Thursday, November 26, 2009

1944 - Wilson

For my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! For everyone else, have a good Thursday. As I write this, Kat and I are about to head off with an Australian friend to another Australian couple's place to celebrate the entirely non-Australian holiday. But there's a large turkey involved, so how can we pass it up.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving Eve, I watched a somewhat forgotten Best Picture nominee, namely...


Wilson
Director:
Henry King
Screenplay:
Lamar Trotti
Starring:
Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
5 wins, including Best Original Screenplay

Not a prequel to Cast Away, Wilson is a concise exploration of the political career of Woodrow Wilson from his days as President of Princeton University through his post as Governor of New Jersey to his election as the 28th President of the United States. Along the way, he must deal with the question of America's involvement in the Great War while simultaneously coping with the loss of his wife. When up for re-election, he balances the possibility of a second marriage with the possibility of a second term.

Unless you are a political historian, there is little doubt that this biopic will teach you a great deal about Woodrow Wilson. Whether or not these facts are accurate, I have no idea. But the script sure seemed delicately researched. For instance, did you know that it was Wilson who was behind the act assuring an eight-hour work day? Or that Wilson was instrumental in setting up the League of Nations? Or that Wilson's re-election campaign slogan was "He kept us out of the war"? There are also several speeches throughout the film that, I imagine, are probably ripped directly from the actual speeches Wilson delivered.

All of this information unfortunately makes the film seem a little like a detailed dramatisation in a historical documentary. As fascinating as it is to know about Wilson's political achievements, the film sometimes struggles to be emotionally engaging. However, when the story concentrates on his personal life, it becomes more satisfying, especially as his personal life becomes entwined in his political life. The most compelling sequence occurs when his marriage to Edith Galt just over a year after his first wife's death puts his re-election in jeopardy.

Two favourites of mine who prominently featured during the 1939 Best Picture race, Thomas Mitchell and Geraldine Fitzgerald, are both impressive in their roles. And Alexander Knox (pictured) is perfectly cast in the title role, portraying Woodrow with both strength and wit. I wonder, though, exactly how flawless the man was. If this film is anything to go by, Wilson was the most honest and morally righteous man that ever existed. Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that this was the pet project of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who appeared to have a bit of a thing for President Wilson. It's also interesting to note that, despite ten Oscar nominations and five wins, plus a fair amount of critical praise, Wilson was quite the box office disaster. Which might also explain why it has never received a DVD release.

Wilson's final speech is made all the more poignant considering the film was released during the thick of World War II, and, in fact, the words are still potently appropriate today. With stoic intensity, he freely imparts his optimism for a world without war. If only...

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