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After his ouster as production chief of MGM in 1956, Dore Schary sought new outlets for his creative energies, and he opted to draw upon his long-standing fascination with the career and accomplishments of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Certain of the substantial dramatic grist inherent in FDR's three-year battle back to public life after he was first stricken with infantile paralysis, Schary sat down and crafted his first attempt at a stage play. This novice effort wound up netting a Tony Award and enjoying an 857-performance Broadway run, and Schary was anxious to spearhead its adaptation for the screen. While Sunrise at Campobello (1960) never shakes the evidence of its theatrical origins, it remains a moving homage to the fortitude of a remarkable world leader.
The tale opens in August 1921 at the Roosevelt family's New Brunswick summer home, where Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) is rebounding comfortably from the prior year's rebuff of his vice-presidential candidacy in the loving company of his wife Eleanor (Greer Garson) and children. While mulling the future course of his career, he finds himself unable to shake the chill of an afternoon swim. Before long, he has lost the sensation in his legs. Under the worried ministrations of Eleanor, his mother (Ann Shoemaker), and his close advisor Louis Howe (Hume Cronyn), he recovers enough to make an audacious getaway back to New York, managing to conceal his infirmity from the encroaching members of the press.
In the months that follow, the restless Roosevelt searches for ways to direct his pent-up energies. He tirelessly corresponds with Democratic leaders over policy, encourages his reticent wife to lift her public profile so she may act as his eyes and ears, and struggles to strengthen himself so he can once again stand. Howe endeavors to keep his political ambitions burning, much to the dismay of the imperious Mother Roosevelt, who considered politics unseemly for her son even prior to his affliction. His moment of truth comes when New York Governor Al Smith offers him the opportunity to place his name in nomination at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, as long as he is able to man the podium. The spectacle of the convention makes for a memorably rousing finale.
If Schary hadn't recruited him for the stage production of Sunrise at Campobello, Bellamy's professional legacy may have primarily been his string of comic portrayals of dull fiancs who get thrown over for the leading man. He does an impeccable job of capturing the diverse facets of a larger-than-life persona--the wit, the integrity, the compassion for the common man, and the iron determination necessary to confront the hand that fate dealt him. "A peculiar thing about Sunrise is that everyone knew the story before they came to the theatre, but in spite of that there was suspense," Bellamy recounted in his 1979 autobiography When the Smoke Hits the Fan (Doubleday). "I think the appeal was the indomitability of the human spirit--the courage and will to live."
As recounted in his autobiography Heyday, Schary had considered casting Anthony Quayle as FDR when his wife suggested Bellamy, who, as fate would have it, lived in the Manhattan apartment building across the street from the Scharys. Within a few hours of the script's delivery, the actor called Schary and wanted to know when rehearsals would start. "The next morning the doorbell rang I opened the door and there stood Ralph, a cigarette holder clenched perkily in his mouth, a fedora perched on his head with the front brim turned up, and a broad smile on his face," Schary recalled. "I grabbed his hand and said, 'Mr. President, welcome.'"
At the time of Sunrise at Campobello's release, Garson took a certain amount of critical flak for her portrayal, from the dental appliance used to simulate Mrs. Roosevelt's overbite to the mannered effort to replicate the lilt of her speech. This niggling tends to obscure the fact that her work here is among the most emotionally honest of her career, from the moments of quiet spousal affection to those where the stresses of her circumstances bring brief cracks in her resolve. Her work would be responsible for the film's sole Academy Award nomination.
To helm the film, Schary retained his Broadway director, Vincent J. Donehue, who delivered a first rate film for his first Hollywood assignment. "I've always responded to young directors in film and saw no reason why I should not use the same yardstick of choice in the theater--enthusiasm, taste, a devotion to the theme, knowledge of the medium, and the breath of authority," Schary recalled of his hiring of Donehue. Among the supporting cast, Cronyn stands out as the asthmatic, sardonic Howe, and Alan Bunce is effective in reprising his stage characterization of the Happy Warrior. Smith was the first Catholic to be a major party's candidate for the Presidency, and in the year of John Kennedy's run, Schary doubtless understood the resonance of the film's sequence where Roosevelt rebuffs a bigoted politico who sought to scuttle his endorsement of Smith.
Producer: Dore Schary
Director: Vincent J. Donehue
Screenplay: Dore Schary
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Film Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Ralph Bellamy (Franklin D. Roosevelt), Greer Garson (Eleanor Roosevelt), Hume Cronyn (Louis Howe), Jean Hagen (Missy Le Hand), Ann Shoemaker (Sara Roosevelt), Alan Bunce (Al Smith).
by Jay S. Steinberg