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Although MGM is rightly remembered for producing several of the mostdazzling musicals in movie history, the studio also displayed an inclinationtoward glossy historical biopics. One of the best of the war years wasTennessee Johnson (1942), a relatively straightforward account of the lifeof U.S. President Andrew Johnson (played by Van Heflin). Viewers whoseknowledge of Johnson begins and ends with his facing Presidentialimpeachment proceedings will be fascinated by the details of his politicalcareer.
The screenplay (by John Balderston and Wells Root), follows Johnson from histroubled childhood, during which he was beaten while serving as a tailor'sapprentice, through his education and political awakening under the tutelageof Eliza McCardle (Ruth Hussey), a school teacher whom he later marries.These events, of course, serve as a prelude to his unexpected term asPresident when Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. Easily the most effectiveportion of the film involves Johnson's battle with Senator Tadd Stevens(Lionel Barrymore), a Radical Republican who trumped up the charges that ledto the threat of impeachment.
Technically speaking, Heflin, an Oscar winner the previous year forJohnny Eager (1941), was the star of Tennessee Johnson. Butit's old-pro Barrymore, the eldest of the acting Barrymore siblings, whowalks away with the movie. At the time, Barrymore was deeply entrenched ina string of tepid B-pictures, including the hugely popular Dr.Kildare series (1938-1941). Tennessee Johnson was a welcomeopportunity for him to chew up the scenery, and he does it with gusto.
This chance to branch out a bit apparently effected Barrymore's personallife. During shooting, he briefly fled the film set to attend the weddingof his niece, Diana, whose father, John, had recently passed away. Stunnedby his open display of emotion, Diana later said that it was the first timehe had ever acted "like an Uncle".
The film's director, William Dieterle, definitely got the jobbased on his resume. Though he made a wide variety of films during hiscareer, he had previously helmed several other successful biopics, includingThe Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola(1937), for which he won an Oscar®, and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet(1940), about the discovery of penicillin. By the way, Tennessee Johnson was called The Man on America'sConscience when it was later released in England. This overstated thecase considerably, but made more sense to the overseas crowd than MGM'soriginal title.
Directed by: William Dieterle
Producer: J. Walter RubenScreenplay: John L. Balderston and Wells Root, based on a story by Milton Gunzburg and Alvin Meyers
Editing: Robert Kern
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Special Effects: Warren Newcombe
Cast: Van Heflin (Andrew Johnson), Ruth Hussey (Eliza McCardle), Lionel Barrymore (Tadd Stevens), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Fisher), Regis Toomey (McDaniel), Montagu Love (Chief Justice Chase), Morris Ankrum (Jefferson Davis), Porter Hall (The Weasel), Sheldon Leonard (Atzerodt).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara