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Columbia Pictures initiated The Howards of Virginia (1940) from motives that were not only well-meaning but downright patriotic. World War II was raging overseas in 1940, and many Americans expected their country to join the battle soon. Foreseeing an uptick in demand for nationalistic fare, Columbia bought the rights to The Tree of Liberty, a 1939 novel by Elizabeth Page about a rustic homesteader caring for his family while supporting the Rebel cause in the Revolutionary War period. Sidney Buchman then wrote a screenplay based on the opening portion of the 985-page book, and Cary Grant signed on to play the hero.
The project got a hefty boost when millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., said Columbia could shoot exterior scenes in Williamsburg, Virginia, a colonial town he'd recently restored to its original condition. For the financier, this meant good publicity for what he hoped would be a popular tourist destination. For the studio, it meant millions of dollars in free sets and locations. Scenes not shot in Williamsburg were filmed in northern California and at the studio's Hollywood facilities. In all, principal photography lasted from April 22 to June 24, 1940, longer than expected and a sign of trouble to come.
Grant had complicated reasons for agreeing to play Matt Howard, an ordinary farmer who befriends Thomas Jefferson, marries an aristocratic woman, and gets caught up in revolutionary fervor at the expense of good relations with his Royalist in-laws, not to mention the danger he faces when the real fighting starts. Grant wanted to become an American citizen, but hesitated to take this step during wartime because his fellow Brits might hold it against him, at least until the United States joined England in the war effort. Appearing in a movie about the American Revolution could buy some time and raise his patriotic profile, so he accepted Columbia's offer. He apparently never forgave studio president Harry Cohn for talking him into the picture, which got poor reviews and tanked at the box office - misfortunes for which Grant received a lion's share of the blame.
Of all the movies Grant made during his thirty-five-year career, it's unlikely that any drew more sniping from critics than this one. The picture "comes to life all too infrequently," said the Newsweek reviewer, adding that Grant musters "more gusto than persuasion" in the leading role. The story "bogs down in its characterizations," opined The Commonweal, faulting "inconsistencies" in Buchman's screenplay and Frank Lloyd's directing. Later commentators haven't been any kinder. After censuring Grant for "one of his rare really bad performances," the influential Pauline Kael scoffs at the picture's treatment of secondary characters like George Washington and Patrick Henry, who "provide a cultural note without adding much to the party." One book about Grant calls it "a disaster for all concerned," and another deems it one of the two worst movies he ever appeared in, making him look "absurdly awkward" in his frontier getups and sound "equally awkward in a bewildering range of accents." More than one critic used the words "obviously miscast" to explain Grant's poor showing, and Grant apparently agreed; after seeing it he swore he'd never make another historical picture. "I don't belong in costumes," he later acknowledged. "I was so bad in The Howards of Virginia." He kept his promise until The Pride and the Passion in 1957, and after seeing that he probably wished he'd stuck it out a little longer!
Even a disappointing film can find a sympathetic critic somewhere, though, and The Howards of Virginia found a powerful one in Bosley Crowther, the veteran New York Times reviewer. After granting that it "flows in a narrative vein too deep for surface excitement," Crowther explains that its fundamental drama "lies in the conflict of ideas," with the "clash of entrenched conservatism" on one side and the "ferment of true democracy" on the other. He can't resist panning Grant's performance, calling it "the film's only disappointment" and complaining that the star "never quite overcomes a bumptiousness which is distinctly annoying." But despite this he places The Howards of Virginia among "the best historical pictures" yet made-- a movie about the past that's nonetheless "more contemporary than a political speech."
Crowther also applauds the rest of the cast, and he's right to do so. The most emotionally touching work comes from Martha Scott, who was nervous about playing Matt's patrician wife-this was only her second film, after Our Town earlier the same year-but received generous help from Grant, whom she later praised for helping her stay poised in shots with precise staging and lighting demands. Richard Carlson, best known for TV and B-movie roles, portrays Jefferson with an effective blend of down-home friendliness and no-nonsense commitment to ideals. The hero's hidebound brother-in-law is played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, an actor who's something of a stiff but is right at home with a character who's something of a stiff. The other supporting roles are handled by a well-chosen roster of Columbia talents.
Despite its many problems, The Howards of Virginia scored two Academy Award nominations, for Richard Hageman's rousing original score and Jack Whitney's sound recording. As for Grant, his below-par performance was easily forgotten in a year when he made no fewer than four movies. The other three-The Philadelphia Story, My Favorite Wife, and the brilliant His Girl Friday-made far better use of his talents, enabling him to ride out his costume-picture misstep with ease.
Producer: Frank Lloyd
Director: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, based on Elizabeth Page's novel The Tree of Liberty
Cinematographer: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Paul Weatherwax
Art Direction: John Goodman
Music: Richard Hageman
Montage Effects: Slavko Vorkapich
With: Cary Grant (Matt Howard), Martha Scott (Jane Peyton Howard), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Fleetwood Peyton), Alan Marshal (Roger Peyton), Richard Carlson (Thomas Jefferson), Paul Kelly (Captain Jabez Allen), Irving Bacon (Tom Norton), Elisabeth Risdon (Aunt Clarissa), Anne Revere (Mrs. Betsy Norton), Richard Alden (James Howard at 16), Phil Taylor (Peyton Howard at 18), Rita Quigley (Mary Howard at 17), Libby Taylor (Dicey), Richard Gaines (Patrick Henry), George Houston (George Washington).
by David Sterritt