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According to the Hollywood Reporter review, the film originally began with an eight-minute overture, and was shown with an intermission eighty minutes into the film. Neither the overture nor the intermission were retained in the print viewed, which was 144 minutes in duration. Although most sources report a 144 minute duration, the New York Times review listed 155 minutes, which May have taken into account part of the overture and intermission. The opening onscreen credits of the lead performers appears in reverse order of the ending credits, which also list character names that are superimposed on pictures of the cast members. Dore Schary's onscreen credit reads "written and produced by Dore Schary." Following the opening credits of the lead players, other cast members are listed who do not appear in the ending credits. FDR's secretary's name was spelled onscreen as "Missy Le Hand." Some sources spell the real-life LeHand's name without a space.
After most of the opening credits, a written acknowledgment appears thanking Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Congressman James Roosevelt and Mr. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. for their "invaluable aid"; and acknowledging Dr. Herman Kahn, director of the Hyde Park Memorial Library, and his entire staff for their guidance; the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service for permission to photograph the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site; Hammer Galleries, Inc. for providing facilities at Roosevelt Cottage on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada; and to Hunter College for permission to photograph Roosevelt House in New York City. "Invictus," the poem referred to several times during the film, which ends with the phrase, "I am the captain of my soul," was written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), whose leg was amputated as a result of a childhood bout with tuberculosis.
Like the play on which it was based, Sunrise at Campobello follows four years in the lives of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) and his wife, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), before he became the 32nd president of the United States. Franklin, nicknamed "FDR" in later years, was born into an old and wealthy Hyde Park, NY family. Educated at Harvard College and Columbia Law School, he married his distant cousin Eleanor in 1905. They had six children, five of whom survived into adulthood and appeared as characters in the film: Anna Eleanor (1906-1975), James (1907-1991), Franklin Delano, Jr. (1909), Elliott (1910-1990), Franklin Delano, Jr. (1914-1988) and John Aspinwall (1916-1981).
As mentioned in the film, FDR served in the New York State Senate and as assistant secretary of the navy for Woodrow Wilson, and ran unsuccessfully in 1920 for vice president with James Cox. He was considered a leading Democrat when, in 1921, he was struck by poliomyelitis, an incurable disease that left his legs paralyzed. As shown in the film, he committed himself to recovery through an arduous rehabilitation process and mental determination that was supported by Mrs. Roosevelt and his close friends.
As depicted in the film, FDR's efforts to restore his political reputation after the onset of his illness were largely aided by Louis McHenry Howe (1871-1936), a former newspaper reporter who had turned to politics. As briefly mentioned in the film, Howe was witness to FDR's anti-Tammany Hall efforts when the latter was a New York state senator. After accepting Mrs. Roosevelt's invitation to manage FDR's 1912 re-election campaign, Howe became a devoted friend and lifelong colleague to both FDR and Mrs. Roosevelt, and, as shown in the film, was a major force in preserving FDR's political reputation during his bout with polio.
Also, as noted in the film, Howe coached Mrs. Roosevelt in her public speaking and political and literary pursuits. According to Schary in a May 1960 Los Angeles Examiner article, "most people at that time had come to think of [FDR] as a wheel-chair invalid who would be unable to lead an active life." According to modern sources, Howe's own efforts and those of Mrs. Roosevelt's, under his tutelage, were instrumental in convincing New York Governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith to support FDR in his pursuit of further political offices. The Democratic National Convention, which was FDR's first public appearance after being stricken with polio three years before and which was depicted in the final sequence of the film, occurred in June 1924.
Fulfilling Howe's early prediction of his future, FDR was elected president in 1932 in a landslide victory over Herbert Hoover, campaigning on his "New Deal" policies. Howe served as FDR's personal secretary and championed several of his and Mrs. Roosevelt's causes. Howe's frail, asthmatic health was always a lifelong challenge and he died in 1936 after a lengthy hospital stay. FDR was reelected again in 1940 and served a total of twelve years as president until his death in 1945. Mrs. Roosevelt became an elder stateswoman and continued her public service throughout her life.
The film's producer-screenwriter, Dore Schary, a former head of production at M-G-M, wrote the play on which the film is based. In the preface to the published play, Schary wrote that he first envisioned the ending of the play, in which FDR is standing on the Madison Square Garden podium. In January 1957, he decided to write the play and received permission from Mrs. Roosevelt by March 1957. According to the preface, Schary read "everything that was written" about the president and noted details, such as the manner in which he was carried from Campobello, the first day he wore leg braces, his favorite readings, the conflicts with his mother Sara, his business ventures and the exact dimensions of the kitchen chair he converted into a wheelchair.
The play ran on Broadway for 556 performances from January 1958 through May 1959. Directed by Vincent J. Donehue, who also directed the film, the Tony Award-winning play starred Ralph Bellamy, who reprised his role as "Roosevelt" in the film version. According to a February 1959 New York Times article, Schary first announced his plans to make a film version of his play in April 1957. A February 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Warner Bros. paid Schary $500,000 for the film rights to the play. Although Schary had planned to make the picture for United Artists distribution, the news item speculated that he changed his plans after Lonelyhearts, his 1958 picture released by UA after his departure from M-G-M, failed at the box office. The February 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item also announced that it was "definite" that Bellamy would reprise his Broadway role.
However, a January 1959 Variety article reported that Bellamy had originally claimed that he was too old, at age 55, to portray FDR at the ages of 39 through 42 on film and announced that Marlon Brando looked set for the film role. In a February 1959 New York Times article, Schary "scotched rumors" that Brando would play the "pre-presidential" FDR. A July 1959 Beverly Hills Citizen reported that Bellamy was still concerned about playing a younger role that was being filmed in Technicolor close-ups and that Charlton Heston, who was then in his mid-thirties, was being contacted as an alternate for the part.
In addition to Bellamy, Alan Bunce and Ann Shoemaker, who portrayed "Governor Alfred E. Smith" and "Sara Delano Roosevelt," respectively, also reprised their Broadway roles for the film. Although May 1959 Hollywood Reporter news items reported that actor Henry Jones was given time out from his role in the 1960 film Cash McCall to reprise his Broadway role as Howe, Jones did not appear in Sunrise at Campobello, and Hume Cronyn played Howe in the film. Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, Hollywood Reporter news items add O. L. Yager and Linnea McGowan Calder to the cast.
According to an April 1960 Variety news item, Schary signed an interim agreement with the Screen Actors Guild allowing him to begin production on the film prior to the ending of the actors' strike against the major film studios, which ran 7 March-April 18, 1960. Although scenes involving Greer Garson and Bellamy were the first to be filmed, the 1924 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden sequence, which appears at the end of the picture, was the first major sequence to be shot, according to an April 1960 Hollywood Citizen-News article.
According to studio production notes, the convention sequence was staged in the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. Studio production notes and Hollywood Reporter news items specify that exterior sequences of the film were shot at actual historical locales: the lawn of Hyde Park and boating scenes in the Bay of Fundy at the Island of Campobello and Bangor, ME. The exact replicas of the interiors of the Campobello summer home, the Hyde Park mansion and the Roosevelts' New York City home on 65th Street were recreated on the Warner Bros. set, the latter using photographs.
Before the completed film was reviewed, Sunrise at Campobello drew attention, according to a September 1960 Daily Variety article, because its sequences about the religious bias against Catholic Democratic candidate Smith paralleled anti-Catholic sentiment against John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate (and eventual winner) of the 1960 presidential election. Although he claimed he was "under fire" for making "some sort of oblique plug" for Kennedy in his film, Schary insisted that his play, which was written several years earlier, was "based squarely on documented historical facts" and that he "never had any political motivations."
The Hollywood Reporter review described the film as "a non-partisan account of a stirring battle of personal courage." According to an October 1960 Daily Variety news item, U.S. Nazis picketed the Washington, D.C. opening and falsely reported a fire at a neighboring building to the theater, in order to block traffic and sabotage the opening, purportedly because they disapproved of FDR as the "hero" of the film. According to a June 1960 Daily Variety news item, the U.S. State Department entered Sunrise at Campobello in the Moscow Film Festival, at which, according to an August 1961 Los Angeles Mirror news item, audience members walked out, possibly after realizing that the film did not depict the war years.
Sunrise at Campbello received several Academy Award nominations, including Garson as Best Actress, Edward Carrere and George James Hopkins for Best Art Direction (Color), Marjorie Best for Best Costume Design (Color) and George Groves for Best Sound. For other films about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, see the following three documentaries, the 1933 Universal film, The Fighting President, the 1947 UA film, The Roosevelt Story and the 1965 Allied Artists film, Eleanor Roosevelt (in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40, 1941-50 and 1961-70, respectively).
Although FDR appeared as a minor character in many films of the 1930s and 1940s, Sunrise at Campobello is his first major, fictional screen biography. In the 1976-77 season, the ABC-TV network aired two miniseries, Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, starring Jane Alexander and Edward Herrmann in the title roles. On April 15, 1980, Jason Robards and Eileen Heckart starred as Franklin and Eleanor in the television movie broadcast of F.D.R.: The Last Year, which was directed by Anthony Page. Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon portrayed the couple in the HBO production, Warm Springs, which was directed by Joseph Sargent and aired on April 30, 2005.