HENRY KING FOR WILSON (1944)
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
Leo McCarey for Going My Way
Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity
Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat
Otto Preminger for Laura
If science fiction films have a stronger relationship to the time in which they’re made than the future they purport to show us, I feel that biopics share much the same dynamic regarding the past. Thus, Henry King’s 1944 film about the president who led the U.S. into war against the Germans in the 1910s must necessarily reflect sentiments about the war against the Nazis in the 1940s. At one point, on the very eve of America’s entry into the Great War, Wilson (Alexander Knox) takes the opportunity to launch into a diatribe against the German Ambassador over news of the Zimmerman Telegraph:
“Is your Kaiser so contemptuous of American military prowess? Does he think we’re so weak and disunited, just because we prefer peace to war, that we will not fight in any circumstances? Or is he so drunk with power, that he can’t understand that such action will unite this nation as never before in its history? And that he has made it clear at last, that this is in truth a fight for freedom and decency, against the most evil and autocratic power this world has ever seen?”
I felt like I was watching a holdover from the pro-Allied propaganda of a few years before—Foreign Correspondent, Sergeant York, Mrs. Miniver. The film’s failure with audiences, despite its success at the Oscars and apparent critical praise, is a symptom of a film out of time, far behind not only the pre-Pearl Harbor pleas for American intervention, but even the onslaught of anti-Nazi diatribes that followed the attack.
At the same time, it was curious to watch a portrayal of a man who, before FDR and Kennedy were firmly enshrined in Democratic Party history, was the champion of the liberal cause, but whose legacy was defined by his resounding political defeat in his struggle to get the U.S. to join his League of Nations. Loss and defeat permeate this film, from the Princeton-Yale football match that opens the movie to the passing of his first wife, Ellen (thanks to J.Y. for pointing out this correction), during his second year in the White House, and into the final scene of his wounded (post-stroke) yet stiffly dignified departure from office in the face of his Senatorial adversaries. It’s a strange meditation on an imperfect chapter of American history, exploring the idea of a failing in American history for which the nation was paying the price in the present, and in a way a meaningful contrast to portrayals of American political leadership in Lincoln and other such affirming stories of triumph.
As for Henry King’s direction, epic biographical films are bound to be stuffy and ponderous, and his static depictions of political rallies, meetings, and conventions don’t entirely risist that tendency. I can’t fault King too much however, as he was likely kept on a short leash by Darryl Zanuck, as well as by Lamar Trotti’s tome of a Best Original Screenplay. The Oscar-winning color cinematography by Leon Shamroy helped to spruce up the film a little, while the Knox-led ensemble gives respectful if not particularly memorable performances. And the filmmaking did demonstrate some signs of life in between the heavy dialogue scenes, particularly in some of the numerous montages used to condense major historical episodes. I particularly enjoyed the sequences concerning the President’s 1916 reelection campaign, setting the Republicans’ indiscriminate attacks against a medley of pro-Wilson songs and steadfast repetition of the famed slogan, “He kept us out of war,” and the nation’s preparation for war, depicted through a supercut of newsreel footage and intertitles from the period (including vintage footage of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Marie Dressler selling war bonds). Altogether, I thought this was a respectable job, if a slight step down from King’s The Song of Bernadette nomination from the previous year, and it does pale in comparison with a pair of diabolically intriguing crime films: Otto Preminger’s sophisticated, fluid Laura and Billy Wilder’s sultry, sinister Double Indemnity. The verdict won’t come until I’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but for the time being Wilder has a well-deserved edge.