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Louis Calhern had been a fixture in Hollywood since 1921, playing in nearly 50 movies before he got his chance not only to carry a picture largely himself but to turn in what many considered a tour de force performance as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1950). A legal historian, philosopher and U.S. Supreme Court justice, Holmes was known as "The Great Dissenter" for the brilliance of his written opinions, often in opposition to the court majority. Calhern created a portrait of "a robust, living character," Variety said in November 1950, "scoring in all departments, from [Holmes'] younger days in Washington through his crotchety but still sagacious old age." The performance brought Calhern his only Academy Award® nomination; he was also nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor.
Up to this point, Calhern was most often a supporting player, although certainly key to many fine films for his ability to play a range from dark drama to broad comedy. He was the flustered Ambassador Trentino in Duck Soup (1933), Cary Grant's superior in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), Buffalo Bill Cody in the musical Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and the crooked businessman with a mistress (Marilyn Monroe) in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But Calhern also had a long and distinguished stage career, and it was that which landed him this plum movie part. In 1946 Calhern had a great success on Broadway in the story of Holmes' life from his appointment to the high court by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 (incidentally, the year Calhern began acting) to his final years under FDR (Holmes died in 1935). His performance won him a number of theatrical honors, and after its successful Broadway run, Calhern toured with the show for ten months. When MGM bought the film rights, Calhern was the only logical choice for what he always considered his favorite role. He subsequently played the part on radio and television as well.
The part of Holmes' long-devoted wife Fanny was played on Broadway by Dorothy Gish (sister of Lillian). But when casting began on the film, Calhern requested his old friend Ann Harding, with whom he had appeared on stage. In fact, Calhern was the best man at Harding's first wedding, in 1926. An acclaimed stage actress, Harding had a very successful Hollywood career in the early 1930s, starring in film adaptations of such popular plays as Holiday (1930), in a part later played by Katharine Hepburn, East Lynne (1931) and The Animal Kingdom (1932). She moved back and forth between stage and screen, but her film stardom didn't last long and, like Calhern, her movie roles in the 1940s were largely supporting characters in such films as Mission to Moscow (1943) and The North Star (1943). Before the two were given the leads in The Magnificent Yankee, MGM cast them as comic foils for onscreen daughters Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds in the musical Two Weeks with Love (1950).
Their work in the Holmes bio was highly praised, as was Emmet Lavery's adaptation of his hit play, which was based on a book by former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle (one of the judges at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials). The story also depicted other famous people, including Holmes' colleague Justice Louis Brandeis (for whom the university is named) and, as narrator, Owen Wister, author of what is often considered the first Western novel, The Virginian. Although it was not a huge box office hit, The Magnificent Yankee fared well with reviewers. The only real criticism was reserved for the glaring fact that although all the other characters aged more than 20 years, Edith Evanson, as the Holmes' housekeeper, remained exactly the same throughout the story.
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Armand Deutsch
Screenplay: Emmet Lavery, based on his play and the book Mr. Justice Holmes by Francis Biddle
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Arthur Lonergan, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: David Raksin
Cast: Louis Calhern (Oliver Wendell Holmes), Ann Harding (Fanny Bowditch Holmes), Eduard Franz (Judge Louis Brandeis), Philip Ober (Owen Wister), Edith Evanson (Annie Gough).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon