."
Boring, stuffy, and disingenuous biopic of the 28th President. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives, their specialty vault of hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released Wilson, the elephantine 1944 bio-epic of Woodrow Wilson, shepherded personally by Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck in a haze of delirious, idealistic love (the movie's only laugh comes during the opening credits when Zanuck's name is superimposed first over the Presidential Seal), and starring Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Ruth Nelson, Cedric Hardwicke, and Vincent Price. Directed by genial Fox hack Henry King, Wilson certainly shares one aspect with most other Hollywood biopics of that time: its on-screen creation bears little resemblance to the real-life subject matter. Where Wilson differs greatly from those usually enjoyable genre outings is in its unnecessarily bloated production, and its laughable inability to camouflage its smug, stodgy core. No extras for this decent color transfer.
According to Wilson, humble, studious Woodrow Wilson (Alexander Knox), an acknowledged expert on political science and the president of Princeton University, is unexpectedly thrust in New Jersey state politics when in 1911, Democrat political boss Senator Edward H. "Big Ed" Jones (Thurston Hall) decides Wilson is the just the man to represent the Dems' desire to align themselves with the emerging "progressive" movement. Wilson, after checking with his wife, Ellen (Ruth Nelson), decides to run, where he subsequently wins the Governorship...and promptly throws "Big Ed" out of the machine. This popular reformist move propels him into the national spotlight when he's urged―again, against his will―to run as a Democrat nominee for the presidential election of 1912, which he wins after a protracted convention and a national election split by a third party run. Once in office, Wilson signs in a blizzard of legislation (thanks for that unconstitutional income tax thing, Woodrow), despite the loyal opposition led by Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Cedric Hardwicke). Wilson's happy home life with Edith is tragically ended when she dies of kidney disease, but with her previous blessing (she actually tells her three daughters, "Promise me he won't be a lonely 'great man'."), Wilson quickly remarries Edith Galt (Geraldine Fitzgerald), in spite of fears that his re-election campaign is doomed. Refusing to involve America in the European world war, Wilson wins reelection from isolationist America in 1916, only to eventually enter the conflict when Germany courts Mexico as an ally. At the war's end, Wilson passionately tries to twist Congress' arm to join his "one world order" creation, the League of Nations, but the toil of campaigning causes Wilson to suffer a stroke.
Looking up a couple of recent lefty reviews for Wilson, I'm always amused at the benign magnanimity that's invariably accorded to flawed cinematic portrayals of liberal or "progressive" characters (a latitude that's unquestioningly granted to their flawed real-life inspirations, too, should it be a biopic)―a generosity of tone that's nowhere to be found for movies coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Apparently, good intentions are enough to brand Wilson himself and Wilson the movie as successes, regardless of the facts or the end results. Having grown up on Hollywood biopics from this time period, and recognizing (and enjoying) their fairly standard conventions, I wasn't expecting Wilson to be any more accurate or inaccurate than the average bio from the studios of the time. So if the Woodrow Wilson of Wilson looks like only a magic lantern shadow of the real politician...what can one do about it? That was S.O.P. in Hollywood. Clearly, Darryl F. Zanuck's hero-worship of Wilson dictated that this gargantuan effort only show Wilson in a positive light, so if facets of his character and his career had to be altered or ignored to shine up that halo, so be it. And if that fabrication needed a budget bigger than Gone With the Wind to make ticket buyers understand how grand and glorious Wilson was, well so be that, too (Zanuck spared no expense on Wilson, expending an absolutely insane budget of over $5 million dollars on what quickly became known in the industry as "Zanuck's Folly"). If George Armstrong Custer could become a dashing, Byronic romantic hero in the guise of Errol Flynn, and Cole Porter could become just your typically frustrated heterosexual composer/dream boat Cary Grant...why couldn't Alexander Knox's Woodrow Wilson become Jesus Christ himself?
Because according to Wilson, the man had no flaws. I mean zero...unless you count a preternatural overabundance of good will, ethical propriety to equal 10 Gandhis, the neat hat-trick of humble-yet-world-shaking ambition, and god-like patience with his dastardly peace-hating, money-loving enemies as drawbacks. Now, the standard Hollywood biopic could take even the most uneventful life and create a standard list of concocted obstacles to juice up the proceedings―invented affairs, phony life tragedies, bogus financial disasters―but Wilson, by and large, cherry-picks reasonably accurate signposts out of Wilson's life and career. However... Lamar Trotti's script pares away too much off that biographical framework, giving us a mere cipher of a character that projects none of the complex (and deeply troubling) contradictions that made up our 28th President. In Zanuck's zeal to scrub away clean any suggestion of basic human flaws in Wilson, he eliminated almost everything that might have made Wilson interesting to an audience in the process. Of course Zanuck's Wilson wasn't going to show Wilson the virulent racist who, like so many elite, would-be "intellectual ruling class" progressives, believed in eugenics and racial theory (instead, we get a broad-smiling Uncle Ben servant at the White House whose mother "worked" for Edith's family, and who is sure glad someone's occupying the People's House who speaks his language). Nor would we hear about his repeated military fiddling in Latin American affairs, in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Panama...before his deeply hypocritical isolationist stand during the darkest days of WWI. Nor do we see the true nature of his incapacity when he's felled by a stroke, with spry, mentally-fit Wilson and Edith pooh-poohing and laughing over that made-up fuss by those ancient, gnomish, white bearded Republicans about her actually running the Presidency and all (and I'm sure as hell not going to get a discussion about Wilson's progressive agenda to
Zanuck was a smart, able producer and studio chief, and any other subject for a biopic would have received, I'm sure, a more judicious treatment than Wilson...along with a much smaller budget (contrary to what everyone else writes about Wilson, it wasn't a monumental flop with audiences. Its gross was more than respectable...it just wasn't nearly enough for its outlandish budget. And that's why Zanuck flipped out when it didn't receive any significant b.o.-boosting Oscars that year). In his zeal to honor Wilson's achievements, Zanuck resisted the temptation to gin up the proceedings with fabricated events and characters, while erroneously elevating Wilson into a liberal fantasy figure that even FDR-loving audiences didn't buy. And with by this amalgamation, he created a Facts on File narrative that's as dry and dull and ponderous in its talky execution, as it is remarkably uninformative of the man himself. The movie plays like a one of those historical short subjects the studios would produce (particularly M-G-M), only blown up to cosmic proportions (it runs an interminable 153 minutes), thus eliminating the charm and speed of those shorts, while emphasizing endless tedious exposition and stilted speeches over true dramatic conflict.
Wilson" early 20th century America was a dynamic period of intense, roiling political and sociological chaos, fueled by contrasting reformist crusaders, status quo believers, and raucous public outcry, but the movie fails utterly to capture and recreate that hyperactive, heated atmosphere. Wilson is an exercise in genteel nostalgia that transforms a fractious, boisterous time into a dry, dusty lecture, with Knox, stiff as a board and about half as interesting, facing the camera and delivering yet another speech, while supporting characters awkwardly feed him set-up lines to place the context (you can make a drinking game out of how many times cinematographer Leon Shamroy gives us the "light coming from the head of Zeus" shot with Knox's glasses). Humorously, Zanuck and company try a few times to reassure us that Wilson was in reality just another regular Joe who liked to yell at football games and have homey family sing-alongs, but it never jells (strictly supporting player Knox didn't headline another movie for a reason, you know...). So when that fails, Wilson goes for calculated grandeur by repeatedly linking Wilson visually and aurally to Washington and Lincoln (cue Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Battle Hymn of the Republic for the umpteenth time), giving us a completely bogus portrait of a simple, humble teacher who supposedly completed the Holy Trinity of American politics through circumstances not of his choosing, yet with gifts not accorded to ordinary mortal man. It's a rather nauseating conceit at the core of Wilson, a haughty, self-righteous undertone that permeates the character and the movie, made untenable by a script that refuses to even suggest minor fictional flaws...let alone real ones.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.