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The working titles of the film were The Man on America's Conscience and Andrew Johnson. A written prologue to the film reads: "The Senate of the United States in 1868, sat as a High Court in judgment upon Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln as President. In the only great State trial in our history, President Johnson was charged with violation of a law which forbade him to dismiss a member of his Cabinet. In 1926, the Supreme Court pronounced this law unconstitutional-as Johnson had contended it was. The form of our medium compels certain dramatic liberties, but the principal facts of Johnson's own life are based on history. In the Spring of 1830-in a Tennessee Valley-our story begins."
According to pre-production news items in Hollywood Reporter, Laraine Day and Martha Scott were both considered for the role of "Eliza McCardle," and Franz Waxman was supposed to score the film. News items and Hollywood Reporter production charts include Lewis Stone and Grant Mitchell, but they were not in the released film. Although Porter Hall and Sheldon Leonard were included in the CBCS list, their roles were cut from the released film. According to a October 2, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Albert Godderis, a famous chef, was to portray a Senator, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Irving Asher's name appears on all Hollywood Reporter production charts as the film's producer, but screen credits and various news items list J. Walter Ruben as the sole producer. Ruben died of pneumonia in early September 1942; Tennessee Johnson was his last film. The film also marked the last appearance of actor Charles Ray (1891-1943), who was a popular leading man in the 1910s and early 1920s. A July 20, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Van Heflin was suffering from appendicitis, necessitating the production to be shot around him, but his illness apparently did not require a temporary halt of filming.
Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was, as depicted in the film, a tailor's apprentice and self-educated man. After serving in Congress and other government positions, Johnson became Vice-President under Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and followed Lincoln into the White House after Lincoln's April 1865 assassination. Johnson's policies on Reconstruction after the Civil War were opposed by powerful Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). At the end of the Civil War, Stevens, who had been a strong abolitionist, championed the rights of the newly freed slaves. His opposition to some of Johnson's Reconstruction policies led to his advancing articles of impeachment against Johnson.
Although a September 9, 1942 Hollywood Reporter article indicated that Tennessee Johnson fell into the OWI "Issues of War" category and that the OWI would welcome more films of its ilk, a September 24, 1942 article in the Los Angeles-based, African-American newspaper California Eagle reported that the OWI had "moved against the M-G-M film Tennessee Johnson...Lowell Mellett, director of the Bureau, told Louis B. Mayer...that the film, as currently planned, would be injurious to national war morale and especially that of the country's Negro population." The article went on to state that M-G-M studio head Mayer had flown to Washington after "agitation from trade union and other progressive organizations" which had protested to the OWI that the film distorted the life of Thaddeus Stevens (portrayed by Lionel Barrymore in the film). It further noted that "The action marks a milestone in the battle of Negro people to break the Hollywood tradition which has to date completely distorted the history of our heroic people in American life" and that the studio planned to "reshoot a major portion of the picture, softening up the anti-Stevens libel and generally sidestepping 'controversial' history."
Additional shooting did take place in early October 1942, under William Dieterle's direction, although the California Eagle article noted that Dieterle had written a defense of Johnson in The Daily Worker and "Since $250,000 worth of reshooting will go forward under his supervision, there is little hope that an honest reflection of the historical facts will be rendered." There is no information on this controversy in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library. Very few comments on the script or completed film were included in the file, aside from an admonition from PCA head Joseph I. Breen to Mayer: "We call your attention to the following detail...p. 51 [of the script]...to Stevens' referring to Abraham Lincoln as 'the old ape' as being highly derogatory-particularly in this time-and request that it be changed." The "old ape" line was not included in the released film. Whether additional changes in the film's characterization of Johnson and Stevens were made has not been determined, but Johnson is portrayed sympathetically in the film, while Stevens is portrayed in a rather unsympathetic, adversarial light.
Most reviews highly praised Heflin's portrayal of Johnson. According to news items, there was a scheduled premiere of the film on March 18, 1943 in Washington, D.C. that was to be sponsored by the Tennessee State Society, but this "premiere" was actually two months after the film opened in New York.